About midway through playwright Kristiana Rae Colón’s “Tilikum,” the boss at a SeaWorld-like theme park complains about the financial losses caused by the venue’s biggest killer whale. At 12,500 pounds, Tilikum is the park’s marquee attraction and one of its most lucrative moneymakers. But the park is out at least $68,000, the cost of a concrete divider to completely isolate Tilikum so that the other whales crammed into the tank won’t attack him.
‘Tilikum’ ★★★★ When: Through July 29 Where: Sideshow Theatre at the Victory GardensTheater, 2433 N. Lincoln Tickets: $20 – $30, $15 students, seniors, industry, free to formerly incarcerated youth under 25 Info: victorygardens.org Run time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Disgusted, the boss lectures about “whale-on-whale violence.” He doesn’t mention that the whales are so crowded they barely have room to turn around when they’re not performing tricks for paying customers. Or that whales forcibly removed from their pods suffer lifelong consequences, both physical and mental. He finishes by pronouncing judgment on behavior created by captivity. If the creatures are this brutal in cages, the boss can’t even imagine what “you all do to each other in the wild.”
If it wasn’t clear earlier it becomes so now: Colon’s drama is both confrontation and a metaphor. Tilikum’s once strong and beautiful body is now fretted with scars. His once-powerfully gleaming teeth are broken from trying to chew through steel and cement walls. His fins — once an “antenna to god” — are broken. Worst of all, Tilikum cannot remember freedom. “Fins that know walls won’t know waves again,” he laments. Colon makes it ruthlessly clear that these words of the whale could be the words of a slave or a victim of wrongful conviction. It’s a bold choice, and one that yields an unforgettable drama. “Tilikum” is about a killer whale. It is also about the devastating effects of a system where monetary gain depends on keeping anyone in captivity, be it humans or whales.
Directed to unforgettable impact by Lili-Anne Brown, “Tilikum” draws from the real-life story of the titular whale. As detailed in the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” Tilikum was a star attraction at SeaWorld Orlando, even after his involvement with the death of a trainer at Canada’s Sealand of the Pacific and two people at SeaWorld Orlando. Tilikum stopped performing after the 2010 drowning death of a SeaWorld Orlando trainer. In 2011, he was back on his Orlando stage, a revenue-generating star once more.
In Colon’s multi-media drama, Tilikum (Gregory Geffrard) is anthropomorphized in a way devoid of the cutesy-fantasy aesthetic that accompanies, for example, the fish of “Finding Nemo.” I’ve seen whales in the wild, in the Antarctic and off the coasts of Ecuador and Cape Cod. They have an indescribable nobility and power. Geffrard radiates the primal, forceful beauty of these magnificent creatures. Bolstered by Noelle Simone’s choreography, he gives a shape-shifting performance, whale and man beautifully intertwined.
Without ever explicitly saying as much, Geffrard evokes the horrors of the Middle Passage in Tilikum’s capture. He also shows the rage and sorrow of an intelligent, sentient being caught in a system from which they have no means of escape. To stunning effect, Colon’s dialogue shows the tragedy of forgetting he was once free: “When you forget your magic, even your skin becomes walls. When you forget your god’s name, your bones become a cage.”
The three-person cast also features a powerful performance by Sigrid Sutter as Dawn, a character based on veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau who drowned in 2010 after Tilikum pulled her under by the ponytail. Sutter’s portrayal shows a woman who is deeply connected to Tilikum, yearning to set him free even as she’s participating in the very system that commodifies him. When she and Geffrard create the choreographed whale/human routines that entrance the park’s customers, it’s pure poetry-in-motion. Finally, there’s Matt Fletcher as “The Owner,” the park supervisor responsible for purchasing Tilikum. Fletcher makes him truly loathsome — condescending, dangerous and all-too recognizable.
Throughout “Tilikum,” dance, words, percussion and images flow like furling waves. William Boles (set), Jared Golding (lights) and Paul Deziel’s (projections) watery world includes a concrete pen, backed by a screen where shadowy whales flicker and gleam. Sound designer Victoria Deiorio and composers Coco Elysses and Melissa F. DuPrey weave together whale songs with the hypnotic percussion of three musicians (DuPrey, Elysses and Joyce Liza Rada Lindsey) that seem to ripple and float within the scrim. It’s as beautiful and evocative as anything Jacques Cousteau ever filmed.
SeaWorld’s orcas continue to perform their lucrative shows. Tilikum is not among them. He died in 2016, reportedly of a bacterial infection common among whales in captivity.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.