Five Uneasy Pieces
1. Safe Pop It is said that the theatre space is one of danger. But is it danger of content, form, or both? There are plenty of theatre pieces that court no sense of danger whatsoever in either content or form. They prefer the realm of safety, and offer safety to their viewers. “No discomfort here,” these pieces seem to claim. Yet, the theatre pieces we come to again and again, and study, and wrestle with over many years’ time are those that offer plenty of discomfort. “Uneasy pieces,” I like to call them, written (if they are text-based) by dramatists uneasy with the world and perhaps even with theatre itself. A student of mine who told me that Billy Joel’s “My Life” was a profound influence on how she thought about creativity uttered in the same breath how passionately she admired Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. It made me think about how I live with David Bowie’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” and Strindberg’s Miss Julie at one and the same in mind. Both are pieces that when I first heard and read them, respectively, awoke the irrepressible dance of attraction and repulsion in me as a budding artmaker, but also as a thinker. They disturbed my zones of comfort in celebratory ways, and also in ways that felt utterly “wrong.” What were these pieces about really? Why did they compel me and upset me at one and the same? Where was the safe pop stuff when I needed it?
Over the years, the push and pull between the comforting effervescence of pop with its seemingly effortless charms—“Call Me Maybe,” anyone?—and the darker hued, thornier landscapes offered by artists walking on more than one wild side have tugged at my heart. In fact, I would say that much of my path as a writer has been determined by this constant pull. My flirting affection for carefree yet carefully crafted pop confections in song, film, and other forms have waged a dance of faithless love with my attraction and identification with and for equally crafted yet seemingly rawer, unrulier forms of expression. Pioneering US Latino/a theatre scholar Alberto Sandoval-Sánchez once told me that this dilemma was the “Ugly Duckling predicament,” and one that he thought many Latino/a dramatists especially of the middle generation—writers like Milcha Sanchez-Scott, Migdalia Cruz, Cherríe Moraga, Edwin Sánchez, and more—felt most acutely. I remember that at the time, I didn’t quite understand what Sandoval-Sánchez was describing exactly. I thought that he wanted me to say if I felt like a swan or an ugly duckling with my work. But I realize now, especially from the vantage point as I look at the works that the next generation of US-identified Latina/o dramatists are making—Kris Diaz, Fernanda Coppel, Tanya Saracho, and more—that what Sandoval-Sánchez was asking me at the time—almost fifteen years ago—was where I felt my work fit in the wider landscape of theatre history, if at all.
In other words, it’s okay to be an ugly duckling when you’re the adolescent writer thrashing about making a mess, casting your wary gaze awry at the world and theatre’s forms with the kind of defiant dare and perhaps even sneer that only adolescents can proffer with such alarming and discriminate ease.
Teacher María Irene Fornés would say to us at the INTAR Lab, when she was its director, and I was her student and Lab assistant for four consecutive years, that she felt that the kind of work made by many US Latina/o writers could be described as exquisite “hothouse flowers” that were perhaps too rarefied and not altogether ready for the world. She would say that this worried her, because she wanted the US Latino/a voice to have a lasting legacy and future in American theatre, and not be treated as a “special case study” by critics and scholars. The danger of being the endangered hothouse flower or ugly duckling is a constant dance a dramatist faces when confronted with the realities of the medium and the marketplace in late capitalist society vis-à- vis the lessons that some of Western theatre history and the industry that supports, nurtures, and presents it teaches us. How many ugly duckling plays have we seen, after all, be battered about in broad daylight for not behaving quite as they should, for being too uneasily themselves, or “not yet ready” or “grown up” enough to merit the sustaining critical gaze of both the merciless tune played by the box office and the recognized parameters of culturally accepted conventions of what makes a sensible or, shall we say, sensibly great play?
