When Alison S.M. Kobayashi, a Canadian artist, acquired an old wire recorder with two spools of material, she became obsessed. The sometimes distorted or incoherent cacophony of voices seemed to come from a couple of gatherings of the same family, but who were they? The recorder came to her third or fourth hand from an estate sale, and there was nothing to go on but what she could hear listening back. And so she did listen back—hundreds of times, unspooling seconds of background noise into narrative, and doing exhaustive research as she pieced together who the voices of these people might be.
The result is Say Something Bunny!, one of the hottest new indie theater works in New York, recently moving to a new location beneath the High Line. Somewhere between a one-woman multimedia play and a “live documentary,” Kobayashi takes her deliberately intimate audience on a journey through the wires (the first recording is Act 1; the second is Act 2), and what she found when she began to find answers to her questions on who these people were.
When I say that I mostly want to avoid “spoiling” the results, it’s not that the characters in the play wind up rich and famous, but the anticipation of finding out what Kobayashi has come to learn is palpable; the play really is about the journey. But a few details it’s safe to know: The family is Jewish, American, and recordings date to the early 1950s in New York.
Kobayashi shares this story through often experimental means—she occasionally sings, puts on a costume, projects photos and original animations, distributes relevant props (including Fred Kogos’s Dictionary of Yiddish Slang). Furthermore, each audience member is assigned a character heard on the recording to “portray,” and all audience members follow along with the recordings with a transcript in front of them. Kobayashi reassures you several times that you won’t have to speak or perform in any way, but having one character to keep a close eye on makes the connection to the material that much stronger. As Kobayashi draws out the narrative of an American family in the mid-twentieth century, it’s only natural to think of where your family was, and how you might fit into this narrative.
For example, when Kobayashi announced that she figured out the exact original location of the first recording—Woodmere, Long Island—I gave my husband a knowing look. Will I never escape the Five Towns, the suburban Jewish enclave where I was raised? Kobayashi continued, sharing the address, and it seemed familiar. And as Act 1 drew to a close, she revealed that one of the main characters survived a horrific car accident during the time between the two recordings. During intermission, I immediately opened Maps on my phone.
When I was 11 years old, I was run over by a car in front of a friend’s house close to my childhood home (I’m fine now, thanks). I checked the exact location of my accident, and it was right around the corner from where the Act 1 recording had taken place—fewer than 500 feet away.
I don’t bring this up to indulge in stories of my own troubled history with moving vehicles, but because it felt so natural to make this connection. Say Something Bunny! is in part about coincidences, about how the deeper you dig, the more commonalities pop up in this American story (for example: Kobayashi is particularly excited by the reoccurrence of Liza Minnelli in this narrative). One of the protagonists of this story is in a car accident while his family is still living near where I had my own. I also love Liza Minnelli. Everything is connected.
The family (and their friends) at the center of this recording are fascinating as Jews in the middle of the process of assimilating. Everyone is Jewish, but also American-born. They say “mazel tov,” but talk about Easter visits and Christmas presents. They sell garment trimmings, or they work for unions. The children go to college, become interested in intellectualism, or the arts, or sports. If it weren’t non-fiction, it would almost be too tidy, feeling like archetypes, Tevye’s family decades later.
Luckily, these characters, that is, real people, are too colorful to be a contemporary take on an Arthur Miller milieu. As Kobayashi learns and shares, various characters become ill, or have romances, begin surprising careers, have surprising run-ins with less-than-savory artistic work (once again, no spoilers). It’s almost exhausting connecting so strongly to the people in the wires, both for their place in the American-Jewish narrative, and how they transcend it. Bless Kobayashi for having the energy to go though this journey multiple times a week.
And she’ll do it more, too—just this week, she announced that Say Something Bunny! has extended through January—which is lucky for interested audiences, since remaining performances were all but sold-out. Say Something Bunny! runs on 511 W. 20th Street (second floor), now through January 28.