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Gorillas in the Mist of Spacetime

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Flowers lay around a bronze statue of a gorilla and her baby outside the Cincinnati Zoo’s Gorilla World exhibit, two days after a boy tumbled into its moat and officials were forced to kill Harambe, a Western lowland gorilla, in Cincinnati, Ohio, May 30, 2016. (William Philpott/Reuters) The memory of Harambe endures in Cincinnati, now on stage.

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

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