Voices from Black Canyon: A Hoover Dam Kaleidoscope

“Voices from Black Canyon: A Hoover Dam Kaleidoscope” is an avant-garde, experimental play depicting the horrid conditions under which the Hoover Dam was built during the Great Depression.

The BYU production, directed by Rodger Sorensen, plays its experimental nature to the hilt, with an ensemble cast delivering a highly stylized, presentational method of acting. Oh, and the whole thing is simultaneously performed in English and American Sign Language, too. (Why not?)

Surely there are interesting stories to tell about the men and their families behind the building of the dam, many of whom died during the process. But this play chooses not to tell them, instead focusing on the abstract and general: “You lie on your back, you can still hear the tunnel, you can smell the latrine,” says one nameless character, directly to the audience (namelessness and speaking directly to the audience are the play’s modus operandi). The image is effective, but rather than drawing us into the life of any particular worker, it makes it clear that this was how it was for everyone (“you”).

And so there is very little plot, except for this: The working conditions are ridiculously inhuman, with most of the workers and their families living in tents without running water, enduring blistering heat. The boss is more interested in building the dam in a hurry than in coddling his workers. If they quit, there are huge unemployment lines full of willing replacements.

So there’s an ineffectual strike that lasts six days. There’s also, curiously enough, a subplot about a brothel in which a doctor is allegedly giving the prostitutes placebos instead of the real medication they need for their venereal diseases. This helps establish the squalid lifestyle of the dam builders, if we needed more reassurance of it.

And that’s just the thing: We don’t need any more evidence that building the Hoover Dam was a dreadful experience. The program notes explain in detail what went on during that period, and the play doesn’t tell us anything more, making either the program or the play superfluous. The focus shouldn’t be how awful things were, and yet it is. There is precious little attention to individual stories, the human dramas that would make the play compelling. We are TOLD about the deaths of many people, but only one or two whom we are actually acquainted with (and even then, only superficially).

The play is often poetic, even lyrical, and there is often much beauty in its language. And while the show is unquestionably unusual, it does not come off as pretentious or weird-just-to-be-weird. The hard-working cast seems earnest about what they’re doing, and certainly deserves credit for that. Watching the play, though, is more of an academic endeavor than an enjoyable or thought-provoking night out at the theater.

This review was edited quite badly in publication, with the next-to-last paragraph being removed (except for the word "superficially," which mysteriously remained, floating there in space, not part of any sentence).

This was the the topper in a BYU season of plays that practically dared you to like them. From the erudite and difficult "School for Scandal" to the intentionally actionless "Cherry Orchard" to this one, the season was punctuated with unusual choices. Some of them, like "Children of Eden," were popular successes; others, like "Voices from Black Canyon," were so unorthodox that you really can't blame audiences for not showing up. You have to give BYU credit, though, for not just doing the same old stuff all the time.

Jet-lagged, I dozed off for a moment during this play, which was highly embarrassing. To add to my embarrassment, a year later at the annual theater department banquet, someone performed a song telling the whole story of my falling asleep. I wasn't there, but heard about it later, and it seemed quite funny. It was all done in the spirit of good humor, I believe, though one can never be sure.