"Count 10 in Arabic and try to run..."
That's how playwright Tennessee Williams subtitled his one-act play "The Demolition Downtown," and that's the starting point for Assistant Professor Jay Scheib's direction of the upcoming Dramashop production.
Using two separate casts and staging the short play as a two-part drama, Scheib presents the work first in English and then in a mix of several languages. As the play is repeated with parts in Korean, Bengali, Oromo, Russian, Spanish, Lithuanian and Cantonese, what at first appears to be an "American problem" is revealed to be an international one.
Written in 1971, three years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., "The Demolition Downtown" reflects the harsh realities of a white-hot civil rights movement seen through the haze of American materialism. Military forces have taken over the government, a curfew has been imposed, and individuals of the upper middle class have disappeared after being invited to a municipal abattoir. Amid the chaos, two families live in denial, trying to survive at whatever cost.
The play shows the end of America as we know it, with the systematic eradication of an entire class of society.
But Scheib has taken the play further--using language to expand this American cautionary tale into global one. "Each actor built his own translation," said Scheib, and many consulted parents for language help. "Part of MIT's richness is the large percentage of students who are first-generation Americans," Scheib said. "This production really brings that fact home."
Scheib has also created a video component for the production with physics senior Nasruddin Abbas Nazerali. Using three live-feed video signals that distort the landscape, this "experiment in live cinema" uses depth of field, point of view and extended close-ups to heighten the impending catastrophe, Scheib said.
The two versions of Dramashop's "The Demolition Downtown" have the same setting, but the foreign language adaptation takes place in the rubble of the first work's conclusion. "Williams predicted a violent revolution and he predicted that upper-middle-class America would have to lose," said Scheib.
The outcome may be bleak, but the play is "packed with Williams' trademark wit and flaming humor, with one explosion after another," Scheib said.
"The Demolition Downtown" plays April 21-23 and April 28-30 at 8 p.m. in Kresge Little Theater. Tickets are $8, $6 for MIT/Wellesley students; tickets to the Thursday, April 21, preview performance are free. For more information or reservations, call (617) 253-2908 or visit web.mit.edu/jscheib/www/.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 13, 2005 (download PDF).