Ugly ducklings are for the adolescents, one could argue. It is, after all, in adolescence, when the harsh definitions between ugly duckling and swan are most codified socially through the pack mentality that affects teenagers before they move into adulthood, when many of those same packs turn into the more rarefied tribes that discern and differentiate taste and class. In other words, it’s okay to be an ugly duckling when you’re the adolescent writer thrashing about making a mess, casting your wary gaze awry at the world and theatre’s forms with the kind of defiant dare and perhaps even sneer that only adolescents can proffer with such alarming and discriminate ease. But when you’re a “grown-up” playwright, you’re supposed to leave the ugly duckling stuff behind and embrace the swan, and let the swan govern how you make things, for whom you make them, and why. The elegance of the swan is usually equated, in writerly terms, to extend the metaphor, with the elegance of a certain kind of structure, style, and even form of theatre-making. It’s, shall we say, to offer a blunt analogy, the difference between Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe and August: Osage County, or Sam Shepard’s Tooth of Crime and Buried Child, Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape and Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
You get where I’m going with this. You’ve seen this template before. You’ve perhaps even wrestled with it yourself. Perhaps you have even found yourself across the dividing line on some of these discussions. You realize that while you love Long Day’s Journey… there’s a part of you that really is mad about The Hairy Ape, that you prefer late Bob Dylan to middle Bob Dylan (to upset the adolescent analogy a bit) and that you rather hunger for that transgressive moment in pop culture when Bowie’s red hair, glittery lipstick, and platform shoes or Prince’s Purple Rain-era mashup of eighteenth-century dandy, voodoo daddy, funk queen/king, preacher/soul man and R&B/rock ‘n’ roll front man really felt dangerous, wild, and too much. Except that you know that that transgressive moment won’t come back, because historically we are now post-race, post-sexual revolution, post-everything, and Adam Lambert may be talented and fun, but there’s no real transgression in his reclaiming Freddie Mercury’s moves and wail, and Prince is and was and there will never be anyone like, and Lady Gaga is trying her damndest, but even she is having a hard time, and oh…oh, thank heaven Cyndi Lauper is still around and really wants to write the music for Kinky Boots, because she knows whereof she speaks and sings, and can still call a fiery shot or two. But in essence, look around you, well, we’re past all that now. So-called transgressive art objects these days bear a whiff of contempt about them, mere pranks and stunts one could say, if pressed, aimed at and made for the expurgation of white liberal guilt. So, the ugly duckling sits somewhere in Bushwick or Sunset Park, Austin or Silverlake, Baton Rouge or Tampa, Buenos Aires or Santiago, Brixton or Cardiff waiting to either remain and embrace its ugly duckling-ness or become a proper swan, and thereby, hopefully, achieve greater glory and respect.
2. About Hothouse Flowers, Coming Home, and Celluloid Traces I return in mind to María Irene Fornés’ concern about “hothouse flower” plays and playwrights at the INTAR Lab back in the early 1990s, as I open my notebook and begin to take notes on my next play, as yet unnamed. The play will be the fourth play—after Guapa, The Way of Water, and Spark—in what I am calling my “American quartet.” I feel the artistic responsibility that comes with any long-standing dramatic project reaching its dreamt of culmination. In a way, with the three plays that are already part of this emerging quartet, I feel as if I have been retracing my steps as an artist back to places of origin and central inspirations. I have called the process a kind of “coming home” for me as a playwright, touching ground again on regional US geographies that impacted my upbringing and especially key memories, landscapes, sounds, and creative influences that shaped my ongoing and myriad thematic, dramaturgical, and critical concerns as a practitioner and freelance scholar over the years as I have been steadily building a body of work.
Not quite a child of the 1968 revolution, I was however born into the generation that saw the US socio-political landscape change drastically and irrevocably by the aftermath of the JFK and Martin Luther King assassinations, the brutal psychic damages to the national psyche of the Vietnam War, the rise and flux of the gay pride movement, the civil rights movement, and the debacle of Watergate. I remember not understanding as a child what all those hearings on TV were about, but knew that they made a lot of my parents’ friends in south Florida, where we lived at the time, confused, disaffected, and upset. “Loss of faith” was a phrase I heard a lot as a kid growing up, when it came to talk about the US government and what was happening to this country’s leadership and integrity. Yet, there was faith too, in my family’s story of exile and immigration (from Cuba and Argentina, respectively), in the seemingly ever evolving potentiality of the United States as construct and reality.
