What does Anthony Bourdain have to do with children’s theatre? Most people would say nothing, but this theatre artist would say EVERYTHING. Like most people, I only knew Anthony Bourdain from his TV shows. And like most folks, I loved the way he looked at the world, not through rose-colored glasses, but in a real and honest way, soup to nuts. He connected the food to the place, and that meant examining the good, the bad, and the ugly of those places he explored. That led him to look at the things that no other food show or travel show would ever dare to examine. Bourdain dared to include the underbelly of each place, but in an analytical way, without judgment. He trusted that we could handle it, and so he took us through the red-light district. He wasn’t talking about food in this neighborhood either, he was showing the real place, unvarnished and true.
Bourdain’s truth was his currency. Theatre also relies on truth. For my theatre’s touring production of Walking the Tightrope, our set designer created a beautiful wooden ocean pier. I insisted on adding bird poop to the pier. It became a running joke among the crew because I was so fixated on making sure that the set was covered with bird poop. I was proud of that added detail because most TYA (Theatre for Young Audiences) would never want to show that icky, even if realistic, aspect of a pier. Who wants a poopy pier, right? We do. It was an important detail if we were really trying to show the underbelly of that lovely English seafront, like Bourdain would’ve done. Without the underbelly, it’d be just another kid’s show. The kids in the audience are smart enough to recognize that there is indeed bird poop on the pier, like there is on every pier everywhere. It set the tone firmly in reality.
I related to Bourdain because he was the bad boy of food shows and I see 24th STreet Theatre as the bad boy of children’s theatre. Our work doesn’t look like what most people think of as children’s theatre. We try to push the boundaries of the TYA genre in the same way Bourdain pushed the boundaries of food and travel show genres. And that is risky stuff, especially these days, when daring to cross a line might offend someone which could go viral and send your entire world collapsing in on you. Now is not the time to be a line-crosser like Richard Pryor or George Carlin, who pushed and pushed and pushed. But Bourdain pushed in this viral time and not only got away with it, he was loved for it.
Bourdain was a modern-day humanistic explorer. Unlike Columbus or Lewis & Clark, he was an explorer who truly came in peace. He came not to take, but to give, to learn, to understand, to empathize, to honor the people in that place, whether it was a waffle house or some back alley restaurant halfway around the world. He worked hard to understand the alchemy of each culture he featured. He was full of curiosity. He was also a man of great empathy, that fleeting emotion that so many of us today are trying to recapture, that feeling of caring about the world that has been shredded over the last couple of years by our leaders. Bourdain cared. That’s why we’re so upset by his loss. The world lost a voice of inspiration in Bourdain. There aren’t many prominent voices left that we can trust in this tribal time. Even fewer still who trust us enough to give us real information without fear that we’ll change the channel.
I think if Anthony Bourdain were to do a show about heaven it’d be in-line with 24th STreet’s TYA version. It wouldn’t have the puffy white clouds or golden gates, but instead it’d look like a generic foreign city, both grungy and inviting at the same time. And there’d be no white robes, Bourdain would be wearing an old sweaty black t-shirt and jeans. The music wouldn’t be harps or even classical, but rock and roll. The food would not be grapes on a silver tray. You’d eat whatever it is with chopsticks, and a beer. Everybody would be dancing in the streets and having fun. And if it were really heaven, Bourdain’s insights would echo down those streets forever.