Evan Johnson’s ‘Don’t Feel: The Death of Dahmer’
“In 1994, a few days after Thanksgiving, Jeffrey Dahmer died almost instantly as a fellow inmate who called himself ‘Christ’ battered his brains out with an iron bar.”
A blunt statement that, like the iron bar, does the job—flickering like old video feed against the back wall of the stage, quickly and gruesomely setting the scene, recalling those who still recognize the name Jeffrey Dahmer to the pathetic end of one of America’s most notorious serial killers.
And there he sits below it, near the back of the stage, at the edge of a mattress on the floor, facing off at an angle, contemplative in a slightly nervous stillness as the audience settles itself.
Already his corporate coif and glasses, his black socks and loafers look amiss at either end of his institutional orange jumpsuit. Already an anomaly confronts us: a handsome young middle-class white man behind bars, a fine young cannibal. And already the question comes back: Why should this be so strange?
When he finally stands and approaches the audience, Dahmer (powerfully inhabited by Evan Johnson in a fine-tuned and committed performance) seems a little high-strung maybe but personable and defenseless, and every bit alive. Only a coagulating patch of blood on his forehead signals the posthumous nature of the overture he is making in our direction.
That overture is far more complex, unsettling and provocative than you might expect. Unless, that is, you had seen the original production of this beautifully written and well designed solo play back in 2010, when it premiered at Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory, the late Dwayne Calizo’s much-missed incubator for so much offbeat, off-white queer performance.
“Don’t Feel: The Death of Dahmer” makes no excuses for Dahmer, nor locates simple answers in his dysfunctional family (also portrayed in careful and penetrating snapshots by Johnson) let alone Dahmer’s repressed homosexual desires. Dahmer’s easy ability to prey on young men of color as a responsible-looking white man, meanwhile—underscored by the grim instance of a failed attempt at escape by one victim, a scene Johnson plays out from the point of view of a bystander speaking to 911 from a payphone—adds further complexity to a social, political and psychological matrix that surrounds but never reduces the play’s subject.
In the end, Johnson’s often moving but never sentimental, at times harrowing but never gratuitous exploration is driven by urgent questions about the social construction and destruction of self—not just our personality or sexuality but the full fabric of our conscious and unconscious lives.
Experiencing the play today, Dahmer is perhaps more of a cipher than ever. 1994 was long ago, and not so long. It was the dawn of the World Wide Web, the year NAFTA came in, and the year Bill Clinton rolled out something euphemistically called welfare reform—a hatchet job disproportionately directed, once again, at poor people of color. What else… This: Edvard Munch’s The Scream stolen off the gallery wall in Oslo. (Thanks, Wikipedia! Thanks, World Wide Web! Thanks for nothing, Memory.)
I remembered “Don’t Feel” as one of the highlights of the 2010 theater season in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and in this admirable remounting (part of Z Space’s Murmuration festival of solo work) it holds up extremely well. In fact, in its particular resonances with, and contribution to the mood and moment of 2017 it almost feels brand new all over. A resurrection in so many ways.
Sharply directed this time around by Ben Randle (the piece was originally developed with Eric Wilcox), playwright and performer Johnson’s deft portrait is a waking dream of irrepressible memories, a rollback through years of profound alienation, mundane humiliations and private horrors, as if the amalgam of Dahmer’s desperate, agonized, detached and demonic life were passing before his eyes one last time.
The journey is blistered and augmented by a hauntingly atmospheric soundscape (created by Sean Malroy and retained from the original 2010 production) as well as video design (the latter a grainy mystery chest of ephemera and a brilliant addition to the piece by Zack Kasten).
“Don’t Feel” deserves a longer run beyond the short-lived Murmuration festival, which deserves thanks for helping to bring it back to life. Johnson, meanwhile, in bringing back his exploration of Dahmer, has given us a new opportunity to contemplate the nature of our own darkness, including its deeply social components, at a time when it threatens to completely overwhelm us.
“Don’t Feel: The Death of Dahmer” runs through March 12, 2017, at Z Below in San Francisco.