Posted by: strugglesome | April 5, 2011

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors: Thaddeus Phillips’ 17 Border Crossings

There’s nothing that inspires envy quite like hearing about someone else’s travels. Listening to a friend go on and on about the Amalfi coast or the water markets in Thailand or skydiving in Brazil or the wonders of the Egyptian Pyramids is bound to make you drool, but more than that, the dangerous stories, the adventures tinged with foreign tongues and near disasters are what really light our fires, and why not? All of us who possess passports that say United States of America are, to a certain extent, given a free pass in just about any nation. China may cluck at us, Russia may frown, Columbia may strip search, but as long as that little eagle rests smugly on a background of blue there will be a consulate, a clinic or a diplomat in most nations to get us out of most trouble, with the glaring exception of Iran now standing in defiance and refusing to let a pair of hikers return home (see more at And so we border hop for pleasure, that small percentage of US citizens that bothers to own a passport and has the disposable income to burn, using planes trains and automobiles to explore new frontiers, to jump over lines in the sand and gather up stories. Or, if we don’t, then at the very least we can listen to world traveler and consummate story-teller Thaddeus Phillips tell his.

When we last checked in with Phillips, one of Philadelphia’s favorite tour de forces (though there are so many from which to choose) he was delighting audiences with his one man telenovela, El Conquistador! and preparing his next work for the 2011 Live Arts Festival, WHaLE OPTICS. But somewhere in between all that Phillips has found the time to perform 17 Border Crossings, a work that spans continents and countries all from the safety of the Painted Bride’s stage. Working with a very clever set, a hallmark of Phillips work and a testament to his design skills as he himself created the set along with the piece itself, Phillips combines a lecture style talk on the history of the passport (invented by Henry the 5th of England) and the nature of borders with 17 tales of 17 border crossings, acted out with Phillips playing border guards and frightened travelers, backpackers and customs officials and even a smuggler at one point, though of what we may never know. Spanning time as well as space, we aren’t really sure if these are all experiences that Phillips has actually had or stories he has appropriated, and it honestly doesn’t in any way matter either way. With his casual charm and piercing focus Phillips takes complete ownership of these stories, which is interesting considering he tells them as a Second Person narrative. The set design along with Maria Shaplin’s well crafted lighting allows Phillips to continually re-invent the space, it’s a row of train compartments, it’s a ferry from Italy to Croatia, it’s an American Customs Declaration queue, but it’s always a line in the sand, chalked onto the ground by people in an effort to transform geography into something we can control, an artificial boundary that says this space isn’t like that other space because if we aren’t us and them then what can we possibly be?

Many of these stories are funny, because Phillips is funny, and because the terror of being held and questioned and yelled at in a language that is not your own is very funny once you are safe at home. And many of these stories are tinged with sadness, with the stupidity of humanity, with the foolish destruction our obsession with separation has caused. And many of these stories are both. When Phillips describes the town of Mostar, Bosnia, a town that has segregated it’s Christians and it’s Muslims and now the church bells war with the Islamic call to pray, creating an aural wall separating the two parts of the city, you can’t help but chuckle at the imagery even as you wince at the implication. When he acts out being stuck in a town in Croatia or illegally entering Cuba we laugh both from the comedy and from the discomfort, the very real conflicts permeating these nations are drawn into harsh relief by the simple act of observation. And then we have the more difficult stories, the tale of Mohammed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit seller whose self-immolation in protest of his government’s refusal to return the scales he used to weigh his fruit and, therefore, support himself, ignited a country into action and crossed the ultimate borders between self and collective, between inaction and action, and between life and death. Compare this story to Phillips account of being asked “si eres Taliban” by the Colombian customs inspectors because of his Moroccan slippers or the sexy Israeli border guards at crossings 5 and 6, and we feel a pinch of disunity. All of these stories are excellently told and worth hearing, but they aren’t all getting to the same point. Yes, we can play fast and loose with the Brazilian, Colombian and Peruvian borders as they shift with the Amazon’s currents, yes we can cross from Holland to France and, strip searches aside, make it to our destinations. But not everyone can. Not everyone gets to cross all the borders, which is what makes the last story, which chronicles both Phillips trip to Mexico and a Mexican attempt to ford the Rio Grande and escape into the hostile bosom of the land of the free all the more poignant. And while Phillips imagined scenario in which a Texan border guard watches the “extraterrestre” run into the night, realizing “the pointlessness of all of this” is the reality we wish existed, the reality we live in includes Arizona Senate Bill 1070, it includes the Russian Chechnyan conflict, the persecution of Turks in Holland, and a thousand other border disputes and land wars. So while we would like to relax and enjoy Phillips phenomenal performance like we would a good wine, the truth is we are left bitter in the mouth, and rightfully so. He is uncovering the faulty foundations at the heart of many of our existences, the idea that we are rooted, that borders don’t shift or are immutable and impermeable, these are obvious lies. As Salman Rushdie wrote in his novel Shame:

So roots, I sometimes think, are a conservative myth, designed to keep us in our places. The anti-myths of gravity and of belonging bear the same name: flight. Migration,n., moving, for instance in flight, from one place to another. To fly and to flee, both are ways of seeking freedom….an odd thing about gravity, incidentally, is that while it remains uncomprehended everybody seems to find it easy to comprehend the notion of its theoretical counter force, anti-gravity….

Thaddeus Phillips’ 17 Border Crossings has finished it’s run, but if we are lucky he will do it again, soon. Or you can see Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental this coming Live Arts/Philadelphia Fringe festival as they premier their work WHaLE OPTICS.

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