What Would You Save? Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity

From the playbill…

Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity is set during a war that has lasted one hundred years and devastated the entire world. Yet, three women from opposite ends of the conflict still manage to find common threads of humanity through the majesty of a painting. The idea that a beautiful work of art could transcend what seem to be insurmountable boundaries seems like it could have been ripped from today’s headlines and leaves the mind swirling long after the show has ended.

Despite its long title, this play was meant for me.

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In nine words, the title captures not only the imperatives of oral and intangible history of telling untold stories, but also with the final word — humanity— a dose of reality about what is at stake. I’ve written about my feelings about dystopian narratives, especially as they force us to take stock of the world while acknowledging its fragility.

The title Masterpieces comes from a 2001 UNESCO proclamation which underscored the importance of those cultural traditions not tied to the physical or material. This includes art forms like language, literature, music, dance, games and sports, culinary traditions, rituals, mythologies, handicrafts, and cultural spaces. Oral and intangible heritage is essential to preserving and protecting not just the history but also the traditions and practice that make up a people. This pronouncement also evolved to include a call to protect that heritage which is lost to war and strife.

The show began in Signature Theatre’s intimate and almost claustrophobic small box theatre, with noises of bombing and destruction filtered in over our heads. In those early moments Layla, an art conservator, (played by the remarkable Holly Twyford) looked out into the audience, and asked a single question: in the event of a global disaster, or even a fire at your own home, what would you save?

While the stakes were not really high, I will admit that I froze when asked to respond using the provided pencil and paper. There is much, so much, that I find important to the world, especially when, as Layla reminded us, this could include masterpieces connected to personal memory.

My instinct was to not be selfish. What do we need to protect for humanity? I knew that while this was an exercise in a theatre in the affluent neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia that somewhere in the world this was a real conversation. Where elements of culture were being destroyed as a way of wiping out entire people’s identity. With that in mind it became important, in the two allotted minutes for this exercise, for me to write something meaningful.

As we passed down the small folded sheets of paper, symbolically holding all of the room’s cultural valuables, they became a part of the play before us. At times these notes floated down from the ceiling, where they were swept up or walked on (until the end when some were read). They served as a way to remind us of how easily pieces of our histories can be lost. They are simply ephemeral fragments of our identity – destroyed and ignored in the face of broader needs.

When the play yanked us back in time it re-centers on the museum as a prison. Now, unlike the quiet lecture that started the show, we see the violence of the wars, where Layla finds herself a prisoner of Mitra (one of the rebels), and with Nadia, who has been mistaken as a nurse. The rebels want Layla to practice her craft. They want her to conserve and protect a beautiful painting by Rembrandt.

I won’t spoil the details, but what ensued was hard to watch, as we were not removed very far from the physical and mental anger permeating the space. It is a testament to Felicia Curry and Yesenia Iglesias ability that we felt the raw pain from all involved. But in the conversation about protecting the heritage in the museum turned prison, I sensed threads of connection. A connection where, even with the continuing existence of warfare — of prejudice and hate—these three women could still talk about what needs to be saved.

That is, what needs to be saved for after, because — they all hope — there will be an after.

There is much more in the show that I’m not touching upon, but perhaps it is best encapsulated by something Nadia says as she binds Layla’s wounds. She described how her murdered brother – who sought to end the war by way of “introduction” (if everyone knew each other by name they would not destroy each other) – often stated

we can talk and talk of horror upon horror in this world,

there is so much of it,

that’s not even a question.

The question is

why is there still so much beauty?

Masterpieces reminds us that we are human. That art, literature, theatre, language, and more make up a part of our identities. They show us complexity where buildings and structures are challenged to translate on their own.

It tells us that we have something, always, to fight for.

As for what I would save? I chose my mother’s Indian folk-dance costumes. On one hand these clothes tell the world about my mother, and my childhood. Yet it also touches upon my broader heritage and the role dance played in expressing stories and mythologies of my Indian culture. In the time we were given I tried to think as a historian, putting each layer of meaning, one upon the other in circles, bringing art and soul together.

Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity is playing at Signature Theatre, in Arlington Virginia through April 7.

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