Ubuntu's 'Pool of Wonders' Imagines the End of Trauma

After seeing the Ubuntu Theater Project’s world premiere of Phillip Kan Gotanda’s Pool of Wonders: Undertow of the Soul I realized that a few theories about storytelling might help. At least if I wanted to catch what’s excellent about Gotanda’s play—the last 30 or so minutes of its 80 minute running time—and how, especially at the onset of the evening, the playwright sabotages some of the best qualities of his past work and the promise of this particular play.

In saying this I’m assuming that you should and will want to see this production. It’s a fascinating attempt on the part of one of America’s most versatile playwrights and the Ubuntu Theater Project to engage with a 21st century American problem—a misunderstanding of trauma and how to overcome it. Or to put it another way, trauma is a story that won’t go away or end, even in our fondest dreams.

Loosely inspired by the great Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), Gotanda picks up on the director’s jagged rhythms and basic plot. A navigator, Monkawa (the always excellent J Jha, as always, excellent) serves as a guide to four seekers—Sophie, Hamsum, Mr. Figgy, and Mrs. Bankhead—who all wish to go to the pool of wonders.

We tend to think of trauma as individual or at least that’s how many of us experience it, but in Pool Gotanda shifts the emphasis to the group. Each of the seekers is attempting to overcome quite specific losses (stillbirth, amnesia, political oppression, lost love) and yet none of these tragedies makes much sense without the other, at least on this journey and in this play.

The key line, stated over and over again by Monkawa and after him in slight variations by the seekers, is: “However many start, must finish. That is the way of the Pool.” In a play that eschews basic narrative conventions, this rule is doubly binding: first, to the characters on stage who must stay together to get to the pool; and second, to the audience, who must believe that these narrative fragments will have some end, a purpose that justifies our shared commitment to this experience.

The challenge Gotanda poses here is sharp and his ending beautiful, both the writing and the pared down lavishness of Michael Socrates Moran’s staging; nonetheless, the beginning of the play is uncertain both in tone and content. So, here’s my first theory of storytelling.

Clarity Is Always Essential

Ubuntu produced Gotanda’s Rashomon last year, another world premiere. Adapted from the same Ryunosuke Akutagawa short story, “In the Grove”, that Akira Kurosawa used for his famous 1950 film, it shares many of the same problems that Pool has. And first and foremost is a needlessly obscure beginning. It’s interesting that the playwright, quite adept at well-made plays (The Wash), would find inspiration from two elliptical films and yet somehow miss how basic and simply they begin.

The world in Tarkowsky’s Stalker is as strange and disorienting as you can imagine, but the situation is easy to understand: a professor and a writer hire a stalker to take them to the zone. That’s it. Gotanda refuses to give us that kind of basic, simple knowledge that allows an audience to take huge leaps in faith and imagination. He makes us struggle for basic information and that blunts the impact and beauty of his play.

I would say to all adventurous theatergoers, hold on, good things are coming. Still, it wouldn’t be surprising if some people just turn off, which leads me to my second theory of storytelling.

Issues Are Rarely Dramatic

In general, the seekers are interesting characters and their stories affecting. They hurt and we hurt with them. But at times Gotanda gives us issues instead of situations. Hamsun’s long initial speech about Japanese immigrants turning unusable swampland into an abundant potato farm feels extraneous, a kind of editorial adjunct to the actual play, a lecture not a drama.

In place of basic narrative, we’re being a given a position, told how to think rather than being free to think. At its best, one of the pleasures of Pool is how little we know of these characters besides their pain and how much dramatic force there is in such scant knowledge. When Gotanda underlines, points out, and lets issues overtake the drama of everyday life, he straightjackets our thinking.

Pain and trauma are almost always complete, the corners of the puzzle that allow us to fill in all the other pieces. To turn that pain into an explication of a political event or a nasty, sociological condition is to reduce both the pain and the condition to information. And that leads to my final theory of storytelling for this particular review.

American Theater Is Suffering A Crises In How To Tell A Story

The success and failures of Pool points to a larger problem in the American theater, and that is how to even tell a story that addresses individual and social pain. The most conventional plays have had their moment, have always had their moment, and seem in no way capable of capturing the complexity of our nation’s life.

One reason to tell a story is that you don’t like the ones that have come before you. Over the last two seasons with Rashomon and Pool, Gotanda and Ubuntu have dared to revive the corpse of a shaky theatrical discourse in America: and that is the-state-of-the-country play.

And so what we have with Pool is fascinating and dangerously flawed, a way forward and a way into a trap. In making that claim, I realize how truly difficult the problem of writing about America has become and that even a writer of Gotanda's technical skill can struggle with the most basic question of storytelling: how to begin.

Of course, the best way to begin is to go and see Pool and join the struggle.

Please feel free to comment on Gotanda’s play and talk about what you want from American plays.

’Pool of Wonders:s Undertow of the Soul’ runs through September 23, Friday through Sunday at the Julia Morgan Hall in Thousand Oaks Baptist Church in Berkeley. For tickets and information click here.