The main subtext of A Different Long Stretch of Earth by Ragged Wing Ensemble is white guilt. The implication begins with an announcement that the theatre’s Oakland venue, The Flight Deck, rests on Ohlone land. The audience is then invited to donate to appropriate Native American causes to heal colonialism and genocide.
When the two-act, two-hour play begins, the scene is the present day on the lonely grasslands of Montana, and the refrain of guilt focuses on the destruction of the millions of American bison that once roamed the plains. Please note: ‘bison’ is the correct name, not ‘buffalo,’ which is actually a European variety. (Should someone tell the residents of Buffalo, New York?) In one scene, the characters dance around in circles while each wears the bony outline of a bison head. Of more success was the sonorous sound effect of herds of bison rumbling across the prairie at the end of the first act.
Largely written by Addie Ulrey in collaboration with, and directed by, Amy Sass, the production centers on two landowners, each of whom reveres the bison in contradictory ways. Levi (Ryan Takemiya), an Asian American, whose family has lived on his land for five generations, is a taxidermist who preserves bison, whereas Caucasian Marcia (Rachel Brown) destroys stuffed bison and buries their remains. Marcia lives with, and acts as a mother to, 13-year old Brucie (nice work by Emmy Elizabeth Pierce), an Asian-American budding teenager who was left as an infant on Marcia’s doorstep.
‘Decolonizing Your Nonprofit,’ a seminar for nonprofit workers, was supposed to be held at Marcia’s part time B&B, but a last minute cancellation strands Merrill (Fenner), Steve (Keith Cory Davis), and Annette (Mary Matabor). The names of their organizations are amusing, like Merrill’s ‘GitFO’ (Get the F**K Out), which works to encourage white people to leave full-time social justice work with nice salaries and great benefits in order to make more room for minorities. The group decides to create a do-it-yourself workshop and stay for the weekend.
Blended into the somewhat messy mix of plots, concepts and characters is Rose (Akaina Ghosh), a paralegal who wants to play cowboy love games with Levi. And young Brucie, who is fascinated with Doomsday, has a peculiarly Old West birthday party at which Brucie threatens the guests with a shotgun.
A Different Long Stretch of Earth is a ‘Core Company show’ of Ragged Wing Ensemble, which was developed by and for the performers along with the writers. The resulting mélange of varying plot lines and ideas may be simply a case of too many cooks ruining the broth, or should I say, bison stew. And perhaps that explains why the Asian-American Brucie had to be left on Caucasian Marcia’s doorstep, rather than Brucie being her biological child — to make sense of the ethnicity differences between the two.
A lot of work, time and effort went into this production, but it didn’t gel for me at all. At times the dialogue and effects showed sparks of ingenuity and some of the concepts seem worthy of exploration, but the story telling and theatrical arc were all jumbled up with little continuity. There may be a gem in there somewhere, but A Different Long Stretch of Earth needs more work.
A Different Long Stretch of Earth is playing weekends at The Flight Deck, 1540 Broadway, Oakland, through April 28. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Ragged Wing online.