“What captivates you as a budding artist is central to what you will make later,” it is often said. While it may seem a facile statement, I find more and more that it is true. That precious time browsing for countless hours in my local libraries—in Florida and North Carolina, where I spent most of my adolescence and where the act of writing creatively was becoming a fact of my life, rather than an idea for my life—led me to seek out what tantalized me. It was a time of free exploration in the library stacks, and endless reading and dreaming. But it was in that privileged public space that I “found” still images of Geraldine Chaplin as the mysteriously dangerous androgynous drifter in Alan Rudolph’s little-known film Remember My Name, Marsha Mason in Cinderella Liberty, clips of Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence, Sissy Spacek in Three Women, Chris Sarandon in Dog Day Afternoon, and an advert for a special limited showing of a mysterious and heart-stoppingly visually and aurally beautiful film called Days of Heaven by Terrence Malick. Alongside those filmic sources, there was the discovery of the works of David Rabe, Mamet, and Shepard—what seemed to me a most renegade and unruly trio of American dramatists—writers who fired up my imagination. There was also the exposure to the musical and visual history of glam rock, especially of the British persuasion, and New York punk, both of which I came to a bit late, but of which I found myself mightily enamored, as if I had found the ideal twinned taboo companions to guide me through my musical creative adolescence.
It was listening to Patti Smith, oddly enough, that led me to seek out the music of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. It was watching an edited version late night on TV, way past my bedtime, of John Cassavetes’ Husbands that made me want to see the cinematic work of Elia Kazan, George Stevens, and John Ford. And it was listening to early Bowie that led me to read William Burroughs. Wandering outside the margins and roaming through history at the same time: that’s where I wanted to be.
Hidden in gestures, emotional turns, and phrases uttered by characters from one play to another, the past calls back, even as it points toward my writing future.
3. Maps of Hope and Grace In my new American quartet of plays that trace stories set across a geographic line through Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina, and an as of yet unmarked terrain (for the fourth play), I see through elements of dramatic structure, tonalities, linguistic registers, flights of song, and thematic concerns with class, economics, and identity politics, the remapping of a kind of virtual scrapbook of the hours I spent in my local libraries when I was young. Hidden in gestures, emotional turns, and phrases uttered by characters from one play to another, the past calls back, even as it points toward my writing future.
The unruly, marginal landscapes caught on film, song, and literature that first sparked my writer’s imagination, however seemingly disparate, share common threads amongst them. The complicated, often contradictory, emotionally mercurial men, women, and transgender characters that inhabit the films of Cassavetes, Altman, Rudolph, Rafelson, and Sidney Lumet, for example, have been for me a kind of template for the onstage exploration and representation of my characters. For example, the ex-con drifter named Emily portrayed by Geraldine Chaplin of Rudolph’s 1978 film Remember My Name has served as a cinematic memory template for me when writing characters as diverse as Lexie, the returning soldier in Spark, and Lizzie B, the visual artist immersed in a world of decadence in Magnificent Waste. Here are individuals inventing themselves as they go along, yet also indebted to familial and socio-political notions of identity construction. Trying to live improvisational lives, the characters in the quartet find themselves at odds with the demands of society, duty, and family, but also at times with their own vexing freedoms. Their love for life rages and rails against wars of family, indigenous history, racism, class struggle, and physical and emotional terrains that are toxic, sometimes to an extreme.
4. The Wheel of Fate It is close to the witching hour, and as an inveterate night owl writer, the long night is my companion. Over forty plays have been written in this embrace of midnight’s repast. I trust the fold of night to teach me a thing or two about what my characters do during the day, and am grateful that, whatever theatre industry’s fashion’s dictates have been, I still want to write, make, respond, and reflect different and varied corners of the world. I consider how the elemental danger of theatre, for me, now, more than ever, is in its sheer vulnerability. Perhaps such consideration comes with time. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t aware of it when I first started writing for live performance, which is a foolhardy thing to want to do with one’s life to begin with, and moreover when one thinks about what heartaches and headaches it can cause your parents to know that your chosen life path/vocation/calling may always be a precarious one—where, in effect, each day, unless you’re inordinately lucky, you are trying to figure out how to keep going, and simultaneously invent the wheel again.
The mere fact of play-making seems both frivolous as an endeavor and necessary at one and the same. Humble in aspect, theatre-making is one on one, whether it is for a crowd of 1,500, fifty, or ten. It is always irreducibly in the moment, even when it is being streamed live across thousands of miles. It is inherently vulnerable as an art form. It is no surprise, therefore, that it is a form that demands vulnerability of its makers and collaborators/players. Theatre itself is a dare. Come into this space, walk into it, engage in this ritual for a while, become a believer of sorts, walk out a new believer or a nonbeliever. Lay claim to this/these truth(s) for two hours or ninety minutes or five hours. Be accepting. Be open. Forget what happened this morning. Or better yet, forget and remember at the same time. Forget to remember your day and where you are in the world and why. Dare to be a hothouse flower that may be damaged by the sun’s direct merciless rays. The perfume will linger in memory.
