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IMPRESSIONS: Witness Relocation's "History of Empires" - A Creation of Dan Safer, Marcus McGregor, and Daniel Pettrow at La MaMa

IMPRESSIONS:  Witness Relocation's "History of Empires" - A Creation of Dan Safer, Marcus McGregor, and Daniel Pettrow at La MaMa

Published on November 1, 2022
THE HISTORY OF EMPIRES-Photo: Maria Baranova

at LaMama Downstairs, New York

Performed, co-created, and co-choreographed by Marcus McGregor

Performed and co-created by Daniel Pettrow

Choreographed/Directed/co-created by Dan Safer

Original Music, Sound Design and co-created by Christian Frederickson

Text:  Chuck Mee

Set/ Costume:  Deb O

Film/Projections: Tom Kalin


The History of Empires runs through November 6th, for tickets click the La MaMa website here

October 28, 2022

This History of Empires begins in the present.  A creature completely covered in plastic trash, wrapped in a king-size garbage bag, totters onto LaMama’s downstairs stage and falls down, repeatedly, rolling up with extreme difficulty.  This misshapen mass can’t answer a ringing telephone, or leave a message for the robo-caller.  It staggers off as a man enters in a hazmat suit, with a cheap metal chair which he places dead center. Exit suit (Masanori Asahara) and enter a tall, haggard African-American (Marcus  McGregor) who acts out his dismay at a gruesome story, told in silent film with voice-over narration.  

a black man in jeans and light blue short sleeved shirt jumps up arms outstreched as a film is played  on the wall to his leftt
History of Empires, Marcus McGregor; Photo: Steven Pisano

 A son is watching as his father dismembers the boy’s pet tortoise, slitting its shell from below, pulling out its intestines and then its heart.  The animal somehow stays alive – and the lesson, says the dad, is that “the tortoise, like the earth itself, or like a man, is a slow tough creature that can live on a while even after its heart is gone.”   

The tortoise, of course, is the 500-year-old Empire of the West, tottering on without a heart or a shield.  McGregor dances with the chair, then sits to hear a lecture on the beauty of ordinary things, interspersed with tales of inhuman cruelty – echoes of Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Guantanamo.  It ends with a long crescendo on ways to kill a laboratory rat. Finally he covers his ears and screams – enough!

Marcus Mcgrego in a suit holding a baseball bat screams and extends his free hand as if to scream stop
History of Empires, Marcus McGregor; Photo: Steven Pisano

The hazmat appears at the top of the set and unfurls a banner – The History of Empires.  The story begins anew.   
A white man (Daniel Pettrow) enters, dressed like a Renaissance noble, and with exquisite politesse, presents a paper crown to McGregor, who eventually returns with an identical hat for his new best friend. 

 They dance around one chair, then two, in a vaudeville Alphonse-and-Gaston routine.  It’s a pretense of power-sharing which soon gives way to a shoving match, a chest-bumping contest decisively won by the Black guy.  Not sure what to do with the loser, he winds up smothering him with a pillow.  

two men M. McGregor and D. Pettrow wrestle. they wear costumes that indicate they are of some noble rank but have the bare calves and bare feet of modern dancers.
Marcus McGregor ( top left) Wrestles Daniel Pettrow (bottom right) in History of Empires; Photo: Maria Baranova

In History..., though, nothing goes away.  So the fallen noble is allowed to sit up and given a script to recite.  McGregor walks off, with one instruction for his ward: “Don’t fuck up.”  This is the only use of the F-word in the show – a stern warning in a stage whisper. The new script is as old as Alexander the Great.  Empires must grow or die, and so they grow – beyond their bounds -- and so they die.  “Ruin, it would seem, is inherent in the nature of empires.”  

And yet there is life in the ruins.  And beauty.  McGregor, a Dance Theatre of Harlem alumnus who came out of retirement for this role, keeps it coming with his quick-change artistry -- agile, angular movements, invisible leaps during blackouts.  

Marcus McGregur kicks one bent leg high showing his fine angles and lines ... he is dancing against a background of pink light
Marcus McGregor in History of Empires; Photo: Maria Baranova

The emperor-to-be and his conquered foe exit together, in matching jackets with legends on the backs.  The new boss’s reads, “The bags under my eyes are Chanel.” The deposed one has his homework written out: “Listen to Nina Simone.”  

a white man and a black man both wearing
Daniel Pettrow and Marcus McGregor in History of Empires; Photo: Steven Pisano

This hour of unconvention sparkles with panache and purpose.  It’s all in line with the message of director Dan Safer’s Witness Relocation company – you don’t have to be an asshole to change the world.   That’s the theme of LaMama’s fall performance series ---“Remake a World.”  Long live this venerable Village institution, where revolution is powered by joy.  

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