Review: Dark Noon Presents a Vision of the Wild West Seen Through Foreign Eyes

Tue Biering and Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s provocative theater piece runs at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

Katlego Kaygee Letsholonyana, audience participants, and the cast of Dark Noon at St. Ann’s Warehouse
(© Teddy Wolff)

The title of the new theater piece Dark Noon may make you think of High Noon, the 1952 Western considered one of the genre’s classics. That film isn’t explicitly mentioned in the play, but its connection to the genre is significant. Dark Noon, making its New York premiere after celebrated runs in Europe and elsewhere, is a funhouse-mirror retelling of American history: specifically, the 19th-century era of the Wild West that Westerns have mythologized for Americans and the rest of the world. If nothing else, it’s one of the most gleefully provocative pieces of theater you’ll see this year.

In 105 minutes, playwright Tue Biering, who also directed the show with choreographer Nhlanhla Mahlangu, and an ensemble of seven cover everything from the westward pioneer movement to the California gold rush and the development of train travel and other new technologies. Biering & co. especially zero in on the ways the pioneers’ sense of manifest destiny led to their physical and cultural oppression of minorities, especially Native Americans, African slaves, and Chinese migrants. On a broader level, Dark Noon charts the trajectory of the American West from its lawless beginnings to its taming through the development of systems of law and order.

Theoretically, American audiences already know most, if not all, of this history, so the fact that a Danish playwright and a South African troupe is regurgitating it to us, most of them Black and donning powdery white makeup (only Joe Young is white), is a provocation in and of itself. But what might have felt challenging to European audiences not so knowledgeable about US history feels a bit less so now in New York. Amid a theater landscape in which artists and companies have focused much of their energies on social-justice-oriented work (or at least are loudly trumpeting that they are), Dark Noon can’t help but come off as yet another work that merely preaches to the choir.

Still, the show’s epilogue offers a more tantalizing reframing of the piece. In it, all the actors speak in front of a camera about their experiences growing up in South Africa and absorbing American culture through the Westerns they watched. Katlego Kaygee Letsholonyana fondly remembers how attracted he was to both the fashions and the gunplay in cowboy movies. Lillian Tshabalala-Malulyck, by contrast, blames their romanticization of guns for the violence she witnessed in her childhood, especially noting that “Africans didn’t bring guns to South Africa.” Mandla Gaduka adds to implicit apartheid critique, wondering if his own perspective was warped by seeing so many Westerns in which whites were the heroes. (Bongani Bennedict Masango, Siyambonga Alfred Mdubeki, and Thulani Zwane round out the rest of the ensemble.) More interesting than Dark Noon‘s outsider take on the Wild West is the sense that these artists are grappling with their own history through ours.

As grim and dry as that all makes it sound, Dark Noon is anything but. Formally speaking, this is a multimedia production, with Rasmus Kreiner’s video design, featuring actors occasionally moving cameras around themselves, coexisting with costume designer Camilla Lind’s deliberately scrappy-looking wigs and hats. Most remarkable is its larger visual evocation of the creation of a whole society over the course of the performance, with the actors erecting buildings and laying down train tracks onto an initially bare sandy ground (Johan Kølkjær did the set design).

The production’s mix of digital and analog reflects Biering’s irreverently anachronistic recounting of American history. Biering uses a football game to illustrate white settlers’ land disputes with Native Americans, climaxing with two of the pioneers whipping out guns and repeatedly shooting one of their opponents in a hilariously overextended gag. Bottles of Coke are used throughout the show (resourceful props design by Marie Rosendahl Chemnitz), as are modern tunes ranging from American songbook standard “Fever” to Sheryl Crow’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” (eclectic sound design by Ditlev Brinth).

Dark Noon‘s most daring formal gambit is its use of audience participation. It’s one thing to beckon audience members to join in a square dance or interview one of them during the aforementioned football game. It’s another to pull some of those same members into a simulated slave trade, or lock them into faux-Native American reservation. Such moments are bluntly effective at implicating us in the history of genocidal cruelty previous generations have handed down.

Moments like those, the zeal with which the cast attack their multiple roles, and the overall air of playfulness mixed with seriousness, make Dark Noon worth seeing even if you find yourself occasionally questioning its finer points. Biering & co. aim to rattle our preconceived notions of American history and exceptionalism, and the passion and intelligence with which they have approached their aim is not to be gainsaid.

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Dark Noon

Closed: July 7, 2024