“The Survival Project” calls for facing racism and rejection together

By: Maud Charles

The Robert Cohen Theater hosted the last of three showings of “The Survival Project” on Jan. 26.  The performance, which combined dance and drama touched on the realities of “surviving in hostile territories.” The exhibit was written and directed by UC Irvine Professor of Drama Mihai Măniuțiu, who took inspiration for the performance from Victor Hugo Green’s book, “The Negro Motorist Green Book.”

The “Negro Motorist Green Book,” first published in 1936 by Green, an African-American mailman from New York City, touched on segregation issues in America at the time.

In his book, Green compiled addresses from people throughout the U.S. who offered their services and said they would receive African-American travellers  indiscriminately during the fervor of racial segregation.

“I was shocked by the fact that this invisible map of America was necessary [for African-Americans] until 1966,” said Măniuțiu.

He was so moved by his discovery that he constructed a play that sought to share that knowledge and create a space for discourse about the lingering, ubiquitous cultural intolerance.

Drama Student and actor Chris Mansa says the reasons “The Green Book” spoke to him, and why this project is so important to him is because “talking about “The Green Book” as an African-American male, I think it’s removed from me that part, but not that far,” he said. “In my childhood I faced aggressive, violent racism just for being who I was.”

Măniuțiu delivered his interpretation of the the book to audiences in the form of a modern dance performance,  choreographed by Andrea Gavriliu, with whom Măniuțiu has collaborated with before.

Gavriliu noted that her inspiration for the choreography, and its attempt at interpreting racism, comes not from her own experience with racism but from hearing the student actors personal stories.

“All this racism issue is something that I was already aware of, that I empathize with, read about and watch hundreds of films and documentaries,” Gavriliu said. “But it’s not necessarily something that I see around me, because even if it exists in my country, [it] is something that I see from a certain perspective. I can understand it, but I cannot feel in its very powerful sense because I’m not involved in it. Being so close to the way they expressed their point of views regarding it seems it helped me engage more in this issue, and they became my source of inspiration for my work for this show.”

Ten actors from Măniuțiu’s workshop class participated in the performance; they had only three weeks to learn the material.  

“They’re students and they had other classes during the day. We really had to concentrate our work and be as efficient as possible in order for them to be able to take the material and make it their own,” said Gavriliu.

The cast took advantage of the winter break to practice. Mansa said, “The choreography was definitely the biggest challenge, but what’s beautiful about the work that Andrea has done, is that she’s made it so that everybody can do it. Like every individual body is capable of doing the movement and in the pieces as their body does it.”

In addition to the choreography, Măniuțiu incorporated an oratory component to the piece. In a prelude to the dance, each actor stood before the audience on stage, introduced themselves and spoke briefly about their experience first hand or as a witness to racism.

Each character’s oration was true to their personal experience; there were no characters in the performance, all “actors” portrayed themselves.

The personal anecdotes of the ten actors, all of whom were of a different ethnicity from one another, varied in experiences.

This was important to Mansa because, “to have the ability to speak on the topic of racism and hatred and survival and make it a universal message so that the people, the audience who come see the show can realize that it’s not just my problem.”

He added that “It’s not just our problem in America. It’s a universal challenge that if we can all come together, we can overcome it.”