Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Exhibitionism

APRIL 6, 1998: 

CHILDREN OF CHILDREN: THE FACES AND VOICES OF TEEN PARENTHOOD

Witte Museum,
3801 Broadway, San Antonio, through May 10

"I am 32 years old.
I was a teenage parent.
I have been lonely until today."

-- note tacked up on the public bulletin board in the "Children of Children" gallery

I got home from the opening of Michael Nye's photo exhibit "Childrenof Children" at the Witte Museum in San Antonio determined to inspire as many people as I could to see it. I've already been back myself with three girlfriends in tow, and have made standing offers to friends to babysit their kids any night they choose to drive down. I am certain this outstanding exhibition will go on to be seen around the country, and probably be preserved in book form as well, but it will never be more immediate and intimate than it is now, in these twilit teal-blue galleries in the artist's (and many of the subjects') hometown.

"Children of Children" is a group of 48 black-and-white photographs of teenage parents. About half of the subjects are in their teens now and half are older; "Luz," in fact, is 100 years old. In addition to the teen parents there are photos of "Sid," father of a teen mom, and "Jerri," the now-grown eldest daughter of a 15- and 17-year-old who went on to have nine more children. (Yes, this is Austin's own writer/designer/persona fabulosa, Jerri Kunz.)

Michael Nye is best known for his elegant, often unutterably moving portraits of adults and children from troubled or impoverished areas around the globe: Siberia, Chiapas, Kurdistan. His subjects are presented lovingly but unsparingly, wreathed in a hyper-clear, intense naturalism, sometimes complicated by elements of artifice. For example, in this show, many subjects are photographed in front of a backdrop unrolled in a street or a yard. Some are blurred, some are seen through a keyhole. Some self-consciously display articles of clothing, photographs, or figurines; others choose anonymity with their backs to the camera or with hair in their face. Some are seen with partners, others with parents, others, like the hearbreakingly innocent and beautiful "Becky," with their children.

If this were just a show of photographs, it would be phenomenal. But the pictures are only half of what's offered here. Beneath each image is a pair of headphones, and when you put them on, you hear the voice of the subject, making a statement from two to five minutes in length about his or her experience with teen parenthood. As it turns out, the way Nye listens is similar to the way he sees -- with a rapt, meticulous attention that gives pre-eminence to the natural voice, infusing it with poetic resonance. He honors the stories the way he honors faces, and in doing so, gives us almost shockingly immediate access to a stranger's humanity.

As you listen to the stories, staring into the speakers' eyes, the meaning of the show quickly transcends its stated topic. Teen parenthood becomes a window through which all of life is seen: love, courage, family, aspiration, sorrow, and abuse, the way a destiny takes shape, the interplay between fate and will. There are so many stories I will never forget, but let me tell you just one. The 53-year-old black man called "Cowboy" tells of his mother, a full-blooded Chippewa who had 16 children and died when he was six. "I would have given anything if she could have lived longer," he says, the yearning still audible five decades later.

When his father died shortly after, his brothers and sisters traded him to a white man to pay for his parents' funeral. There he lived in a mud shack with no electricity, beaten by this man "every Saturday, Sunday, and a lot of times on Thursday, too," as well as for fun whenever friends came over. At 18, he was taken to an all-black school for one hour a day. There he met Alice, his first friend. "She was like an angel," he says. When 14-year-old Alice got pregnant, he was sure the man would kill him. Cowboy saw no alternative. He got a gun and went to the man's house to kill him first. But when he arrived, the wife told him he was too late. The man had taken sick and died.

It was a miracle, he explains. He believes in miracles. For him, teen parenthood was a miracle that saved his life.

Many lives here were not saved by teen parenthood -- some are sadly broken. "Katherine", a two-month pregnant 15-year-old, tells us, "If I weren't pregnant, I would be playing ice hockey, football, or bungee jumping." "Esther" tells of her high school friends calling up and making giggly conversation about diapers and baby care: "It's not as much fun as they think it is." The judgments faced from family and society are often severe, and the teen parents are frequently hard on themselves. No matter which ones you listen to, you cannot help but be moved. Even the night of the opening, so crowded and festive, people stood shoulder to shoulder with those headphones on and tears rolling down their cheeks.

