Harambe’s memory lives on in Cincinnati, now on stage.
Cincinnati, Ohio – Five years ago last May, a male silverback gorilla named Harambe died at the Cincinnati Zoo. A child fell into Harambe’s enclosure and the gorilla began to brutalize the little boy in a way threatening enough to appear to endanger the safety of the human. Zoo workers decided to shoot the gorilla out of fear that the human child would be injured or, worse yet, killed.
One would have thought that would have been the end, but Harambe’s death sparked a nationwide uproar and inspired a whole subgenre of trolling – but ultimately mostly sympathetic (gorilla) – memes. Five years later, the memory of the event has lingered, becoming a strangely indelible part of Cincinnati’s cultural fabric. Indeed, it is possible that some people know the queen city only because of the gorilla.
This lingering memory of the famous Cincinnati gorilla inspired a play at this year’s Cincinnati Fringe Festival. A “14-day celebration of theater, art, music, film, dance and everything in between” hosted by Know Theater in Cincinnati from June 4-19, Cincy Fringe presents theatrical productions every year “A bit odd” (their description) in the city center. I caught an outdoor showing of Harambe June 17. With limited resources and a surprisingly simple package, Harambe featured an entertaining and thoughtful exploration of the Harambe “mythology” that has emerged in Cincinnati (and elsewhere) since the gorilla’s death. But the production ultimately left me wondering if the incident was significant enough to warrant such a critical reexamination.
Harambe is not simply a re-enactment of the events that led to the gorilla’s death.
Writer / director / producer Joshua Steele, whose work “places particular emphasis on fascinating moments in Cincinnati history,” has something more sophisticated in mind. Working with a small dark scene with a wall behind, only six actors and a few speakers, Steele turns Harambe’s incident into something of a science fiction parable. As the show was described in its Cincy Fringe list: “Cincinnati shocked the planet in 2016 with the tragic death of a rare gorilla. With knowledge of the future and countless possibilities for intervention, could the result have changed? “Memento” meets “Rashomon” in an exploration of the nature of facts, expertise and shared morality in the era of “fake news”.
We open on the strangely calm and majestic figure of “Blaine Brainerd” (Randy Lee Bailey), who announces himself as the director of the Cincinnati zoo (the real name of the director of the zoo: Thane Maynard). Brainerd provides a short but authoritative description of gorillas, noting that many of their interactions with humans “end in disaster.” Then follows a mostly simple reconstruction of Harambe’s death: a small (invisible) child falls into the enclosure, people watch, a gunshot is heard. But one of the characters, Stan (Chris Stewart), already feels a bit out of place. And so do we, the public. As the familiar re-enactment (for Cincinnatians) comes to an end, a noise resembling the power-off tone of a Mac computer is heard, all characters bow their heads and release their arms, and then the events begin again.
As things repeat themselves (with the zoo director introducing each new repetition with a new name and monologue, both usually tied to previous or subsequent events), Stan realizes he’s trapped in a simulation – or rather, a prison simulation, described as a “zoo” in its own right. He learns from another inmate (Catherine Ross), trapped in her own prison, that they are all there for some sort of punishment related to a wrong they have done in the real world. Think of it as a sort of digital contrapasso, the term for the ironic punishments inflicted on the inhabitants of Hell in Dante’s book. Hell who are related to their earthly sins in a dark and intelligent way. Stan becomes convinced that his way out of this repetitive hell is to change the outcome of Harambe’s death. So the main drama of the play is whether Stan will succeed – but also to find out what exactly he did to deserve to watch Harambe’s death over and over again as punishment.
In a situation familiar to those familiar with the conventions of time travel and groundhog day–Like the scenarios, Stan is unable to significantly modify the events of the day; no matter what he does, it appears the gorilla dies (although his actions induce subtle changes to the reality around him in subsequent rehearsals, such as the return of the Cincinnati name to its original Losantiville title). But determinism and fate versus free will are not the main thrusts of the play. Because in addition to questions of Stan’s success and Stan’s guilt, Harambe also revives the questions endlessly asked in the aftermath of the gorilla’s death: if he were to die, why would a tranquilizer not have been used, what was the mother doing, etc. The director calmly asserts in the face of such questioning that “we must always value human life rather than animals”, while Stan wonders if it is rather true that “all life has the same value. “.
So, does Stan manage to save the gorilla? Viewers remain uncertain. In one of the final scenes, Stan decides to take matters into his own hands. So far, each time Harambe’s death is staged, the actors have watched her staring at the black stage wall, their backs to us. But this time, all of the cast, except the one playing Stan, stare at the audience as Stan jumps into the compound. We then hear a gunshot and move on to the real world, where Stan is brain dead. Two doctors who take care of him reveal the origin of his punishment: in real life, he killed a larger dog which had attacked and which was probably supposed to kill the smaller dog he owned and was walking.
This conclusion raises all kinds of questions that I was not sure Harambe, up to this point, very interesting, taken care of. The real world in Harambe is supposed to take place in the future; what type of criminal justice system would impose such a sentence? What is Stan supposed to have learned from his failure to prevent Harambe’s death? That he should have let his dog die? That human and animal life are the same, or are they not? Whether the zoo did the same as him, or not? That their two actions were justified, that one was and the other was not, or that neither was? I left the play uncertain, in large part, because my reading of Harambe’s situation is the most obvious: The Zoo, in an unfortunate situation, had acted correctly; his detractors had and remain in error. Perhaps there is more to dig philosophically for those less sure of the incident than I am, but the play itself hasn’t made me more supportive of the ambiguity of the situation. If anything, I let him approve of what the zoo had done over and over.
So, in this, Harambe isn’t perfect, even if his intention was just to keep the discussion going. But that Steele was nonetheless able to use the Harambe incident to create some sort of skinning Black mirror The episode is a testament to his creativity within the constraints of a low-budget production – and the lasting memory of the Harambe incident in Cincinnati. Remember, folks: there is more to Cincinnati than a gorilla.