Imagine this: It’s Wednesday, Nov. 9th. Trump has just won the 2016 presidential election, and the results are not what you expected. So, like you’ve been planning for the past few weeks — regardless of the election’s outcome — you buy a ticket and get on a cross-country bound Amtrak to gain perspective. You leave your phone at home.
The news you receive during these weeks of travel comes only from the individuals you interact with on trains, occurring mostly during meal times in dining cars. As a single rider, you are, for each meal, randomly placed at the next available spot at the next available table. You don’t know anyone else aboard the train.
Conversations ensue and relationships begin, with stories of lifetime hardships and beauty and reasons for traveling at the center of dialogue over vegetable medley and black coffee. You internalize these conversations — you study them, and you try to understand each person’s views and experiences and truths. And then, you write songs about them.
For Gabriel Kahane, this experience was reality. For two weeks, Kahane set out to see the U.S. in one of its most raw and historically rich forms and to speak with individuals he met along the way who both agreed and disagreed with his political beliefs — without (most of the time, anyway) explicitly mentioning his stance. He took these strangers’ words and turned them into poetry, turned them into a kind of literature not often seen and not often braved: performance.
In his piece, “8980 Book of Travelers,” Kahane recounts his cross-country journey — all 8,980 miles of it — through song, which he performed at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre last Friday. His singer-songwriter roots show through in this 65 minute performance, but the show is not simply a concert. Kahane assumes the role of a storyteller, describing the stories of those he met from first person perspective. As he sings, three large screens display moving video footage of America. The clips create an effect that makes it seem as though the audience is looking out the window of a moving train.
While relatively short, “Book of Travelers” evokes a wide range of emotions. Kahane is funny, with a dry sense of humor that speaks to his quiet brilliance. Following the opening song — almost an overture, if you will — the show began with Kahane breaking the fourth wall, commenting on the current “summer weather” we’re having here in Ann Arbor. The audience was quick to respond with ringing laughter, establishing a presence and energy that significantly added to the overall experience. He then segued into his first song, a piece that narrated the experience he had with a decently elderly widow who was taking a stab at online dating on match.com. His lyrics, quick and witty, painted his conversation with this woman completely, while still leaving much to audience interpretation and imagination.
The piece then progresses into heavier, more intense songs that seamlessly and expertly shifted the mood from light to serious, depicting instances that included aspects of life and death, hope and cynicism and even Kahane’s personal experience with religious discrimination (and how it was overcome). About two thirds of the way through the piece, as a sort of climax, Kahane stands up from his home base at the piano, and as a break from his overarching acoustic atmosphere, begins incorporating electronic music. With a minimalistic drum beat in the background, he loops his voice and records over himself, harmonizing a major triad. The recording repeats as he sings over it, the sound resembling a prayer. He stands in the center of the stage and chants: “I am in love with America. I am betrayed by America. I am dismayed by America.” He uses a filter to distort his voice, making this section of the piece particularly distinct from the rest, as if to make these three sentences the overarching theme of the entire performance. It is cathartic.
What the piece never does, however, is blatantly mention anything political. It is not meant to divide, or preach or convince. It is meant to spread empathy and to subtly implore the importance of understanding people. It is meant to show that one must try to separate the person from their ideology.
The show is about people. It is about human nature and human experience and human connection. It is easy to forget, in times of stark divide and intense political climate, that what people want most is to be understood and received. But this show helps us remember. Perhaps if we all took a phoneless, two-week, cross-country train journey through America, we would be more inclined to take the time to understand those who, on the surface, may seem different from us. But, if we are unable to take that trip right now, watching this show is a good step in that direction.