Writer: Muriel Miguel
Director: Muriel Miguel
Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell
Today the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill are home to pricey condos, restaurants, and shopping destinations. There are a few remnants of the area’s earlier days as a hub for recent transplants to the city. It’s easy to spot the influence of the immigrants from Italy, Ireland, and the Middle East who settled there; less obvious is the history of these neighborhoods as home to a thriving Native American community. Amerinda (American Indian Artists) and Spiderwoman Theater explore the world of Brooklyn’s post-Depression era Native community in Muriel Miguel’s Fear of Oatmeal, currently running at Theatre for the New City.
It takes place in the kitchen (and mind) of Nelly (Gloria Miguel), an older woman who seldom leaves her home, but is attuned to the goings-on of her community. She is regularly visited by her neighbor Henny (Donna Couteau), who drops by to check up on Nelly, telling her to get out more and bringing gossip from the community. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship; Henny brings necessities like light bulbs and Nelly gives her tea and advice. When Henny leaves, Nelly entertains visitors of a different sort: spirits of her past and her heritage. Bear (Joe Cross), Nita Matariki (Soni Moreno), and Thunder (Sheldon Raymore) tell stories, make messes, and dance in Nelly’s living room whenever Henny leaves.
Henny’s visits all follow a specific pattern: Henny comes in and worries about Nelly, the two gossip about what is happening in the outside world, Nelly offers Henny tea. The repetitive quality of these visits creates a stark contrast for when Henny leaves. Then Bear tells stories about defensive farts, Thunder roller blades through the kitchen, Nita Matariki finds creative uses for old bras—in other words, we never know what to expect when the spirits come out to play. Dedalus and Clara Wainwright’s set and Gabrielle Amelia Marino’s costumes go a long way in establishing Nelly’s world, her isolation, and the magical quality of her spirit visitors. Gloria Miguel’s Nelly effectively shows us a woman whose present is rapidly changing even as she struggles to make peace with the past. Henny has her own problems; she’s struggling to make ends meet with house cleaning and dog walking gigs and she’s frustrated by the racist comments of her white friends.
Fear of Oatmeal is not a show for everyone and certainly not for those with an Aristotelian focus on plot. It’s not a plot-heavy work, being much more about capturing a feeling, which it certainly does, even on an olfactory level—patrons with allergies or smoke sensitivity may consider popping a Benadryl before going to the theatre, as the scent of burning sage is fairly strong in the space. The show is timely in addressing not only the ways that gentrification affects working-class communities, but in considering the lives of the elderly within those communities—what happens to their stories, their knowledge, their traditions as they are more and more isolated? Performances are strong and visuals compelling in this work, even if the final product is a little rough around the edges—as the character Bear says each time he tells a story, “It’s a process!”
Runs until 24 June 2018 | Image: Walesca Ambroise