A Lover's Guide to American Playwrights
A Lover's Guide to American Playwrights is a regular column by Todd London. It is part of an ongoing series of tributes to contemporary playwrights. Mostly begun as speeches at New Dramatists—for career achievement awards, to mark the end of seven-year residencies, or, in a few cases, as eulogies—these portraits celebrate the body of work, lives, and singular gifts of those brave, ferocious, foolhardy souls of those who write plays for the American theater.
This Spring Eisa Davis was announced as the theater winner of the Alpert Award In the Arts, joyful and sad proof (yet again) that we have to look to funders and awards committees to celebrate important artists among us whom producing organizations continue to overlook. Maybe this wildly, variously talented artist—playwright, actress (Passing Strange, This), singer-songwriter, ethnographer, sometime-arts journalist—needs to rely on occasional television roles and a rare, lucrative award like this one to sustain her, precisely because her talents are so many and our culture demands specialization. That’s possible. When I think of her writing, though, notably her masterful Bulrusher, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that has seen only a handful of productions in bold, small theaters, I think, rather, it’s because our field doesn’t know how to listen. “It’s hard to hear a new voice,” D. H. Lawrence writes, “as hard as to listen to an unknown language.”
“It’s hard to hear a new voice,” D. H. Lawrence writes, “as hard as to listen to an unknown language.”
This very quality defines Eisa Davis’s work: she knows how to listen. I think it was Robert Lewis who said that “acting is listening.” Eisa has taught me that playwriting is listening. In her autobiographical works, she is flooded with the voices of family and history. In The History of Light they are absent voices re-found; in Angela’s Mix-Tape—written for and to her aunt, Angela Davis—the voices are ever-present, even insistent.
Mom, why is it called a demonstration? What are we demonstrating?
Our unity! We are showing people there is a mass movement and that we want social and economic justice for oppressed peoples all over the globe!
Who are oppressed people?
We are all oppressed as long as there is injustice.
We’re oppressed? I thought we were the intelligentsia.
I am a lawyer, Eisa. But my work would mean nothing if I did not use the law to combat the racism and sexism and classism that this country was built on, if I did not use my life to fight for the cause. Every choice, every action, every waking moment is for liberation. Now eat your scrambled tofu and let’s go. You’re singing today.
(tentative at first, singing) We who believe in freedom cannot rest.
(singing) We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.
Until the killing of a black man, black mother’s son
Is as important as the killing of a white man, white mother’s son.
We who believe in freedom cannot rest.
We who believe in freedom cannot rest.
“Compulsively almost, for hours at a time, I answer letter after letter from other prisoners. My very existence, it seems, is dependent on my ability to reach out to them. I have decided that if I am ever free, I will use my life to uphold the cause of my sisters and brothers behind walls.”
In Six Minutes Eisa nails the jargon of black academics, the post-post-structuralist, deconstructionist, post-post-modern, identity-political, literary critical, hip-hop-hypocritical postings from the post-post grooves of academe. And when I say she nails it, I mean that with all the violent eroticism that the word evokes. The characters in Six Minutes don’t even have names; they’ve given them up for symbols—the man is > (greater than); the woman is + (plus).
I mean you broke all the rules with this.
And you gotta know the rules to break ‘em.
Word. You got crazy textual irony. Mad multiple meanings buried layer by layer. Cake, playgirl.
I mean I killed it. A six hundred and forty two page epic rhyme on where hip hop is at. ‘Cause I don’t know how you can be no literary critic talkin bout hip hop without rhyming yourself.
The form is the critique.
The critique is the form. Creative criticism. Tradition and evolution, making something outta nothing. Blues got bit, we made jazz. Jazz got stolen, we made rock, Rock got jacked, we made soul. Soul got doped, we made us. Hip hop. Got explicit. Said you ain’t gonna steal this, but you’re gonna dance to it. I’m a get mine and the rest a y’all got six million days to die choose one. Now if that ain’t literary criticism, what is?
In Umkovu, Eisa hears Hip Hop and everything that surrounds it: the corporate power talk that buys and commodifies talent, that will kill a superstar to pump up sales. She hears the language of loss and violence and street; the jive journalism that inflates and celebrifies; the sound of real artistic ambition. And she hears something else, that maybe no one else has heard under Hip Hop, Eisa hears silence. Part gimmick and part revelation, rising Hip Hop star Swive Jabal makes his name by staying mute.