The photographs have been hung in pairs, with the stories for both recorded one after another on a shared tape unit. Because this createssuch interesting juxtapositions, I assumed it had been an artistic decision. Nye explained that while it may have added something, it actually came out of financial concerns. He rejected most potential sources of funding for this show because the money came with an agenda -- a preset idea of the conclusion the show should offer its viewers. He certainly avoids that. Not only does the show not offer any pre-packaged attitude about teen parenthood, it is as rich as life itself.
--Marion Winik


OUR OWN DEAR ANTON'S ABANDONED STORY CYCLE:
BUTTING HEADS PHYSICALLY
AND METAPHYSICALLY

John Henry Faulk Living Theatre, through April 5
Running Time: 2 hrs

All they wanted was an ending to their story. For 100 years, they'd accepted being characters in a tale abandoned by its author, left to exist without any sense of what their ultimate fate might be. The author would never pick up their story again; he was dead, for pity's sake! Why should they not try to end the story themselves?That's all they were trying to do. How were they to know that endings were so... complicated?

Alas, for poor Burkin and Ivan Ivanich, the two characters left in literary limbo when Anton Chekhov left unfinished the novel in which they were featured, taking their story into their own hands winds up being considerably more frustrating than they expected. They start out figuring stories to be docile cattle that will turn in whichever direction the storyteller desires. But their venture into the field shows stories to be more like wild horses that are likely to carry their riders (writers?) through brambles or dark woods or anywhere else the animals choose to run. As they come to realize how little control they have over this horse they're riding, Burkin and Ivan Ivanich respond with varying degrees of irritation, dismay, alarm.

Their vexation, however, is our elation. Playwright Joseph Skibell has penned these protagonists as old-school buffoons, figures at odds with the worldaround them whose efforts to cope with it -- almostalways doomed to disaster -- prod our sense of folly and make us laugh. The ways in which Burkin and Ivan Ivanich butt heads, stumble, and flail about -- physically and metaphysically -- are the stuff of classic comedy, in every sense of that term.

They're given breath and bone by artists with a keen sense of what it means to embody that kind of comedy. Director David Yeakle has a clown's soul; his understanding of humor at its most basic and wonderful seems innate and his appreciation for its traditions in theatre as deep as it gets. He has mined this script for every spot that can yield a take, a bit, some shtick, and allowed his actors the opportunity to make the most of them, which they do. Steve McDaniel infuses Burkin with quickness, both of wit and of temper. He can fire off a smart remark like a crack shot in a duel and get fired up in indignation like a match head soaked in gasoline. His expressions of exasperation have the vividness of a comic strip character's; you can almost see coiled black lines spiraling from his head. Todd Lowe's Ivan Ivanich is rather less quick, his grasp of a situation always seeming to take a moment to seep into his consciousness. His slow dawnings of realization can be very amusing, as when he's forced to play a woman then finds it liberating; Lowe ever so gradually shifts his countenance from consternation to delight. Michael Stuart's Vladimir joins the pair to help them in their search for closure, fitting into their stories as misanthropic coffin maker, unrequited lover, whatever. Stuart's impeccable timing and enviable comic range get full play, with the actor tossing off bullish bluster one minute and mousy vulnerability the next and scoring laughs handily with both. Individually, the performers are crisp; collectively, they are air-tight, taking and passing off bits to each other like a team of expert jugglers: Nothing ever falls. And given the amount of literary and philosophical humor Skibell gives them to handle and the wealth of tightly timed bits that Yeakle adds in, that's a testament to their skill.

After some two hours of searching for an ending to their story, Ivan Ivanich and Burkin decide that endings are overrated. Why not just enjoy the story you're in the midst of? If it's good, who wants it to end? That's a sound sentiment for life and one with which viewers of this smart, funny production will no doubt identify.--Robert Faires


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