The Jammer's the Thing

The artistic scope of fin de siecle roller derby makes Beckett's drama seem transparent

To properly critique the latest performance by the American Roller Derby League — that is, to review it with the intellectual rigor professional theater demands — one must consult the New York Times, which in 1956 stole (and mangled) a line from Winston Churchill and used it to refer to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot as “a mystery wrapped in an enigma.”

And then, one must toss the Times aside. Roller derby of the 1990s is far more disturbing and inexplicable than anything Churchill ever faced.

Theatrical productions in the roller derby genre apparently date back to the 1930s, when two brothers, Leo and Oscar Seltzer, conceptualized the idea on a Chicago restaurant tablecloth. The Seltzers moved their burgeoning skating company to Southern California in 1950. By 1958, the base of operations had relocated here to Northern California, retaining a formal Midwest minimalism while functioning within the husk of West Coast moral allegory.

Roller derby peaked in the 1960s, when several national companies toured simultaneously and millions witnessed the spectacle via television. It was said that individual Bay Area Roller Derby performances actually outdrew the Oakland Raiders. But in 1973, one year after Raquel Welch appeared in the film Kansas City Bomber, the circuit was shut down, relegating roller derby to occasional revivals and benefits. The death of an art form seemed at hand.

Now, though, we have arrived at this threshold of a new millennium — and we gaze once again at a portable track and teams of skaters who wear colorful satin trunks. Although far from a flourishing genre, there is a new roller derby league, and it retains a core audience and, somehow, gives us a look ahead to what we might become, even as it provides a reflection of how far we have progressed since the Los Angeles T-Birds ruled the world.

The time-tested traditions of roller derby remain the same: Each performance begins with the national anthem. Everyone gets injured in every competition, even though nobody is really injured. Participants may be old or young, straight or gay, white or black, felon or parolee. Score is kept, but no one knows exactly how.

Rummaging through the roller derby experience in search of meaning is not merely a frustrating quest, but a pointless one. Roller derby is meant to be inscrutable. Questions raised are deliberately not answered. For instance, why are three separate “teams” listed in the newspaper advertisement for the June 16 event, with a different three listed in the program — when, actually, only two perform this evening? Why are complimentary tickets given out at random to people standing in line, waiting to pay admission? And why is the event sponsored by a prominent national brewery, if no such beverages are to be sold as concessions? The cast (and uncredited playwright) of this wheeled theater in the round offers no solutions. The actors just keep skating in a circle and beating one another up.

This coincidence of contraries leads us to the problem of narrative arc. Or lack thereof. Is there any good reason why a little man on skates would circle a banked wooden track and hurl himself at top speed directly into a clump of much taller and heavier men? For a clue to the solution of this dramatic conundrum, one must turn to the lone page of “rules” included in the evening's playbill.

According to these rules, certain members of the roller derby cast are “jammers.” Designated by striped helmets, jammers score one point for each opposing player skated past on the circular, banked track, within a time frame of 60 seconds.

More “rules” list absurd notions — such as penalties and blocking — but these are enforced and accomplished so randomly that the concepts become so much cosmological baggage. Above the stage a scoreboard clicks off points for both teams, seemingly in no relation to the movements of jammers or anyone else. The drama is baffling even to its participants, but to their credit the actors play on as though they understand each move. Every elbow to the face, every folding chair cracked over a head, every flip over the rail is triumphant in its commitment to crisis. The overall result is an astonishing artistic paradox: Almost unintentionally, the American matrix of accomplishment is juxtaposed with an architecture of aesthetic nihilism.

The mayhem of roller derby often flings its audience into vicarious rage. Frenzied patrons yell encouragements: “Enough penalties, girls, it's time to KICK SOME ASS!” Small children kick their seats in sugar-induced fits. One sweaty man runs up and down the aisle, clapping his hands and shouting, “I'm TIRED of them CHEATING!”

Central to this action — or perhaps entirely peripheral, it's difficult to say — is the role of the Track Announcer. Played by Dan Ferrari (also co-founder of the Bay Area-based International Roller Derby League), the Announcer functions principally as a Greek chorus. Unlike the Narrator in Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener, in which Bartleby is described as less a real man than an object of curiosity, Ferrari's Announcer is more reminiscent of the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's Our Town. There, life unfolds before us and is most meaningful when lived with full awareness of the value of the present moment. In this case, the present moment allows room for a kick to the stomach, which the Announcer is happy to report.

(The poor-quality public address system of the Kezar venue renders Ferrari's narration as unintelligible squawking; but again, this frustrating reality seems deliberate, planned. Ferrari may have viewed films by 1930s Chinese actor Mei Lan-fang, the inspiration for Wilder's minimalist staging; then, realizing that movement is more compelling than speech, altered his Announcer's dialect accordingly.)

Another standout character in this performance is the Track Presbyter. Ann “Banana Nose” Calvello acts the part with astonishing vigor, calling on her 50 years of experience with every roller derby group that has existed. Costumed in mismatched skates, with a deeply suntanned face and hair dyed in multiple colors, this grande dame stalks the stage, independent and vehement, yet she is never without her feminine core. The 68-year-old Calvello may reflect the sensitivity of Eve in the Garden, but she does it with Dionysian delight and a charming penchant for kidney-punching, chair-swinging, and outright tripping of other cast members.

After eight 12-minute “periods” in this ballet of peril, after jammers have soared majestically over blockers, and headlocks have turned into bench-emptying brawls, the final seconds are choreographed with militaristic precision. Order is suddenly restored from chaos, and as the seconds tick down, the jammer is passed along the track at blinding speed. This satirist of alienation has a two-fold destiny: He can pass an opposing player and win the game, or be elbowed and flung over the rail into the crowd. And at that moment, when the audience is on its feet chanting, at the apex of this diffuse and puzzling drama, every single person in the theater understands what it means to have grown up as an American in the 20th century, and what it will mean to live in the 21st.

American Roller Derby League. Starring Ann “Banana Nose” Calvello, Frank Apodaca, Sherry Erich, and Robert “Icebox” Smith. Announced by Dan Ferrari and Stue Ganz. Benefit for San Francisco AIDS Foundation. At the Kezar Pavilion, Stanyan & Frederick, June 16. Next performance: July 11, Burrell Field, San Leandro.

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