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A recent Death Café Corvallis included discussion of a sports event practiced by the ancient Mayans and other Mesoamericans at least as early as 1500 BCE.

This was a team sport in which the objective was to get a ball through the hole of a vertical stone ring without using hands or feet.


Pok-ta-pok Court at Chitzen Itza

The game has numerous names including pok-ta-pok, pitz, and the version still played today – ulama.

A notable aspect of pok-ta-pok is that some ritual matches ended with one of the teams being sacrificed – beheaded, burnt, or both.

Whether it was the winning team or losing team that was sacrificed is a matter of debate, though the majority of Mesoamerican scholars maintain that death was the cost of defeat.

Tepantitla_mural,_Ballplayer_B_CroppedPok-ta-pok is prominently featured in the Mayan Popol Vuh, an epic tale that includes a creation story and descent into the underworld. This is a great myth which I highly recommend.

The Hero Twins, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué, brave horrors of the underworld in order to resurrect their father, which they accomplish by winning a pok-ta-pok tournament played with his skull.

Pok-ta-pok was a violent game in which players sometimes died from injury during the match.

1024px-Maya_Vase_BallplayerThe game resembles a combination of soccer, basketball, hacky sack, and jai alai.

A modern depiction of pok-ta-pok at least in the spirit of its violence is the 1975 film Rollerball in which a global totalitarian corporate government has replace war with an ultra-violent sport, which resembles pok-ta-pok is several respects.

A version of the game, ulama, is played today in Mexico and throughout the Americas – minus the stone ring and sacrifices.

Jon facilitates Death Cafe Corvallis which is open to all and meets weekly in Corvallis Oregon.

Image Acknowledgements,_Codex_Borgia,_14,_w_rubber_balls_offering.jpg,_Ballplayer_B_Cropped.jpg

rachel_259x195The blood, shouts, gun shots, raw fear and frantic chaos of violent nihilistic death took me back nearly 50 years.

At age twelve I was stunned by The Night of the Living Dead which deeply changed subsequent cinema, literature, and culture.

Last night I relived moments of the iconic film at Wait for the Blackout, a one-act drama where the conventions of undead culture played out in the flesh (which did not always remain attached to the human form).

George Romero’s classic depiction of desperate people in a farm house resisting hordes of the zombies smashed numerous social boundaries including parricide, infanticide, cannibalism, racism, and reverence for the dead.

Max Mania’s stage depiction of desperate people in a theater surrounded by undead referenced many of the ideas which have become the staples of zombie cinema.

A successful aspect of Wait for the Blackout is the use of unseen elementswftbo_poster that establishes the enveloping threat. The back stage plays a prominent role as events unseen erupt in the alley as well as the lobby and street in front. Disturbing noises from all round rendered the impending threat very real.  What was outside – whatever it was – would soon be coming inside and that would not be good.

The characters in Wait for the Blackout are the strongest aspect of the play. They are the stage crew for a work in production; all of them flawed personalities.  The effect of this work comes largely from stripping away of the characters social compensations for their flaws as the horror of the moment leaves only their raw vulnerability.  Dora’s cynical facade is corroded by the cascading violence. Rachel’s stoic optimism falters as she encounters situations that she cannot understand or adapt. Daniel makes an interesting transformation from selfish cowardice to resolute stoicism as hope drains.  Alex, the clueless Director, undergoes a more ambiguous change as he loses humanity entirely to ultimately betray his cast. Wait for the Blackout’s players explore these psycho-dramatic subtleties convincingly.

Most of the action was played for laughs and received as such. The humor came from over-the-top effects, references to clichés of the zombie genre and night_of_the_living_dead_trowel_258x239characterizations such as Daniel’s exasperating cowardice.  The film Zombieland used similar devices.  Unlike that film, Wait for the Blackout is punctuated by the abjectly unfunny such as how to treat the corpse of a friend.

Wait for the Blackout’s script had difficulty reconciling the role of the audience.  On one hand the action all takes place in an empty theater as the stag crew works on set design.  Yet as the plot ensues the actors directly address and involve audience as if engaged in a live show – which it actually is but not written as.  Since the players also address the violence that is happening outside the theater, the alternation of speaking forth from the stage is unclear.

The title, Wait for the Blackout, derives from a 1980 song of the same name by the proto-goth/punk band The Dammed.  It includes the lyrics;

“In darkness there is no sin light only brings in the fear
Nothing to corrupt the eyes there is no vision here
At first you may find it strange but do not go away
The darkness holds a power that you won’t find in the day”

In the play the lights fail over time until the power of darkness overtakes every spark of hope. Redemption is lost and those in attendance have become witness only to the doomed and the dammed.

That’s impressively fresh dramatic effect for a genre that has been worked to death.

Image Acknowledgements




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