The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.
“What the world needs now is love, sweet love/
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of/
What the world needs now is love, sweet love/
No, not just for some but for everyone”
– “What the World Needs Now is Love” (Lyrics by Hal David)
Y’know that son’s about Vietnam, right? I digress…
It’s been two-months-shy-of-a-year since I last attended a Shotgun show. As you may have heard, the world has been through the ringer since then. As such, my opening night attendance as a member of the press did not consist of my being handed a special folder with the program and supplementary materials. Nor did I get to marvel at an intricate set conceived by one of the Bay Area’s crafty designers. I didn’t even get to try a special themed cocktail with a “punny” name relating to the production. Nope, the events of the past year resulted in my “attending” this opening night in pajama pants with my laptop HDMI’d to my tv.
(Incidentally, several Shotgun staff were part of the pre-show chat. When I asked what the themed cocktail would have been, a user identified as “Box Office” responded, “Probably a spin on the Long Island Iced Tea [with] some tie-in to the beauty of so many disparate things”.)
Of course, a worldwide pandemic isn’t the only major event to happened this year. Because of those events, many institutions and organizations have had their lack of diversity and sensitivity brought light all at once. Shotgun found itself the subject of a very unflattering write-up as part of the infamous “Living Document of BIPOC Experiences in Bay Area Theater”. As one of the few PoC Bay Area theatre critics (and, possibly, the only Black one), I’d be remiss not to mention it. Especially as I review a Shotgun show for which the central thesis is the necessity for compassion with your fellow humans.
Shotgun has quite a lot for which to answer, and their choice of show post-Document/mid-pandemic will say a lot about how they choose to answer those developments. Josh Kornbluth’s Citizen Brain is an empathetic call for compassion that will likely go over well with its intended audience. The problem is that it’s done with the same childish enthusiasm that undercuts its own message.
This is my first Kornbluth show, so you’ll forgive me for not picking up on the overt callbacks to previous works. The “story” is his reminiscence of his new understanding of revolution due to “brain science”. The unabashed Commie – having failed to start the tangible revolution for which his parents hoped – finds himself in an Obama-induced state of complacency as the 2016 election draws near. Still, he accepts the opportunity to bring his theatrical skills to the Global Brain Health Institute as a fellow.
Upon viewing his first scan of a human brain with dementia, he can’t help but notice that kind of resembles a US map highlighting political divisions. This, along with his step-father’s newly-diagnosed Alzheimer’s, inspire Josh to set out on a quest to heal the human brain and the country by means of love revolution.
Regarding Kornbluth himself, his jovial demeanor certainly makes his raconteuring tolerable (something too many solo performers often forget). His narrative jumps back and forth like someone telling a joke before remembering a key detail, but one doesn’t (often) feel lost in his telling it. And if it were an extended joke, there are a great many memorable punchlines worth quoting on the way home: “My wife is a public school teacher; I married into money.”
Even the technical aspects, spartan as they were, add to his telling positively. As you can see from the photos, the livestream has Kornbluth pontificating from what-looks-to-be a home with a well-stocked bookcase. Yet, even my well-honed glitch-spotting eyes didn’t know until it was mentioned that this was just a faux background for streaming. I’m not sure what lighting consultant Brittany Mellerson contributed exactly, but C. Andrew Mayer’s sounds definitely work as punchlines to Kornbluth’s riffs.
To Kornbluth’s credit, the contrasting stories of his trying to heal the brain through kindness and deal with his step-father’s medical issues make a fine parallel. Wondering how to reach to Trumpers only to realise that Kornbluth himself is the product of lifelong indoctrination is exemplary of the sort of sincere growth one finds when they leave their own little bubble. The best moment of the entire show is when Kornbluth explains his plan to a room full of seniors, only for a woman – a Black woman, at that – to shoot holes in his logic; telling him that what’s needed is “power” and intersectionality rather than a child’s rose-tinted solution.
It’s a great moment in which Kornbluth sees the folly in his approach, but… it doesn’t really go anywhere. He tells his mentor about the revelation and the mentor (with whom he had the post-show chat) and said mentor explains that such revelations are part of growth. That’s all well and good, but the show is designed around the idea of how to move forward from there. Kornbluth’s big epiphany is – to put it in South Park term – “I get that I don’t get it”, but the purpose of his fellowship is to put that into action. Other than encouraging we viewers to vote, he doesn’t really do that.
Of all the things to pop into my head as I watched this show, I thought of Kevin Smith’s press tour for his film Dogma. Several Catholic organizations protested the film, so Smith facetiously took part in one protest near his home – easy to do because the protesters, not having see this or any of his movies, had no idea what he looked like. In recounting the protest, Smith took the opportunity to chat with the “nice, decent people” who considered him evil. It gave him the opportunity to view them as human rather than faceless zealots.
In the case of both Smith and Kornbluth, they only take the first step (recognizing the opposition’s humanity), but fail to go any further in changing their minds. When elected governors are being kidnapped, Republicans are putting up phony election boxes, and cops are shooting Black people as if we’re worth prizes – well, the victims of those acts don’t have time to care about the humanity of their abusers and killers; the victims just want to get out alive and never have it happen again. I’m not saying Kornbluth should have the magic spell to solve those problems, but seeing the humanity in those literally destroying the world is not enough.
Another thought that came to mind as I finished this review for this Berkeley-based production was the following video by award-winning local author and UC Berkley alumnus Meg Elison:
It’s about the necessity for action, particularly in light of the precedent set before. The successes of our ancestors and mentors is no reason for us to rest on our laurels right now – that’s how we wound up with the last four years. Kornbluth’s play is entertaining and informative, but it’s ultimately the equivalent of a thesis paper that fails to reach any conclusion. What’s more, it wants to be celebrated for its lack of conclusion. Perhaps in another time – a time when less damage had been done by those who refuse to see the other side – this play would have been nothing more than a welcome distraction.
But this isn’t another time. This is a time people will talk about, should the world survive. For a risk-taking company like Shotgun, currently under so much scrutiny, this show plays it naïvely safe.
Josh Kornbluth’s Citizen Brain is scheduled run live (online) performances until the 8th of November.
The show runs roughly 90 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.
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