Fornés asked us as writers in the Laboratory to confront truths in our work, to meet our poetry on its own terms, but also to wonder where—after all the experimentation and revelry were over—we would position ourselves as artists. She would say that being a “hothouse flower” wasn’t enough. You had to find a way to be less endangered, or you would become extinct too fast, too soon. I think Fornés’ concerns, voiced as they were in 1992, the last year she ran the Lab at INTAR, were valid, especially when you consider the cultural changes to come. In the early 1990s, in the wake of Reagan’s trickle-down economics and the NEA Four, the seeming refuge of being a hothouse flower, however extravagant, beautiful, and extreme was not going to cut it if you were going to get through the rest of the decade and into the twenty-first century. It didn’t mean you couldn’t be a hothouse flower, but you had to know that you were one, first of all, and then try to figure out if and how you were going to transform, whether by becoming even more of a hothouse flower, or by cutting a stem or two and finding a place in other artistic gardens.
The inveterate “hothouse flowers” of American (in its US and Pan-American sense) playwriting, as named by Fornés with concern for their future, seem to me markers of gorgeous, sublime rebellion against stricter codes of what plays should or can be.
5. Where We Go Text-based theatre is getting something of an unfair shake these days in many circles, academic and otherwise. Plays, you see, seem to some rather quaint beasts, persistently bound, as they may be to dramatic literary conventions. Of course, the death of the author has been with us for over thirty years and yet, plays still get written, somehow, and every year young writers are lit by sparks of imagination similarly to how I was some time ago in Florida and North Carolina. Of course, back then, the local library was surprisingly au courant. These days many of our local libraries are shut down due to budget cuts. While internet and file sharing on Kindle and other devices make content accessible to those who have/can afford the gadgetry, I would argue that it isn’t merely content that emerging creative minds need and/or seek. I would go as far as to say that as a writer I am not interested in making mere content in the consumerist phraseology that governs web parlance. Although we put up content every day on our blogs and online journals and more, at day’s end, if we really think about it, what is it really that we want to address? Thought in motion. A view on the world. A record of our time. Now. Even if we use the language and manners of another time long ago.
I do know that I am admittedly nostalgic for the (and angered by the lack of) truly public spaces that once seemed to exist in our increasingly privatized planet.
The fourth play yet to be written sits within a patchy mosaic of notes and scribbles, word lists, and image clusters both in my notebook and in my dream space. There is no content yet to be filed. Only a network of associations: disparate, wide-ranging, and distinctly uneasy in their design. The map of motion is being charted in spaces undefined in my brain. Perhaps that song I heard ten years ago or that film still that captivated me five years ago will become part of the mix that I may not even be fully aware of until much, much later when the piece is written and read aloud or performed. I do know that I am admittedly nostalgic for the (and angered by the lack of) truly public spaces that once seemed to exist in our increasingly privatized planet. I wonder if as a citizenry in the West we can reclaim and demand that our public spaces—our commons—can be truly ours again, no matter the level of “access.” There’s that famous scene in Bob Rafelson’s 1970 Five Easy Pieces, a film that film scholars cite as endemic of not only the 1970s Hollywood New Wave but also an affecting marker of social outrage and discontent for a new generation in the wake of the 1960s social revolutions, where the character played by Jack Nicholson demands to be served what’s not listed precisely on the menu. He remarks in a sharply observed, witty, and mournful script written by Carole Eastman (as Adrien Joyce) and Bob Rafelson, that he simply wants to order what his taste buds crave, because he knows, given the menu’s range of choices, that the kitchen will have the combination he desires. The scene grows heated and revs up into an escalating exchange of exasperated modern manners between Nicholson’s character and the server at the diner until he responds with a charged plain-spoken, pointed barb. In film survey courses, the scene is stopped/cut there perhaps to emphasize the sense of societal discontent which the scene remarkably captures. Yet in reality, the scene continues beyond its barbed quip and devolves amongst the characters at the diner into something much stranger, looser, and less easily categorizable. The rage that ignites the scene turns into a kind of elegiac pathos for the self, and civil liberties, and an underlying plea too for a culture that will dispose of the menu altogether, please, and instead recognize that the ingredients are there, and that if you cultivate and acknowledge them, then there will always be room for them at the table.