Review – Banksy: The Room in the Elephant – Arcola Theatre

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This play, which you might think is about the UK graffiti artist, is nothing of the sort: it’s a play about an American homeless man … and many, many other things. I’m American, and I have lived much of my life in contact with the long term homeless, apparently in part because in my childhood, the laws about keeping people in insane asylums changed, and a lot of people who weren’t entirely capable of taking care of themselves were thrown onto the streets. I thought it would be interesting to hear the story of one homeless person, told, more or less, from his point of view; Tachowa Covington had taken a water tank and made himself a home, but his sixty seconds of fame cost him the little island of sanity he’d carved out of society’s leftovers.

Or did it? Played side by side with a documentary film on Tachowa Covington, this play is about truth and lies, homelessness, making meaning out of your life, the exploitation of the truly poor by artists, the practice and ethics of changing source material to make compelling art, random impacts, what makes art, and survival. The narrative of Banksy: The Room in the Elephant is that the semi-random act of a publicity-obsessed artist cost a vulnerable man his shelter; but even within the play we have the Tachowa character pointing out the ludicrousness of a story arc, and the inevitability of there being no happy ending, or even a clear ending. Tachowa doesn’t know or care about Banksy, as most Americans don’t know or care about him (note: Americans also don’t call redheads “gingers”); his “brush with fame” in some way is just the random hand of fate drawing attention to a person who represents one of thousands.

Gary Beadle is compelling (and well-accented) as the slightly too-clean Tachowa; he takes us on a ride of highs and lows and raw emotion that capture poignantly the experience of being homeless in America. Yeah, that water tower would have been really hot in the summer, but it was dry and safe, and losing it was a tragedy; the real Tachowa (as shown in the movie) is now living in a tent.

The character Tachowa is right: people will only come see this play because they’ve heard of the artist mentioned in the title. But there’s a life – and a culture – that this play brings to life that we would have never had the opportunity to have learned about otherwise. The crushing thing I walked away from, at the very end, was that for however much Banksy fights to avoid fame, the very person he unexpectedly shone a spotlight on has had absolutely no benefit whatsoever from the attention he’s received. This show felt very real and left me feeling very sad, both for Tachowa’s losses and for the brokenness of a society that feels they have to keep hounding people like him from one place to another, without the benefit of even having a place to shave or the humanizing experience of eating with cutlery. I walked out of the show with a lot of questions. I sure hope at some point Tachowa gets some benefit from the entertainment that has been created from his suffering; but I also hope someday I can see him rollerblading down the Venice beach with mirrors glittering from every square inch of the clothes he’s carefully remade from other people’s trash.

(This review is from a preview performance that took place on Tuesday, April 1st, 2014. It continues through April 26th.)

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