When The Performance Collective presents its new play, Eating Animals, at UNC-Chapel Hill this week, it promises to be more than just a spectacle—though with a simulated fecal lagoon, sexy meat-lust dancing, kindergarten-style story times with rather macabre subjects, and cannibalism, or threats of cannibalism, there promises to be plenty of spectacle. Due to an eyebrow-raising choice by students at UNC and Duke this past spring, however, it's also the continuation of a conversation.
Tony Perucci, assistant professor of communication studies at UNC, directs the play, which is based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer. After securing permission from Foer's agent, he adapted it for the stage with the other members of the collective, many of whom are current UNC students and recent graduates.
He remembers confronting the issue of eating meat when he was their age.
"I had a sneaking suspicion since I was in my late teens that there was something deeply wrong about it, and that the way I was dealing with that moral wrong was by not thinking about it. And I think that's one of the ways that most of us who are not vegetarian face the question about how our meat's produced."
He adds, however, "It's one thing to say you're not willing to address the question of eating animals in 1980. It's a different thing to say that in 2011, when almost all the meat you get at a supermarket comes from tortured animals."
Despite this knowledge, Perucci remains a steadfast omnivore—"I'm a foodie, I love to cook, I love to eat at great restaurants," he says.
Most members of the collective are omnivores, too—"although our numbers are dwindling," says Victoria Facelli, a 2010 graduate of the performance studies program. "I mean, in terms of carnivorousness, not volume." ("Because we ate each other," says Perucci with a laugh.)
Despite their different eating habits, it didn't take long for the collective to settle on Eating Animals as its next project. Rachel Lewallen, an energetic junior majoring in performance studies, jumped at the chance. As a vegetarian she feels passionate about the subject, and as a member of the troupe, "It's an opportunity to show everyone on campus what we do, and have automatic interest in it because everyone has read this book," she says.
That's because a committee of students from both Duke and UNC picked it as this past summer's reading for incoming freshmen at both campuses. Though most of the students on the committee are meat-eaters, they reached a consensus that the book raised vital questions for our times.
Indeed, what was once considered largely a matter of personal preference has become much more political in a generation's time. By now, most educated people are familiar with the horrors of factory farming, but despite Americans' nearly universal disapproval of animal torture, conditions have probably gotten worse since the last time you read about them (Foer's book is a chilling firsthand update). Not to mention the damage caused by the farms' industrial-scale pollution. As well, we have a much better understanding today of nonhuman intelligence and of the role meat production plays in habitat destruction and greenhouse gas emissions than we did 20 years ago.
At the same time, what we eat remains an intensely personal subject. Foer was spurred to write Eating Animals by impending fatherhood, when he began to think seriously about the moral dimensions of his own diet and of the meals he and his wife would feed their children. One of the strengths of Foer's approach is that he aims to build consensus, arguing in the book (and in a lecture on Duke's campus in August) that vegetarianism needs to get beyond all-or-nothing standards of purity in order to gain traction in the mainstream.
"It's a well-structured argument, and part of that argument is to be very reasonable," said Perucci. "But I also think his position is pretty clearly stated in the book, which is that the only ethical position is to be vegetarian."
Perucci learned of the summer reading selection of Eating Animals in an email to UNC faculty last spring, and he knew it would fit his collective's mission.
"All of our work has been very overtly engaged in political concerns," he says, including last year's production of The Activist, adapted from a novella of the same name. It dealt with a group of activists who may or may not have blown up a bridge, and was called out by the Independent for numerous year-end awards.
Rather than attempting to fit Foer's nonfiction into a single conventional story arc, like, for example, the feature film based on Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, the collective will incorporate movement, dance and multimedia into a more diverse production that still derives some two-thirds of its text from the book, according to Perucci.
And despite the group's political engagement and the inherently depressing topic, Perucci insists that their first loyalty is to art.
"As much as this show intends to be a critical reflection on how we engage with daily practices," says Perucci, "it's also intended to be abundantly silly and absurd. And beautiful.
"Our goal is not to persuade, precisely—it's to confront," he says. "At least have a position that's based on your own critical reflection. I believe, along with James Baldwin, that the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that answers too easily obscure ... But ultimately, the thing is that people don't even ask the question."