‘Guards at the Taj’ examines cost of great human achievement
Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company production staged at Dairy Arts Center
Humanity’s greatest feats of art and culture aren’t solo ventures.
The Great Pyramids in Egypt represent more than the will of any single pharaoh — the timeless works are the result of untold hours of unrecognized toil by armies of forgotten laborers. The Colosseum in Rome isn’t solely the product of the Flavian emperors — the monument is the tactile result of an organized workforce that included artisans, architects and slaves, an entire community that seldom gets its due in the history books.
Rajiv Joseph’s black comedy “Guards at the Taj,” enjoying its regional premiere with the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company at the Dairy Arts Center through Feb. 18, explores the human drama behind one of civilization’s greatest wonders: the Taj Mahal. In lieu of focusing on the life of the emperor, who commissioned the monumental mausoleum or the architect who helped realize the ruler’s vision, the show explores the investment of two fictional guards standing watch on the steps of the tomb on the eve of its unveiling in 1648.
In tracking the action between Humayun (Sam Gilstrap) and Babur (Jihad Milhem), two low-level imperial guards, Joseph explores themes of brotherhood and loyalty in the face of duty and imperialism. In the Agra, India, of the 17th century, questions of fealty to the powers-that-be loomed large.
Though the titular monument at the literal center of the show has a distinct and specific place in history, the show also poses some timeless questions about the nature of power and the consequences of human achievement. As the playwright explores the effect on two friends of a project worth more than $800 million in modern American currency, he raises questions about the larger effect of the decisions of a ruling class.
“It touches on the amount of agency we have in our lives. It’s about the decisions of the powerful and the elite and their impact on people. That’s the way I would frame the larger picture,” said director Stephen Weitz, who’s also the BETC producing artistic director. “At the same time, it’s an intensely personal play about these two men. It does have those larger themes, but it’s about their individual views on beauty, creation, creativity.”
Weitz added, “It’s very profoundly intimate in the view of this relationship but it also has this bigger layer around it that speaks to a lot of issues that are on people’s minds.”
Those questions arise from the opposing attitudes of the two guards on duty at the Taj Mahal. Humayun is a loyal follower of the emperor and his regime; his concept of personal duty and fulfillment is bound by his marching orders and the hallowed tradition of his father and his ruler. Babur, meanwhile, is an unabashed dreamer and wonderer, a man whose ambitions and goals aren’t fettered by the current political structure or societal norms.
The clash between these attitudes arise in dramatic and violent ways as the two lifelong friends await the unveiling of one of human history’s most impressive monuments.
“In this play, you have somebody who’s willing to listen to all voices and someone who is not. There are just two voices that my character listens to — the emperor and his own father,” said Gilstrap, who plays Humayun. “He doesn’t even listen to himself.”
It’s an attitude that clashes inevitably with a willingness to question authority and think independently, and it’s a clash that reaches beyond the confines of India in the 1600s.
“Humayun is literally speaking the decrees by rote and by memory, and it’s almost all he says. That’s the language he’s learned. Babur thinks for himself. That alone is a subversive act,” said Jihad Milhem, who plays Babur. “What Joseph does so well is take those core differences to their eventual conclusion. He sees where those ideas can go.”
That journey raises myriad questions about overarching themes like brotherhood, loyalty and duty. It also places the Taj Mahal, and other monuments of its scope and wonder, in a different context.
According to Gilstrap, touching on those kinds of epic themes in a two-man show requires a specific kind of onstage dynamic. Gilstrap and Milhem share the stage for the entire length of the drama, and their artistic duty is to draw in the audience to an intimate conversation between a pair of friends.
“When we’re doing our best, you’re standing guard with us,” Gilstrap said. “The set is designed so that there’s three feet between the edge of the stage and the stairs we’re guarding. We’re right on top of the audience — that, in and of itself, is awesome.”
That design seeks to offer just a detail of the scale and majesty of the Taj Mahal, a measure of human achievement that carried consequences. The Taj Mahal, and other monuments like it, was the end result of a social hierarchy that claimed an untold, unrecognized amount of nameless victims. Its completion required blood, sweat and toil from those commissioned to do the will of an all-powerful emperor, or pharaoh, or member of an elite ruling class.
Thus, the Taj Mahal serves as a silent character in this drama about a pair of friends pulled in painfully different directions.
“The Taj Mahal represents human possibility. It represents human potential, the potential for change and the role of beauty in our lives and how we as a people could strive for something beyond ourselves,” Milhem said. “At the same time, it was built with the goal of someone saying, ‘Look at how powerful I am.'”
“To have two different people look at the same thing and see two different things, I think it’s what this play is about,” he added.
If you go
What: The Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s production of “Guards at the Taj” by Rajiv Joseph
When: Jan. 25-Feb. 18
Where: Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder