Thursday, July 16, 2015

"Michael Jackson was innocent… and I didn't kill Jonbenet Ramsey, but I was there the night she died" - HOT! Festival

At first glance, Michael Cross Burke's "Michael Jackson was innocent… and I didn't kill Jonbenet Ramsey, but I was there the night she died" seems like an opportunity for Burke to exorcise some of the demons of having been a victim of the child sex trade.  And indeed, his decision to integrate pieces of two of the biggest child sex scandals - molestation accusations against Michael Jackson and the Jonbenet Ramsey murder - would almost bear that out.

However, Burke offers this play, not as a confession, an indictment of the media and our obsession with scandal, or even a morality lesson, but as a way to honor the person who saved his life, yet who was so broken by his experiences that he eventually lost his own.

That person is Danny, another trafficked child, used by the same pimp who approached Michael when he was a young teen, fresh off the bus from Idaho.

In telling the story of Danny, Bishop the pimp, Norma (more often simply called "the cunt in 2B," but who was instrumental in saving Michael and Danny), and the other characters that are introduced in "Michael Jackson…", Burke is able to tell a harrowing, yet often funny tale of what it takes to survive, and why some people survive when others can't.

"Michael Jackson…" is a powerful play, and sections of it are extremely well done.  However, overall the quality is somewhat hit or miss.  Several sections of the play, generally transitional portions between major scenes, appear to be ad-libbed, and those moments seem very sloppy.

Also, timing tends to be a bit of a problem in the show.  The individual actors - Burke, as himself and as Michael Jackson accuser Jordie Chandler, and Daniel Diaz, playing nearly all the other roles - are strong on their own.  When working together, they seem tentative at times, seemingly wondering if it's their turn to speak yet.  This is a pity, because Burke is an extremely nimble writer, and some of his dialogue, and the way he plays with it (especially through the use of repetition), is a marvel to hear.

The timing issues could be a result of a short rehearsal period (festivals are notorious for having very little rehearsal time), but some of it has to be due to Gian Marco Lo Forte, who directs the play.  It feels like he needs a stronger hand in making this a tight and clean production.

Lo Forte is also serving as the production designer, and in that role, he is outstanding.  "Michael Jackson…" features some wonderful work mixing media through the use of video throughout the performance.  By filming what is happening on stage, he allows the audience to distance itself from the intimate and immediate work of the actors, and watch them passively on screen, in a way, mimicking the emotional distance that both the victims of sex trade and the johns use to dehumanize each other, or in the same way that people do when watching porn (which shows up a couple of times in the play).

Despite its rough edges, Burke has created a powerful story, and one that needs to be heard.  Trafficking is a major and ongoing problem, and the more that we can hear the stories of its survivors, and the people who helped them survive, the better.

Michael Cross Burke, photo by Krys Fox

"Michael Jackson was innocent… and I didn't kill Jonbenet Ramsey, but I was there the night she died"
Written and performed by Michael Cross Burke
Directed and Designed by Gian Marco Lo Forte
Assistant Director: Marisa Tornello
Designed with Pioneers Go East Collective artists Hao Bai and Chand Chenail
Publicist: Jackie Rudin
Michael Cross Burke's hair by Jeanise Aviles
Michael Cross Burke's tattoos by Kevin Soomai

Featuring: Michael Cross Burke, Daniel Diaz, Ryan Leach, and Gian Marco Lo Forte

Performed as part of the 24th Annual HOT! Festival at Dixon Place.  Remaining performances will be July 17th, 23rd and 24th.  Tickets can be purchased online.

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