Stage direction: The DAT begins, a track that samples “On My Own” from Les Miserables. There is absolute silence in the audience. The intro moves into the verse, but Swive remains silent. He nods his head to the beat, but does not rhyme.[…]His gestures are a pantomime of hip hop performance, all arms and crouches, microphone tipped to every angle[…] His movement gets progressively more animated, more like a frenetic dance, as if he is being possessed by an orisha. As the song ends, he falls flat out on his back, microphone on his chest.
Is Swive “militating against the hegemonic consciousness with an ironic articulation of black masculinity?” Is he the ultimate truth teller, because “when you don’t talk, you can’t lie?” Is he tabula rasa, for the white world’s projections? Or is silence his fear talking? Under all the posing and poetry, is silence the language of fear?
We’re often listening to silence in Eisa’s plays or listening beyond language, under language. Even the bullshit logic of the outsider academics in Six Minutes echoes this call for something past words.
> begins his speech, using Martin Luther King Jr’s musicality and intonation.
> Brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters. I want to talk to you today about language. It is time for us to move beyond it. Beyond language. If language is indeed a uniquely human evolution, if it separates us from our brother horses and even from our sister dolphins, then we need to evolve beyond it. We must instead cultivate the connection between all of us, between all living beings.
Born into the hot center of Liberation politics and coming of age in the days of identity politics, steeped in the lingo of cultural theory and dancing to everything from funk to punk, Elvis Costello to Jay-Z, Eisa winds up using language to cut through language. To find the quiet of the self. I’m reminded of that Audre Lorde line “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” But Eisa’s politics feel different. She digs up/calls up/makes up/shakes up language to build her houses and to dismantle them. From a legacy of identity politics she reaches toward a poetics of identity. From the everything she can be and do, she edges toward the unity of who she might be. And she finds that unity in connection—with the past, with her country, with her family, with herself.
Eisa Davis is the linguistically obsessed playwright, following the rhyme and rhythm of musical speech. She is the young journalist in Paper Armor with the tape recorder, listening to stories of Zora Neale Hurston’s collaboration with Langston Hughes. She follows in Hurston’s footsteps, recording the dialects and diction of American teenagers. Yet time and again, she returns to music. She moves us through the thicket of language to silence? What is the search she’s on?
For all that Eisa can do and all that she is, Eisa’s plays, at least, feel like the searching of someone looking for who she is. Bulrusher goes through life as one of a kind, until a young woman who looks like her arrives in town. She finds herself in another, and falls in love with the mirror. Angela Davis is the giant and Angela Eisa Davis (in Angela’s Mixtape) is the girl for whom everything takes place out of the history, in the clichés of popular culture. Who is Sophie without a father?, Eisa asks in the History of Light, and who will she become once her long-absent father is re-gained. Eisa’s characters are cut off from their history or deluged by it.
For me, Eisa’s art of listening and her search for self bear full fruit in Bulrusher, the story of a black foundling in 1950’s Northern California, who comes of age in a town where she’s one of only two African Americans. Bulrusher, the young woman, can read lives from the water a person has touched. The town is based on an actual town, Boonville, that developed its own 1300-word dialect, known as Boontling, “primarily devised to discuss taboo subject and keep outsiders out. But Boontling also functioned to document town history, create unexpected value from the strange, and satisfy the residents’ overriding love of inventive talk.”
The author of Bulrusher is a cultural linguist. Listening is a teaching tool, as the audience learns a new dialect not through explanation but through context and repetition. She only glosses Boontling for us at the end of the play. And most of the words describe the act of sex.
Harp is talk and nonch harpin is dirty talk.
In Bulrusher, listening becomes a subject as well—how listening and love are intertwined. Bulrusher talks to her beloved, her cousin Vera.
Again, listen to silence:
Hey. It stopped raining.
Yeah. You sleep good?
No. After the rain it was too quiet. Silence in my ears all night.
You don’t like it?
I just never heard darkness before.
At the end of the play, Bulrusher’s mother—who years ago abandoned the baby in a basket on the river—reveals herself. She says: “I prayed for you in your basket. And your river listened. She listened. The river’s your mother. I throw stones into it everyday to thank her for caring for you.” This is Eisa’s mantra: The one who listens, nurtures. The one that listens protects.
“I was born into a new language,” Bulrusher recalls. And again and again, through Eisa’s work, we too are born into a new language. We listen for this connection. We live where we connect. Our listening is an act of love.