Cincinnati, Ohio — Five years ago this past May, a male silverback gorilla named Harambe died at the Cincinnati Zoo. A child tumbled into Harambe’s enclosure, and the gorilla began roughhousing with the small boy in a manner threatening enough to appear to jeopardize the human’s safety. Zoo employees decided to shoot the gorilla, lest the human child be hurt or, worse, killed.
You’d think that would have been the end of it, but the death of Harambe sparked a nationwide outcry and inspired an entire subgenre of trolling — but ultimately mostly sympathetic (to the gorilla) — memes. Five years later, memory of the event has lingered, becoming a weirdly indelible part of Cincinnati’s cultural fabric. Indeed, there may be some people who only know of the Queen City because of the gorilla.
This lingering memory of Cincinnati’s famous gorilla inspired a play at this year’s Cincinnati Fringe Festival. A “14-day celebration of theatre, art, music, film, dance, and everything between” put on by the Know Theater of Cincinnati from June 4 to June 19, Cincy Fringe annually features “kinda weird” (their description) theatrical productions in the downtown area. I caught an outdoor showing of Harambe on June 17. With limited resources and a strikingly simple set, Harambe staged an unexpectedly entertaining and thoughtful exploration of the Harambe “mythology” that has emerged in Cincinnati (and elsewhere) since the gorilla’s death. But the production ultimately left me wondering whether the incident is substantial enough to sustain such critical reexamination.
Harambe is not simply a restaging of the events leading up to and including the gorilla’s death.
Writer/director/producer Joshua Steele, whose work has “a special focus on fascinating moments in Cincinnati history,” has something more sophisticated in mind. Working with a small, dark stage with a wall behind, just six actors, and a few speakers, Steele turns the Harambe incident into a kind of sci-fi parable. As the show was described in its Cincy Fringe listing: “Cincinnati shocked the planet in 2016 with the tragic death of a rare gorilla. Equipped with knowledge from the future and countless chances to intervene, could the outcome have changed? ‘Memento’ meets ‘Rashomon’ in an exploration of the nature of fact, expertise, and shared morality in the ‘fake news’ era.”
We open on the oddly calm and stately figure of “Blaine Brainerd” (Randy Lee Bailey), who announces himself as the director of the Cincinnati Zoo (the real Zoo director’s name: Thane Maynard). Brainerd provides a short yet authoritative description of gorillas, noting that many of their interactions with humans “end in disaster.” Then follows a mostly straightforward reenactment of Harambe’s death: A small child (unseen) falls into the enclosure, people look on, a gunshot is heard. But one of the characters, Stan (Chris Stewart), already feels sort of out of place. And so also do we, the audience. As the familiar (to Cincinnatians) reenactment comes to an end, a noise resembling the powering-down tone of a Mac computer is heard, all the characters loll their heads and slack their arms, and then the events begin again.
As things repeat (with the Zoo director introducing each new repetition with a new name and a new monologue, both typically tied to either the preceding or the following events), Stan comes to realize he is trapped in a simulation — or rather, a simulated prison, described as a “zoo” of his own. He learns from another inmate (Catherine Ross), trapped in a prison of her own, that they are all there for some kind of punishment connected to a wrong they committed in the real world. Think of it as a sort of digital contrapasso, the term for the ironic punishments doled out to denizens of hell in Dante’s Inferno that are tied to their earthly sins in darkly clever fashion. Stan becomes convinced that his way out of this repetitious hell is to alter the outcome of Harambe’s death. The primary drama of the play, then, is to find out whether Stan will succeed — but also to discover what, exactly, he did to deserve watching Harambe’s death over and over again as punishment.
In a situation familiar to those with knowledge of the conventions of time travel and Groundhog Day–like scenarios, Stan finds himself unable to meaningfully alter the day’s events; no matter what he does, it seems the gorilla dies (even as his actions induce subtle alterations on the reality around him in subsequent repetitions, such as reverting the name of Cincinnati to its original title of Losantiville). But determinism and fate vs. free will are not the main focuses of the play. For in addition to the questions of Stan’s success and Stan’s guilt, Harambe also revives the questions asked endlessly in the aftermath of the gorilla’s death: whether he had to die, why couldn’t a tranquilizer have been used, what was the mom doing, etc. The director calmly asserts in the face of one such interrogation that “we must always value the human life over the animal,” while Stan wonders whether it’s instead the case that “all life is equally valuable.”
So, does Stan succeed in saving the gorilla? Viewers are left unsure. In one of the final scenes, Stan decides to take things fully into his own hands. Up to this point, for each restaging of Harambe’s death, the actors have watched it while staring at the stage’s black wall, their backs to us. But this time, all of the actors save the one playing Stan look on at the audience as Stan jumps into the enclosure. We then hear a gunshot, and cut to the real world, where Stan is brain-dead. Two physicians tending to him reveal the origin of his punishment: In lived reality, he killed a larger dog that had attacked and was set possibly to kill the smaller dog he owned and was walking.
This conclusion raises all sorts of questions that I wasn’t sure that Harambe, up to this point, very interesting, supported. The real world in Harambe is implied to take place in the future; what kind of criminal-justice system would impose such a punishment? What is Stan supposed to have learned from failing to prevent Harambe’s death? That he should have let his dog die? That human and animal life are the same, or that they aren’t? That the Zoo did the same thing he did, or that it didn’t? That both of their actions were justified, that one was and the other wasn’t, or that neither was? I left the play unsure, in large part, because my reading of the Harambe situation is the obvious one: The Zoo, in an unfortunate situation, had acted correctly; its detractors were and remain wrong. Perhaps there is more to be mined philosophically for those less sure of the incident than I am, but the play itself did not make me any more favorable to the situation’s ambiguity. If anything, I left it more approving of what the Zoo had done.
So, in that, Harambe is not perfect, even if its intent was merely to continue the discussion. But that Steele was nonetheless able to use the Harambe incident to create a kind of stripped-down Black Mirror episode is a testament to his creativity within the constraints of low-budget production — and to the enduring memory of the Harambe incident in Cincinnati. Just remember, folks: There’s more to Cincinnati than a gorilla.