The Watering Hole Review: Theater as a Sacred (Depressing) Water Ritual

“The Watering Hole,” an art installation that takes over nearly every nook and cranny of The Pershing Square Signature Center, is meant to be healing and calming…like water. That’s the clear message of the handwritten text on a large piece of cloth the size of a bed sheet hanging on a wall and flowing onto the floor in the lobby; the text feels less like a mission statement than a creed.   Indeed, the ten installations through which a masked guide leads us — each short piece riffing on the theme of water or theater or both — start to feel like part of a sacred ritual: Stations of the Muse?

It’s an ambitious, well-meaning and in some ways impressive project. It’s put together by a large group of talented artists, some two dozen in all,  all identified as people of color, led by playwright Lynn Nottage and director Miranda Haymon, who have created some arresting lines, some vivid designs. On the whole, though, “The Watering Hole” turned out to be a depressing experience.

That was evident from the moment the handful of us, masked and socially distanced, climbed up the grand staircase to the lobby, the site of the installation entitled “This Room Is a Broken Heart.” It has been emptied of all furniture and food and books and people,  replaced by three small boats in what now looks like a vast fake sea of emptiness. 

This hit hard. This is the once-crowded lobby where I would angle for a spot on one of the couches, then hang out listening to the jazz trio, or skimming a script from the bookstore or munching on something from the café.  Now, we only had those boats (more like theatrical interpretations of boats) and tasks involving them. For one, we’re asked to pick a postcard (illustrated by some of the artists and displayed on the shelves where the books used to be) and use it to write to an incarcerated individual, and place it in the hull. For another, we were asked to fill out a small paper sail with the answer to “What helps you feel safe and whole?” and then attach the sail to the mast. 

What used to help make me feel whole was leaving this lobby when the time had come for one of the theaters in the complex, to see something memorable. Indeed, I saw an unforgettable production in one of these theaters every year since this new home for Signature opened in 2012. (This continued and expanded on Signature’s legacy; for the previous two decades in its old building, it had dedicated each season to the work of a single playwright.) These cleared-out spaces through which we were now being guided held my memories of works ranging from Edward Albee’s “Ladies from Dubuque” and Athol Fugard’s “Bloodknot” in 2012 to Anna Deavere Smith’s “Fires in the Mirror” and Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band” in 2020 (I missed Katori Hall’s “The Hot Wing King,” which shut down little more than a week after it opened because of the pandemic, yet won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama.)

In place of those vigorous works of theater, we now made our way through unfamiliar passageways posted with makeshift signs that said things like “No need to hide that we are grieving,” and arrived at, for example, an installation entitled “Water Brings Me Back To You” (in an area identified in the program as the Griffin Backstage.) This installation consisted of a wall of six irregularly shaped video monitors, artfully arranged, in which videos of half a dozen actors stood in front of the same waterfall and said “The water brings me back to you.”  And then they murmured repeatedly “I’ve missed you.”  The waterfall I guess is a watering hole, and I take it we were supposed to feel nourished, but one of the actors who was murmuring “I’ve missed you” happens to be Frances Jue, who gave a stunning performance as a war criminal in “Cambodian Rock Band.”  I miss THAT.

In another installation, entitled “Ebb and Flow,” we don’t even get images of human beings.  We each enter a different dressing room and sit in front of a video monitor that presents the words on the screen of the extensive rap we’re hearing from the speakers. We’re awash in lyrics like 

weight of the water just holding me down 

and

Nowhere to go

And, most memorably, 

Sit in the theater I’m sadistic
The system can we fix it?

In another, “Freequency,” we sit on the stage of the Irene Diamond Theater, facing a huge black shroud over the seats, and basically watch a light show.

Please don’t misunderstand. I find nothing inherently wrong with theatrical art installations, which is to say works that don’t involve performers in the flesh. I enjoyed En Garde Arts’ recent “A Dozen Dreams”. “The Watering Hole” is much more haphazardly structured, and lacks a similar cohesiveness. But its poetic potpourri does feature some inventive visual imagery as well as some lovely writing.  In the installation entitled “Pre-Industrial,” we stood (socially distanced) on the steps of the staircase, and heard an audio tape of some half dozen of the artists talk about their ancestors. The most fascinating of these was probably by Nottage, who explained how her great grandparents settled in the late 19th century “around the corner from where the Signature is today,” in what was then a rough and tumble neighborhood called the Tenderloin, a center of both gay life and Black Bohemia but also of a mass race riot. Later installations offered personal reminiscences; In “Wings and Rings,” Ryan J. Haddad in voiceover recalls struggling to learn how to swim (“I was a disabled child.I needed one-on-one attention from the teachers to make sure I didn’t die in the water”). The video, showing him poolside,  is on a screen set back in the darkened Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre surrounded by wondrously shimmering lights that simulated reflected water. In “Spray Cap,” by Matt Barbot and Amith Chandrashaker with Liza Colon-Zayas, we sit around a fire hydrant and listen to a voice talk of cooling down in the streets during the summer. At one point, the voice turns from remembering to reassuring:

“Come out. Seriously. I know it’s weird and scary. Do you remember when they said it would just be two weeks? Do you remember sanitizing your groceries? Do you remember…?.It’s ok….It’s not over yet. But it might be safe to exhale a little, peek a toe out, test the waters.”

This little metaphorical pep talk fits in with the entire enterprise’s admirable effort at calming and healing through theater, but it inadvertently gets at why it was hard for me fully to embrace “The Watering Hole.”  It’s a question of timing. 

As recently as a month ago, I might have been more in sync with its overall somber, cautious, spiritual tone.

But the week before I attended “The Watering Hole,” I saw three shows with actual live performers on stage; four, the week before that, one of them indoors. A Broadway show has started its run, and 41 others have set their opening or reopening dates. Aren’t theater artists already starting to use the stage as a stage again, rather than just a memory and a metaphor? Might we already be past just grieving?

This is not to say that “The Watering Hole” is exclusively funereal. Our guide even led us to a “dance break,” in a corner designed to resemble a beach, with beach balls and bright pink glow lights, rocking piped-in beach music, and even a mound of sand. (I guess that’s the installation entitled “The Beach Explored.”) This could just be me, but it felt a little awkward to pretend to be rocking out in the sun and fun over the allotted two minutes while in front of a utility closet.

The Watering Hole
$25–$45 or Choose What You Pay is running through August 8, 2021.
Conceived and Created by
Lynn Nottage and Miranda Haymon
In Partnership With
Christina Anderson, Matt Barbot, Montana Levi Blanco,  Stefania Bulbarella, Amith Chandrashaker, nicHi douglas, Iyvon E., Justin Ellington, Emmie Finckel, Vanessa German, Ryan J. Haddad, Riccardo Hernández, Phillip Howze, Haruna Lee, Campbell Silverstein, Charly Evon Simpson and Rhiana Yazzie
With Michael Braun, Francis Jue, Denise Manning, Kenita Miller, Lisa Ramirez, Samy Younes, Liza Zayas

Author: New York Theaterh

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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