Rockefeller and I
Rockefeller and I is a solo performance presented on the sidewalk in front of the theater, La MaMa, NYC. The actor is John Maria Gutierrez and he’s directed by Uwe Mengel. Both take credit for writing the script.
The script is 20 minutes long. Mr. Gutierrez repeats it twice — verbatim — to create an hour-long performance.
Mr. Gutierrez has a relaxed presence. It’s not commanding; it invites us to examine what this strange man is doing, pacing back and forth on the sidewalk along a 12-foot white line. He makes eye contact with us only occasionally, but he never leaves us by retreating into his own reverie.
“Two billion plus two billion is four billion,” he begins, and chalks “Rockefeller and I” on the wall.
He continues: “I have no problem with white people. Some of my best friends are white people.” His mother says that Jesus had blue eyes and blond hair. He tells us that he’s lucky because he has light skin. These comments are ruminations, not expressions of resentment.
He riffs on the wealthy and on his background. He repeats “I’m tired” several times, sounding like James Tyrone in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey or like George in Albee’s Virginia Woolf. It seems to be characteristically American, this weariness. But for a moment the actor is too young for us to believe him.
Sometimes Mr. Gutierrez sort of dances along his possessive white line; sometimes he sort of sings; at one point he seems to be speaking in free verse. He does a cartwheel and stands on his head and lies on the sidewalk lithely.
He recites the net financial worth of billionaires. It would take an Amazon employee four-and-a-half-million years to earn the worth of Jeff Besos — 7.2 billion dollars. “Better to be rich and healthy than poor and sick,” he tells us.
He identifies himself: “John Rafael Maria Gutierrez. 1992.” And he names the hospital where he was born. He does this without commenting on himself, as if he were curious about this tiny biography.
The script often quotes Rockefeller, ascribing the quotes to John D. Rockefeller Junior: “Let every thought be subject to profitable motives,” and “The road to hell is paved with kindness.” Good heavens! This would make Ayn Rand blush!
There seems to be some confusion, however, about to whom these aphorisms should be credited. One website (https://blog.birost.com/a?ID=00750-4cddb035-34f0-4e17-9d95-64daa8669c16) credits the second aphorism to a letter from Rockefeller Senior to his son, and both are likely properly credited to him.
Rockefeller is an American icon, a bête noire of progressives. But Messrs. Gutierrez and Mengel refer to him without rancor. Indeed, they let him speak for himsef. I was reminded of the references to J.R. in pop culture, from The Sunny Side of the Street and the blues song I will Turn your Mooney Green to Bette Midler ’s Mr. Rockefeller: “Please won’t you answer me?… Mr. Rockefeller, won’t you please pick up the phone?”
The obsessiveness of Rockefeller and I implies a futility, like Beckett’s play Play, in which characters, deceased, obsess about their relationships, talking to no one in particular. The Play script is repeated, and begins to repeat a second time.
Rockefeller and I is terrific street theater, a sort I’ve never seen before. It’s not like The Theater for the New City’s street theater — “controlled anarchy.” with a large cast on a stage. Nor is it like The Living Theater’s direct, focused street theater — in one play we shook hands with individuals in the crowd. This is a sort of natural urban phenomenon, like a public sculpture, casual and ruminative. It reflects life artistically in the way a glass building reflects the city literally — as a matter of urban course.
According to Amazon, a book was published in 2020 called John Davison Rockefeller King of Oil and the Biggest Fortune in History Estimated at 340 Billion Dollars Reveals Us [sic] the Ten Business Succes [sic] Commandments: Lessons on How to Make Money from one of the Wealthiest historical [sic] man [sic]. Author credit is given to John Davison Rockefeller and Achille Wealth Phd. The promotion tells us: “In this groundbreaking and new book, John D. Rockefeller plunges us into the heart of the ‘Ten Commandments of Business Success’ ”.
The heart of darkness, presumably.
Although the book is called “groundbreaking and new” we’re told that it’s the 10th ANNIVERSARY EDITION, REVISED, CORRECTED AND EXPANDED [capitals in original promotion]”. The book is “independently published.”
Mr. R., then, wrote the first edition book in 2010, 73 years after his death. Amazon doesn’t tell us if Achilles Wealth PhD. is still with us. There’s presumably some confusion here involving the firm Achilles Wealth Management, which has apparently been incarnated.
I had the good fortune to interview Mssrs. Gutierrez Mengel after the show:
SC: Is your earlier work like this?
JG: Somewhat, in that it has me infused within it. I think that every new piece that I make is pushing something that I’ve been working on from prior pieces or maybe things didn’t think I could do before — especially the collaboration with Uwe Mengel here, who’s known me a very long time. We’ve been trying to collaborate for about six years. A piece like this wouldn’t be possible without both of us coming together and him allowing me to push to my edges and explore some of the things that I think have been a little bit more — I’ve been a little more fearful of venturing into.
SC: Was it designed from the beginning, from the genesis, to be repeated?
UM: Yes, that was the idea — the very early idea. We didn’t know how many loops — that was the question.
It was just by accident that I found in Rockefeller Center many years ago a little piece of paper with the Ten Commandments by Rockefeller Jr. — How to Live your Life. We said “How about if we juxtapose this life and your life, where you come from, and let’s see what we come out with.” So that was the basis where we started.
SC: I’m interested in the looping. It reminded me of Beckett’s play called Play. They’re both obsessive.
JG: And so are we.
SC: Well, artists would be!
UM: One of our visitors — I cannot call them audience when you’re on the street —
SG: Oh, yes, we are an audience!
UM: — when she saw the first loop, she said “Oh, it’s kind of a parody,” but the third time, it really got to her. This is not a play that says “Oh, how bad is capitalism, how good is this,” or “Look at my poor life.” Instead, it gives you snippets. You hear it again and again and again, and you start building your own play.
JG: It starts to chip away at something I think.
SC: Yes, yes. However, this obsessiveness — and I think this is what Beckett was talking about — seems futile. Is that what you had in mind?
UM: It is true, in a certain way, yeah. I mean, look at the world we live in. Is there any hope? We don’t want to give answers. That was our idea. We don’t want to give answers.
SC: As a matter of mechanics, how many of your audience stay for all three loops?
JG: At least a third. Some of them have been just people off the street who stumble by and then stay. Some people have come back — we’ll engage with them and give them a small program and they’ll return the next day.
SC: I’m so glad you’re doing street theater. I used to work with Judith Malina (and The Living Theater). And of course we did a lot of street theater — but who’s doing it now?
UM: As for street theater, you have to do it very differently than Judith Malina did. Theater was very different then. We have different times, now. Street theater — that’s why we have it so small. There’s not a lot of props whatever.
JG: We wanted to do as little theater as possible in some ways.
UM: So that people can just walk by and not even recognize it. That’s what I’m more interested in.
SC: And you think that’s a sign of the times?
UM: Yeah. Look at Bread and Puppet (Bread and Puppet Theater) When you see Bread and Puppet today you would say it’s too easy. It’s so clear.
Rockefeller and I
By John Maria Gutierrez and Use Mengel
Directed by Uwe Mengel
With John Maria Gutierrez
Presented by La MaMa
May 25th, 27th and 28th, 2022
- Steve Capra
Review / Interview