Soot and Spit, playing at the New Ohio Theatre through June 17, is a celebration of artist James Castle. He was born deaf and autistic, and in his lifetime, he developed a distinctive artistic style using found objects, drawing tools he created, and a mix of soot and spit. (Coincidentally, some of his work is on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which makes for a good pre-show field trip.)
Rather than tell a traditional narrative account of Castle’s life, Soot and Spit focuses on putting the audience in the time and place where Castle grew up, as well as understanding his creative process. There is some narration throughout the show, delivered by actor Chris Lopes, which gives the audience background on Castle’s upbringing and education. His teacher Mr. Taylor (played by Toussaint Jeanlouis) pleads with Castle to learn a few basic skills so he can find a manual labor job and not live his life as a “completely useless leech,” a burden on his family. The life of an artist can be difficult and rife with rejection and financial hardships, and it was easier for teachers and caretakers working with disabled persons to push them into certain occupations and lifestyles instead of imagining how someone like Castle could make a living as an artist. In this one short scene, playwright Charles Mee establishes what the world expected from Castle, his defiance of those expectations, and how these attitudes and prejudices keep disabled people isolated, even within the art world.
Outside of these few scenes, however, the spoken dialogue is more poetic in nature, and it is interspersed with music by The Playbillies. This creative decision forces the audience to focus more on what they see than what they hear, and the music also helps establish the time and place – early 1900s Idaho – without unnecessary exposition. Visually, Castle’s artwork and its inspirations are everywhere in Soot and Spit. Costumes transform the cast into his artistic vision. Photographs of his artwork are projected onto the set. Actor JW Guido uses live projections to recreate Castle’s drawing style, and an actress dressed as the Morton Salt Girl – which inspired one of his most recognizable works – parades across the stage with the Honey Maid Graham Cracker and the Nu Bora detergent lady, imploring him to draw them.
Going into Soot and Spit, I was unfamiliar with the work and life of James Castle. Since seeing the show, I have read more about him and browsed his work, and it has deepened my appreciation for the play. James Castle’s family was told to “keep paper, pens, and inks away from him,” so he used soot, spit, and sharpened sticks. His art was a rebellious act, and Soot and Spit is a beautiful and honest representation of Castle’s work and celebrates an artist’s innate need to create.
Our Voices’ Soot and Spit opened May 31 and will run through June 17 at the New Ohio Theatre, located at 154 Christopher Street. Tickets are $25 and available online here or by calling 212-352-3101.