Is it real? Is it still a show?: My date with a stranger for Christiane Jatahy's Julia Feb 15, 2016

by Tessa Hulls

If you're going to watch something gut-punchingly devastating, is it better to know ahead of time what you're getting yourself in for? I deliberately go into performances at On the Boards knowing as little as possible about each show, but as I sat with Anna Herby, my date with a stranger for Christiane Jatahy's JULIA, and watched an underage, softly-weeping rich girl get fucked from behind by the servant she forcibly seduced by means of exploiting the power of her position as the boss's daughter, I wondered if perhaps I should have given Anna more of a heads up that we might see something really uncomfortable.


Anna came upon my ongoing social experiment (to quickly summarize: I take a total stranger who has never been to On the Boards to go see a show, and then write about the experience) by way of our mutual friend, Sara Edwards. Sara and Anna are both committed long-distance hikers, and they met last summer on the Pacific Crest Trail. They had each decided to eschew the usual Northbound hike direction in favor of heading South, and they ended up joining forces with a few other against the flow trekkers and dubbing themselves “The Wrong Way Gang.” Bonding will happen over the course of any very long walk, but Anna and Sara—and her partner, fellow Seattle artist NKO—felt a particularly close connection due to the fact that they all belong to the very rare breed known as the vegan long-distance hiker. 


A nutritionist by trade, Anna's particular focus is on plant-based diets. We chat for a while about America's love of extremist food fads, and of common misconceptions about dietary needs—Anna tells me of a T-shirt she's considered getting: Keep Calm, Plants Have Protein—before turning to talk about art. Anna has “a pretty artistic background” in that she was a music major in college. Her dream in high school was to be a professional flautist, but she eventually realized she “didn't want to sit around practicing the flute eight hours a day.” But she misses the feel of the stage, the atmosphere of the orchestra pit, and so she was interested in spending her Saturday evening at “a theater thing.”


I ask Anna what she knows about On the Boards, and she says she thinks they have a reputation for showing “very contemporary things,” and that “they're into pushing people's comfort zones.” Given the territory that JULIA covers, I am very glad we have this pre-show conversation.


JULIA begins with a home video of a young girl. The stage is equipped with two giant projection screens that can be repositioned to reveal different areas of the set—a kitchen, a servant's room, and a dressing room boudoir—and for the opening sequence, the stage is completely covered by the screens. We watch from the point of view of the unidentified father holding the camera. We hear his voice instructing Julia to pose in various ways; she holds a flower, she smiles, she laughs. She repeats as she is told. A few minutes into the sequence, the camera pans across an expansive lawn and we see two black boys with gardening tools in the frame. The tone of the father's voice abruptly changes, and he yells at the servants to get the hell out of the shot, to stop ruining his video with their presence. The camera tracks back to the daughter, who looks down at the ground and tells her father that she doesn't want to be watched anymore.


JULIA integrates pre-recorded video, live video and live performance in a way that feels completely natural and internally consistent when seen in person, but that is very difficult to explain in writing. Throughout the entire performance, a silent videographer follows the show's two live actors (the young-adult versions of the black servant and white master's daughter that we meet in the opening video sequence) and projects this video in real-time onto one of the screens. So at any given moment, we might be watching a pre-recorded video on one screen while also watching the videographer's live footage on the other screen while also watching the live actors on stage. Additionally, this Brazilian show is in Portuguese with English subtitles, but the actors sometimes break character and directly address the audience in English.


This all sounds complicated when written down, but in person, the effect requires no conscious suspension of disbelief and instead unfolds an uncomfortable and morally ambiguous story in a way that reinforces the contextual power embedded within perspective and point of view.


The story begins with Julia aggressively hitting on her servant. They are all at a party, and she forces him to dance with her, and then follows him back into the house when he leaves what he correctly identifies to be a dangerous situation. Of course the male character—whose name we do not learn until over halfway through the play, when Julia turns to the audience and directly asks them, in English, if anyone knows his name—wants her. But he sees and understands the complexities of class that her privilege allows her the luxury of being blind too, and he fights the good fight for as long as he can until he is finally worn down into acting upon the desires he does not actually want to deny.


The power dynamic in JULIA flips many times over, and director Christiane Jatahy uses these moments of transition to make the audience squirm. Julia finally succeeds in her seduction after she pulls her servant into the pool with her and invites—demands—herself back to his quarters to dry off. The actors move backstage into his room and their bodies are almost entirely obstructed by the walls of the set. The only person we can fully see is the anonymous cameraman recording them in real time, and so we watch this moment unfold on screen through the close-angled details of his footage.


He stands behind her, reaches out and touches her, and the pivot happens: You want this? Fine.


And suddenly he is the one with the power, and we watch a closeup of Julia's face as he grabs her and fucks her doggy style while telling her of his dreams for escaping his class, his life, his reality. Of creating a world in which he is her equal. His attraction is threaded through with equal parts rage over his circumstances, and in her expression we see the horrified confusion of a little girl who wanted the game but not its conclusions.


The rest of the show is an exploration of what this act means, and what happens in its aftermath. Pipe dreams are thrown out, anger flows freely—in one perfectly eviscerating line, he tells her that his feelings for her are “a symbol of my despair over never being able to leave poverty”—and the only thing that is entirely clear is that everyone is in over their heads. Both characters are objects; she is a just an object that holds a great deal more inherent power.


JULIA is not interested in answers, but rather in holding each note of irresolvable tension in such a way that you are forced to continue to ponder it, and I walk out of the theater knowing that the questions of this show will take a while to sink in. 


Anna and I sit in the lobby and talk about the show, and it feels difficult to have a conversation about such a disquieting piece. But Anna was up for being challenged. “It was not what I was expecting,” she tells me. “ It was more dramatic, with a lot more yelling. I liked the way they used film, it was trippy watching real life vs. a screen.” I ask her if there was anything she found surprising about the piece, and she mentions “the interaction with the audience, the way they were breaking character, but not. I found myself wondering, 'Is it real? Is it still a show?'” 


We chat a bit more about the piece, and agree that it was both powerful and sometimes hard to watch. We part ways, and I'm glad that I have an uphill bike ride in the rain ahead of me; I need to be in motion and using my body as I give this show some more thought. As I walk outside, JULIA'S technical crew is smoking cigarettes and talking amongst themselves in Portuguese, and I think about the show's masterfully uneasy blurring of theatricality and reality as I go unlock my bike. We wish each other a good night as I begin to pedal home, and I find Anna's last question echoing through my mind: Is it real? Is it still a show?