When life imitates art: George Floyd, RBG and ‘We’re Gonna Die’

CHICAGO—Ten minutes before the scheduled virtual opening of Theatre Y’s “We’re Gonna Die,” I heard that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died.

I didn’t want to go, even though all that it required of me was to click a Zoom link and log-in. No shoes, no parking, no awkward lobby mingling. These are the luxuries of digitized theatre, with Theatre Y among the many troupes venturing into film as a way to safely share their work in these pandemic times.

I didn’t want to go, in part, because the day before I bailed on another Zoom show and found it to be the right choice for me. I was invited to a studio webcast by a young ballet choreographer in New York. I clicked into the Zoom room to encounter what we now all recognize as the usual chaos of video conferencing: poor audio, poor sight lines, confusion in the chat box about whether we should have our cameras on—as Zoom goes, it was pandemonium.

I don’t regret losing patience. I clicked into another Zoom room—I was double booked that night—to attend a Titan Talk with George Floyd’s aunt and uncle. Hosted by Illinois Wesleyan University (whose mascot, the Titans, inspired the name of this lecture series on urgent societal issues), pastor Nyle Fort moderated a discussion with Angela Harrelson and Selwyn Jones, whose nephew, George Floyd (who they call Perry) was murdered by police on May 25.

“He fought with his voice,” Harrelson said toward the end of the 90-minute discussion. “He may not have died with dignity, but he died with bravery.”

It was with the saliency of this profound experience, plus the knowledge that a contemporary icon—a bastion for equal rights under the law—had died that I felt a hesitancy about clicking in for “We’re Gonna Die.”

And when I did, the same cacophony I’d experienced the night before ensued. Just give me the link, I thought, and get me out of holy Zoom mess.

Why are we doing this? also crossed my mind. Why examine art when real life is so piercingly poignant—so much stranger than fiction?

What started as a half-hearted distraction to take my mind off of all this trauma for a second—with Young Jean Lee’s autobiographical one-woman play called “We’re Gonna Die,” no less—turned into a rather transformative evening by Theatre Y, who typically makes live theatre in the intimate setting of their storefront home on Western Ave. in Lincoln Square.

Ensemble member Héctor Álvarez directed the company’s first foray into film with a veritable cornucopia of brilliant techniques including gorgeous stop-motion animation by Kyle Gregory Price. Filmmaker Justin T. Jones pans through a treasure trove of artifacts, zooming in on trinkets and little items of antiquity. Lee’s one-woman play is voiced by actress Emily Bragg, whose one hour monologue is mixed, quite literally, by sound designer Kimberly Sutton as if played back on a cassette tape and infused with plunky, indie rock songs Lee wrote with her band, Future Wife.

Apart from a few fingers, which animate a pair of Christmas candles standing in as human actors and color over a photograph of an ordinary, solitary, disliked man, Lee’s uncle, it is these artifacts which tell the bulk of the story. In fact, we don’t have a whole person in view until after the half-way mark, when Bragg haphazardly chops her straight, black hair and pegs it to the wall behind her. It was a non-linear tale that washed over me, in which Bragg’s voice no-nonsensically paces through the course of her life as she wrestles with her own mortality while her loved ones cope with theirs. Jones and Álvarez smartly capture the passage of time through effectual abstraction: heat boring holes in the heads of those chintzy candles, for example, and a time-lapse of an obnoxiously gauche ice cream sundae melting.

I thought again about RBG and George Floyd, whose lives could not have been more different. One died with dignity; both died with bravery. Lee’s tour de force acknowledges a sort of sameness in all of us. As different as our journeys may be, the destination is inevitable. And when and how we get there is not entirely up to us.

Theatre Y’s “We’re Gonna Die” is extended through Oct. 25. Complimentary tickets and more information are available on their website.

Author: Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter for NPR affiliate station WGLT and freelance arts and culture critic, primarily reviewing dance for the Chicago Tribune. Lauren enjoys cooking, cycling and attempting to grow things in her backyard. She lives in central Illinois.