Go Deeper

Identities, All Wrapped Up: Jane Goodall and Marcel Williams Foster

Posted September 15th, 2010

“I heard Gombe National Park has more snakes per square meter than anywhere in the world.” Marcel Williams Foster says, “I felt this bite on the back of my neck. There’s blood, and I look down, and this black mamba”—the most poisonous snake in the world—slithers away. I wrote a letter to my mom in my data notebook.”

After graduating with a BFA from the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater program, Marcel was fixed on moving to San Francisco. But—also trained as a primatologist, he won a scholarship to go to Tanzania, where he divided a year between performing and doing research at the Jane Goodall Institute.

“I have mixed feelings about Jane Goodall,” Marcel says. “When I met her, she was so passionate and interested in the research I was doing. She was very humble. When I told her it was an honor to meet her, she said, ‘It’s an honor to meet you.”

“I respect her intentions to understand animal behaviour, but there are a lot of problems with how the research began.”

Marcel worked in Gombe for six months, and published research under the Institute. Still, he was nagged by the colonial implications of the research.

“Why was the world so excited by this white woman in the 1960s?” Marcel asks.

How to investigate? Through drag. Marcel stars as Jane in Hyphen-Nation Arts’s production The Jane Goodall: Experience, which opens tonight and runs through Saturday at the 2010 Philly Fringe.

Why drag? Why Jane? Find out after the jump!

“We wanted to avoid what I call ‘soapbox theater.’ Drag is good to address complicated issues. You’re immediately questioning your narrator,” Marcel says, because of the discrepancy between the sex of the performer and the gender that is performed.

“I begin parodizing Jane as she is now, which is Jane speaking—about Gombe, participation, world peace,” Marcel says. “I pant-hoot, introducing Jane. Jane starts talking about my life, her life, and how similar they are. As the show progresses, differences come into relief, in my experiences as a gay man [today], in hers as a straight British woman.”

“As the play progresses, [director/performer] Britney [Hines] and [performer] Lindsay [Anderson] bring up the conflict. Jane claims that Marcel is her protege, Britney and Lindsay force the realization that they’re different. They take off the costume, revealing Marcel at the end.”

The collaborative nature of the show came out of the Headlong Performance Institute, where Marcel and Britney met.

“For Britney, the heat of the show was that a protege of Jane wanted to parody her in drag. Why? When I did HPI, I was struck by Britney. When you’re working on things collaboratively, she’s good at taking different materials and colliding them. Lindsay Anderson is a really talented poet and puppeteer. She wrote a song on Jane, and the show starts with it. I think of her as the up-and-coming Dr. Seuss.”

Despite the parody, Marcel’s connection to Jane Goodall, and to primatology, runs deep—and is, in fact, fundamental to both the show and to Marcel’s career.

“I feel like I wouldn’t be able to credibly imitate Jane Goodall unless I had published several articles out of the Jane Goodall Institute,” Marcel says.

Marcel’s research focused on different aspects of dominance, looing at how the alpha personalities “rule” as bullies, with high rates of aggression and low rates of grooming. Theater and primatology come together for Marcel through famed drama theorist Richard Schechner, who asked how humans evolved to perform.

“Chimps will do these five-minute long displays in response to rain and waterfalls,” Marcel says, and another aspect of Marcel’s research studied these water displays.

“They typically display for aggressive reasons—to show status, to impress or intimidate other mating males. It’s clear why they do it except when they see a waterfall. Normal displays are 30 seconds but a waterfall display is five minutes!”

Marcel has a data set about these displays, and his goal is to submit that to the Drama Review and revisit Schechner’s ideas.

Oh, and that bite, by the way? Not from a black mamba, as Marcel’s still with us, after all. But the mamba’s not the only dangerous thing in the park.

“There was this sociopath chimp that would get these huge jagged rocks. Often, they’ll throw rocks when they’re excited. Sociopaths don’t have to have an adrenaline rush to kill.”

According to Marcel, chimps will bristle when they have such a rush. But Titan, the chimp in question, would throw these jagged rocks at Marcel, with his bristles totally down.

“It got to the point where I had to grab a stick to get him to relax.”

Will Jane grab a stick to get you to relax? Find out tonight. The Jane Goodall: Experience runs tonight through September 18 at 2nd Stage at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, Rittenhouse Square. 7:00 pm each night, plus a 3:00 pm matinee on Saturday. For details and tickets, click here.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Photo by Libby Cady.