Tilikum: Not About a F*cking Whale
Spoiler alert: this is an abolitionist play. That means it is in my canon of work that asks you to imagine a world without prisons and police. (Kristiana Rae Colón, note from the playwright)
There. Right there. “Tilikum” is not about a damn whale and SeaWorld is not our true oppressor. But let me back up.
* * * *
There are sirens, loud and undeterred. The red lights follow, flashing. But we’re underwater and the soft blue waves are in no hurry, rolling and rippling along. Tilikum the orca, aka killer whale, (embodied by Greg Geffrard) swims through in a wide-eyed panic, challenging the current, but ultimately succumbs to the basket in the sky (a fisherman’s net). Tilikum, constrained as the net tightens around his body, neck to ankles ensnared, resists, but soon falls unconscious and goes limp. Lights.
We’re back and Tilikum is still wrapped in the net, The Owner (Matt Fletcher) towers over him. The Owner, aptly un-named, is the face of capitalism, brutality, and sexism packaged into a neat, suit-wearing businessman. He taunts Tilikum and monologues about profit: “It’s not fair how much money we’re about to make.” Tilikum does not understand the small man’s tongue and he struggles against the knotted ropes. The Owner yanks the net like a tablecloth magic trick and Tilikum tumbles into the tank.
Soon, Tilikum realizes he’s not alone. Three orcas, goddesses, share the space with him, but they speak in a tongue different than his own. He swims the length of the tank. He gnaws the bars; he shoulders the walls.
This magic can’t hold us
This magic is small
Small man with small magic
I can’t breathe
Tilikum exhausts himself and lets the water cradle him. The goddesses watch, knowingly, apathetically. He rocks to the bottom of the tank.
When he awakes, the goddesses tower over him. They too have names and introduce themselves, and it’s enunciated through drums (beaten by on-stage performers: Joyce Liza Rada Lindsey, Melissa F. DuPrey, and Coco Elysses), a beautiful sequence of sound-sharing and language-loving.
“Tilikum” means all of us
But now, it’s just me
In fact, the only unnamed character is the white man, The Owner. (Refreshing, right?) Alas, Tilikum is stuck in a crowded, small tank, and his only opportunity to stretch out and feign freedom is during daily SeaWorld performances.
Wouldn’t be so bad if we got more frozen fish
Wouldn’t be so bad if we had more space
Wouldn’t be so bad if I could see my mama
To the uncritical, potentially ignorant, eye, Colón’s play “Tilikum” is an animal rights activist piece based on the true events of a killer whale caged in quarters too small, living as a captive for the entertainment of paying customers. By 2010, Tilikum had killed three of his trainers, including a Dawn Brancheau (played by Sigrid Sutter), who is depicted in Colón’s piece.
But let’s assume you don’t read the note. How long would it take you to see the metaphor? Our killer whale Tilikum represents the black and brown bodies locked up and away by the state.
The more decisions you have, the more you are controlled
Another cage another collar—dollar
We keep seeing articles by white critics critiquing the work of artists of color while tripping over their racism (unconscious or not) and failing to acknowledge their harms. Rather, they turn up their noses to the struggle of living in non-white bodies and say we don't understand their craft. So, we call for change. We call for voices of color to cover our shows and stamp a review into history so it’s not left to institutions and the inevitable supremacy of white minds.
You would hope one of the last full-time, paid, credentialed theatre critics of this nation could see a locked up and beaten down whale, desperate for freedom and mourning his lost future (wife and family included), and view it as a metaphor for the hundreds of thousands of black and brown bodies locked away in our prison system. You would hope they would be courageous in their discomfort and cover a play for its totality. But we just have another example of a white critic not getting it. Actually, it’s worse. He’s hiding behind feigned ignorance. He gets it and is too cowardly to write about it.
I know I live in a world where men like The Owner exist—it is ignorant to say otherwise. Calling for more complexity in his character is asking for a supremacist to be more likable. What a waste of energy. Colón is not encapsulating “everything she hates about SeaWorld and its ilk into one terrible guy,” she is showcasing how real people, with eyes on dollar signs, equipped with a deep disregard for living bodies, profit from putting said bodies in cages. It should not be lost to us that The Owner’s rhetoric could be pulled from the mouths of our politicians and corporate leaders.
Can’t imagine what they’d do in the wild
It should not be lost to us that The Owner’s sexualized language, manipulative yet safely wrapped in double entendres, harms Dawn as she strives to do her best within a broken institution and a hurting whale.
Additionally, we must acknowledge Kristiana Rae Colón not only as the playwright but as a real proponent of change in our broken world. Why not include this part of her in a review? She may not be a “trained,” institutionally-approved journalist, but she writes her world--her truth. That is just as valid.
Please see this show and add your voice to the canon of reviews and responses. We are what we need.
Sideshow Theater at Victory Gardens, 2433 North Lincoln, (773)871-3000, victorygardens.org, $15-$30. Through July 29.