Time Out says of Selina Thompson’s salt.: “In any case, salt. is a remarkable piece of theatre.” I disagree with this sentiment on two counts. First, salt. is as far from remarkable as I am from Ghana. Second, salt. is as far from being a piece of theatre as I am from being a piece of salt.
Here are some ways I might finish Time Out’s sentence: “In any case, salt. is insufferably self-indulgent.” Ooh, or: “In any case, salt. is an exercise in oversimplification of complex issues.” Or perhaps most accurate of all: “In any case, nothing said by salt. has not been said better and more interestingly somewhere else.”
It’s an 85-minute-long, one-woman show, with no set changes or plot to speak of. Yes, I suppose the Selina Thompson surrogate’s recounting of her adventures overseas could amount to a plot of sorts — one with no climax or tangible conflict — but mainly it’s just a woman droning on about how horrible society treats her for being a black woman. (Indeed, the central conflict of the show might be most easily found in the first line spoken onstage, “I am 29 years old, I am black, and I am a woman.”) There is a dreadfully repetitive soundtrack and no visually interesting blocking that I can even recall only the morning after. There is, of course, the laughably awkward smashing of a salt rock with a sledgehammer which randomly happens a few times in the show, but there is no narrative action aside from this. I would call this a slam poem; I would maybe call it a “show.” But I would be remiss to call something so flat, so lazily assembled, so obvious, so self-aggrandizing, as this, theatre.
And when I say self-aggrandizing, I’m not just being salty. (Ha.) The woman is literally dressed in a suit of white, lights shining on her, the sole beacon of goodness in her memoir of how white people are horrible to her and Europeans as a whole are horrible to her and the world at large is horrible to her. She smashes the rock representing her more than any other rock, showing us just how put upon she is and much suffering she has had to endure on her behalf. Yes, she sometimes doubts whether her trip will accomplish its desired goal — but her misgivings are always assuaged, and she always emerges as Victim-in-Chief after the dust of the smashed rocks has cleared. It is utterly painful to watch; and not in the desired way of “I’ll Make Them Feel My Pain”, but more in the way of “I’ll Make Them Validate My Pain.” After a second or two goes by, the audience is compelled to say “Yes, you have been mistreated. We are sorry.” But when those two seconds become 85 minutes, we are moreover compelled to say “Oh, shut up already. We get it. We’re sorry. Now please let us go home.”
How politically incorrect I feel in saying so, but I have no tolerance for shows which perpetuate the idea that the world is ceaselessly and exclusively cruel to people of color. I agree that there is a lot of mistreatment in the world, and certainly a lot which people of color must endure which I do not. But it’s simply not fair to say, as the narrator really did, “I went to the theatre, and all I saw was show after show after show of white men screaming about their pain.” (To the laughter of the audience.) I might offer this: show after show after show of anyone tends to somewhere include that person screaming about their pain. We’re all in a lot of pain! A great deal of pain! It is hard to be alive. Not just for you, Ms. Thompson, but for me and my fellow Jews, for my surrogate mother and her fellow lesbians, for my friend and his fellow Hispanics, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I find it gross to stand on a stage and imply that white men are the sole perpetrators of evil in the world and that black women are the primary sufferers.
I am initially skeptical of theatre which tries to make me adopt any political viewpoint, but I outright reject theatre which lies to me in the course of trying to prod me into accepting that viewpoint. I accept the central conceit of this show — that Europe, each stone wall and each pebble, is awash in blood — but I refute that it is just Europe. The world as a whole is filled with evil and deceit and violence and pain. Yes, black lives DO matter, and the persecution of them by police forces in the United States is a problem which needs special attention. But it is neither fair nor just to suggest, as this show does, that they are the only ones which presently deserve to be approached with art, and that they undergo the most suffering of any of us. To them that would disagree, I apologize for both of our naivety. I don’t know you, I don’t know your friends, I don’t know what you’ve gone through. You don’t know me, you don’t know my friends, you have no idea what I have gone through or what I continue to go through. For the love of God, let’s not compare suffering.
At the end of the show, the actress gives out rocks of salt to all audience members. But it’s not this worthless, meaningless self-pity rock which I want. I want Dr. Essin’s money back, and I want those 85 minutes of my life back. Don’t see salt.