Robbie McCauley's "The Buffalo Project" is an intense and remarkably intimate recounting of the Buffalo riots that took place on the city's East Side in June 1967.
Six months in the making, the multimedia piece had its premiere Friday night at Hallwalls Gallery. It was performed by a sterling group of area actors, who in some cases told their own stories as witnesses to the violence. With itsconcrete walls and boxy shape, the Vault -- the gallery's performance room -- was a suitably austere space.
This is a kind of bare-bones theater driven by dialogue and simple theatrics and, as seems requisite for this kind of performance art, decorated with slides and film clips of the unrest.
McCauley calls this a "performance dialogue," and often there is a sense of impromptu storytelling that unfolds with an easy rhythm. Most of the material is freshly gathered in interviews; some of it is presented in broken speeches amid planned chaos. People, McCauley seems to say, are remembering things that they don't necessarily want to remember.
Witnesses, black and white, ramble and joke and challenge. At times they abruptly begin a mock march and forcefully read lines in unison. The words have the weight of history.
McCauley, a New York City performance artist and writer, is a master at mixing the formal and improvisational (or more accurately, "seemingly improvisational"). She can make her collection of dialogues buzz and twist with the accidents of real conversation.
"I like Buffalo," one character says calmly. "It reminds me of Indians and flowers. . . . (The rioting) was not an organized thing." "It changed the city forever," asserts another.
Voices swing in and out, cross over one another, egg each other on. "Integrated? When it's more white than black it's integrated; more black than white it's a ghetto."
Then singing starts, or a chant, alternating with narrative. A mini-history of the Fruit Belt is patched together, as is the story of how Fuzak's meat market stayed through it all. A white actor, out in the audience, tells how a policeman asked him one violent night: "Why didn't you use your gun? Why didn't you kill those niggers?"
A sequence called "white confessions" begins. "It's more the fear of the unknown than racism," one character explains. Someone quotes a relative: " 'Already they're this far,' she said."
Then come the "black witnesses." They report the horror of missiles made from lye-filled bottles and of the hand-made guns that sometimes exploded on the user. They tell of how one white man was saved by his fellow workers who hid him in a garage grease pit for two days.
The performances are first-rate throughout. Laverne Clay, as a grizzled but jovial neighborhood guy, is the sturdy center of the performance. He acts as a foil to Lorna Hill's more stylized performance and Renee Armstrong's four-square soliloquies.
Tom Dooley, Diane Cimmarata-Charlesworth and Emanuel Fried dig right into the heart of the play, really finding its pace; Fortunato Pezzimenti adds just the right amount of flourish. Barry T. Burts, Catherine Horton and Gerald Ramsey round out a fine cast.
In McCauley's capable hands it seems that 23 years of more or less silence on the subject has not dulled the city's collective memory. She has a way of documenting that vividly re-creates the past without undercutting the present. She draws no conclusions, just dramatizes history and makes memory count. It's compelling.
With the audience interaction involved -- at one point Fried faces the audience and asks, "How many whites are here?" -- we can expect things to vary when the performance moves to the Polish Community Center tonight and to the Langston Hughes Institute on Sunday.
"The Buffalo Project" is part of Hallwalls' Visiting Directors Series. A revised version of the piece will be performed this summer at Artpark as part of McCauley's residency there, July 10 to 15.