Betty Sue’s Hulahoop Dance Number (2010)
Betty Sue’s Hulahoop Dance Number is a play within a play, about a small village of coltan miners trying to perform in a fundraiser so the local guerillas don’t murder all of them. Obviously, it’s a comedy. At least, until the final scene where the warlord Kokmufun exacts his on everyone. It’s like a horrifying inverse of the Deus Ex Machina. Betty Sue, much like Godot, never appears to perform her climactic dance number in the fundraiser performance.
This play was inspired by the actual plight of modern villagers in the Congo, where a significant portion of the world’s coltan supply comes from. After the actors remind the audience to turn off their cellphones, Da Chief explains: “In your cell phones that you just turned off – and not Just your cellphones, your laptops, videogame consoles, um, I’m not sure if any of you have pacemakers, but a lot of Stuff – the technology is dependent upon this natural resource called coltan. And we mine that.” The specific setting of the play, however, is removed from the Congo and the conflict is presented as if it is occuring in America.
What I like about the dynamic of the fundraiser-within-the play is that informing the audience about this issue is character-driven. So, while Da Chief is trying to share the story of his village, everyone else is the village is distracted by their own ambitions. Sygmy is in love with Da Chief’s daughter, Holly. And the village priest, Poppa Puff, is obsessed with his fireworks display. One of my favorite moments in the show comes when Poppa Puff impersonates Jesus with a puppet. The audience suspends their disbelief, accepting that this puppet actually is Jesus within the world of the play. That’s the fun thing about puppetry, that we know the object is not alive but we can play along with the idea that there is a character there onstage. But then, Sygmy realizes that Poppa Puff is the puppeteer behind Jesus, and all of the characters are suddenly distraught that the illusion has been broken.
This season, we did not tour outside of Chicago. Our first public performance was actually street theatre at the Northalsted Festival, with help from our awesome friends at Oracle Theatre. We then opened a ticketed show at Gorilla Tango Theatre, who provided our rehearsal space throughout this project. We were able to do a show at the Benton House Community Center, as well as a storefront space provided by the Experimental Performance Art Workshop Series.
The cast included:
Bohrs Hoff – Da Chief
Carrie Graham – Holly
Colin Fewell – Kokmufun, Sygmy
Andrew Paredes – Poppa Puff
This was our first year taking on a director for the project. In addition to writing the play, I was also the director and then performed as Da Chief. Fortunately, Da Chief is the director of the show within the show and the dynamic worked out very nicely. But it was still a challenge to wear so many hats in the production, and it was an important lesson in developing the way we plan to produce future productions with our minimalist structure.
Producing an original show with no real budget is hard. It’s an obvious statement, but the full depth of the meaning cannot be understood until you try it. Especially when that is what I want to do with this theatre company, and prove that it can be done. It’s hard. But it can be done, and we want to encourage other companies to do it too. Strip off all of the fat, see what you can do with as little as possible, and see what magic can happen. The fear is that it may turn into some pretentious arthouse piece of garbled paint on the wall, and I’m happy that the shows we do are not that. Betty Sue’s Hulahoop Dance Number was a serious examination of one of the darker aspects of globalization, but it was also fun, and even beautiful at moments.
So I’m proud of it and I’m excited to expand on those concepts in the years to come.