By Stanford Friedman

High Noon, the classic 1952 anti-Western film, presented a town full of citizens who refused to deal with evil. Through cowardice, indifference and spite, a call to arms to stop the impending arrival of a killer was roundly ignored. Conversely, the subversive Dark Noon, currently staking its claim at St. Ann’s Warehouse, ignores nothing as it takes stock of the evils embraced by those who built the Wild West, and lays bare the lasting scars. The erasure of Native Americans, indentured Chinese laborers, slavery and cold-blooded murder are the order of the day, in a dynamic and perfectly paced staging that thrills.

Written and directed by Tue Biering, who is Dutch, and performed by a troupe of seven South Africans, the show is un-American in the most helpful of ways, casting an outsider’s skeptical eye on the mythology that gave birth to a whole genre of film-making. Black actors portray self-entitled white settlers by donning blonde wigs and throwing white powder on their face, a startling reversal of minstrel show stereotypes. Meanwhile, by reflecting a nation of determined immigrants, the production is also American in the extreme, mining veins of joyfulness and hope amid repeating cycles of violence.

Structure, in both theatrical and architectural terms, is an essential concept for Biering and co-director Nhlanhla Mahlangu. The work never lets you forget its cinematic roots. Gun play is constant but no one bleeds, just like in a John Wayne flick. It is so bloodless, in fact, the effect is more powerful than if there had been blood. Cameras film much of the proceedings, projecting the action to a large movie screen upstage. The play proceeds like a documentary, often with narration provided by one of the actors, with all the performers constantly slipping in and out of roles at a rapid-fire pace. Meanwhile, the set, which starts as a bare patch of red earth, grows more and more cluttered by railroad tracks and frameworks of buildings, tracing a path from lawlessness to civility: saloon, church, bank, jail, town hall.

Packing most of the latter half of the 19th century into 105 minutes, the production begins by declaring, “Once life was fragile. People were living by the law of the gun.” That proves to be an understatement as, in quick succession, the 1850’s  European exodus to the U.S. becomes a slaughter over the hunt for each man’s own piece of “fine American dirt.” Soon enough violence becomes “their primary form of communication.” Class warfare ultimately turns them against each other in a “kill or be killed” environment which takes years and many a determined sheriff to tame.

The production is most addictive when Biering finds ways to play with the past by introducing modern-day tropes which are then brought to vivid life by the talented cast. The war between Native Americans and European settlers is staged as a manic football game. When the gold rush frenzy hits, Lillian Tshabalala-Malulyck accompanies the madness with a rollicking version of Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” her face projected on the screen in a tight close-up. A bank robbery becomes a rap music video. And, in a scene guaranteed to tear at your conscience, Thulani Zwane conducts a slave auction as if he were Crazy Eddie on speed, declaring “These are mad prices!” and cracking a whip so brutally a palpable chill filled the theater.

As in any good documentary, Dark Noon sheds light on often overlooked facts, like the untold number of shell-shocked Civil War veterans who brought their violent tendencies westward, and the ways that men sexually coped in a landscape of few if any women. And, in true filmic fashion, there is an epilogue which returns us to the present. Each actor gives a brief monologue, in their own words, on how Western films and gun violence played into their upbringing, amid the lingering effects of apartheid. It was a stark reminder not only of the borderless nature of inhumanity, but of how movies meant for light entertainment can carry a lasting weight.

 

Dark Noon – Written and Directed by Tue Biering, Co-Directed and Choreographed by Nhlanhla Mahlangu.

WITH: Bongani Bennedict Masango, Joe Young, Katlego Kaygee Letsholonyana, Lillian Tshabalala-Malulyck, Mandla Gaduka, Siyambonga Alfred Mdubeki, and Thulani Zwane.

Johan Kølkjær (Set Designer), Ditlev Brinth (Sound Designer), Christoffer Gulløv (Lighting Designer), Marie Rosendahl Chemnitz (Props Designer) Camilla Lind (Costume Designer), Rasmus Kreiner (Video Designer). A Fix+Foxy production, St. Ann’s Warehouse, 45 Water Street, Brooklyn,  718-254-8779,  https://stannswarehouse.org. Through July 7. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes