Drama and the Shattering of Myths

Folklorist and anthropologist Dr. Maribel Álvarez has been collaborating with Roadside Theater and Pregones Theater over the course of two years to document the poetics of collaboration in the creation of the Appalachian Puerto Rican musical, BETSY!. As the finale to this week’s blog series, “Beyond Cliché: Dramatizing Our American Identity,” we share an excerpt from the longer article that Maribel is developing.

 

a group of people sitting in a room
Creative team and cast developing script in Norton, Virginia, February 2015. From left to right, Desmar Guevara, Dudley Cocke, Elise Santora, Rosalba Rolón, Caridad De La Luz, and Ron Short. Photo by Zhivko Illeieff.

All families have secrets; but not all secrets carry the same weight of significance. Some things that people prefer to keep under wraps are nothing more than harmless anecdotes left untold to save the guilty from embarrassment (like that unfortunate day when Uncle Joe passed gas in front of his newly met in-laws).

Other secrets possess the gravitas of life-altering scenarios: a facsimile of a birth record accidentally discovered in a box in the basement; a confession offered spontaneously by a visiting relative; a photograph that hung on the back of the closet for decades.

In the musical BETSY!, secrets attach themselves like flies to rotting scraps of memory. In some instances, they are revealed in plain sight; but most of the time they are only hinted at, acting like some kind of haunting that one wishes to escape, teasing the audience without always granting access.

As if embedded into the very DNA of happy moments, we see in the play particles of previous realities up to then hidden from view turning up in the least expected places. In the opening act we are introduced to Betsy just as she is about to come on stage to sing at a Bronx club, Panorama; she is described by the announcer as “incomparable.” There she is: a bilingual, bi-racial, urban, accomplished Latin jazz singer on the verge of fame—the spotlight of self-assurance shining bright on her as she enters to offer a rendition of a classic Caribbean “guaracha”—full of bravado and sexual innuendo.

But soon we learn that the past refuses to wash away and insolently insists on disrupting habitual life. Historical trauma has this mischievous way about it: precisely when song and triumph ought to command all the attention, ghostly reminders of unfinished business contaminate the scenes.

The audience is clued early on to an elusive truth: something happened to this child—way back in the recesses of her ancestry, before her conscious mind was able to understand how the wishes of the dead travel in the winds of time.

The admixture that makes her beautiful (and exotic) is also the toxic cocktail of sexual violence and miscegenation, harking from yesteryear, when love was trumped by shame.

In Betsy’s Scots-Irish-Puerto Rican lineage, the safe house of kinship gets hit by a historical tornado, the kind of event that brings disorder to what was once considered tidy. Among these events, we are reminded of the large role that indentured servants, and, indeed, white slavery, played in the nation’s development. We are asked, as audience members, to confront a shameful past we barely know. Who should be held accountable for these infractions?

We begin to learn Betsy’s story through darkened alleys of recollection that will surprise the protagonist herself: her urban world turned blue from vestiges of a rural past; her Spanish-English code switching tongue twisted in Southern drawl; her Puerto Rican identity stretched northwards, across the Atlantic, bathed in shades of emerald green.

And at the play’s most vulnerable moments, an additional meaningful resonance that rises like smoke from the city’s underground pipelines. Betsy’s story is our story: American pluralism represents a kind of gargantuan family secret in its own right.

“Can drama play a role in creating a more realistic history of the US,” asks Dudley Cocke, one of the Appalachian co-creators and co-director of the musical.

The historical tidbits we are offered are not nearly enough to find our bearings in what we know we are witnessing, the unfolding of a painful family saga—simultaneously unique and commonplace. Yet, by the magic of allegory we “get” what the story is saying: “multicultural America has always been intercultural.”

Were the American story to be told nakedly, unprotected by the sedative coat of Thanksgiving meals or ethnic pride parades, the shattering of myths it would provoke may yet prove to be too intense or painful to handle.

So, as a nation we willfully engage in various exercises of unremembering. Invented traditions of a common past become populated by imagined common heroes and the tenacious rhetoric of shared aspirations. The exercise is exhausting but also effective: it aims to ease the swallowing of a hard pill—how we really came to be, what brokenness had to be repaired before we could imagine ourselves as a unity.

Occasionally, a ghostly image appears in the national scene to tug at our memory banks. It is usually an image that we at first fail to recognize. Greensboro, North Carolina, 1960: the first sit-in at a lunch counter. Manzanar: an internment camp for Japanese-descent Americans during World War II. Los Angeles: a riot engulfs the city after a verdict over racial violence. Like Betsy struggling to make sense of the random pieces of paper she has no idea contain her own broken past, we scan headlines across decades and fail to grasp “the whole story.”
 

Were the American story to be told nakedly, unprotected by the sedative coat of Thanksgiving meals or ethnic pride parades, the shattering of myths it would provoke may yet prove to be too intense or painful to handle.

 

BETSY! contributes an important text to the canon of American theatre productions that have aimed to say something about the difficulties and pleasures of our plural social makeup. Just as A Raisin in the Sun and Anna in the Tropics have been accepted into the roster of plays for drama courses in high schools and colleges, there is a pedagogical fringe benefit to BETSY! that won’t be easy to discern by cursory reviews alone.

BETSY! offers a vantage point from which it becomes possible to discern two distinct formations in the horizon of what it means to make theatre in the United States today:

  1. How can we produce works of art that probe beyond clichés into the frayed ends of American pluralism?
  2. What kind of lovemaking work does it take to engender an artistic product that aspires to tell the story of us today—skeletons out of the closet and all?

Intercultural Expression Co-mingling at the Margins
If it is true that the function of criticism is to advance knowledge (rather than to simply muddle the waters), then a critical examination of BETSY! confronts us with an important frontal lesson: the leap from multiculturality to interculturality from within the ranks of minoritized art offers a double take on diversity not many of us may be familiar with. This aesthetic co-mingling at the margins has few precedents—especially since most of the funding made available in the last couple of decades for collaborative work in theatre was undergirded by the notion of “diversifying” white mainstream audiences.

Criticism has not always been friendly to the kinds of dis-identifications that BETSY! upholds. In fact, for most of the history of American Theatre, professional critics have been mostly blind to the complexity of cultural subjectivities. Staging the drama of White Power over Minority Disadvantage has generally had quicker appeal in our society than the drama of folk nuances demanded by minority-on-minority subjectivities. The collaborative history of BETSY!’s conception made this exploration possible. As Cocke puts it: “the intercultural world has been an integral part of our world for a long time.” Yet, a certain risk is also present in these kinds of rhetorical moves. Namely a risk that Arnaldo López, a member of the Pregones team, describes poignantly: “the sociology of the play’s context cannot be better than the play itself.”

The Bronx and Appalachia are iconic sites mythologized and folklorized ad nauseum. BETSY! offers a different tracing of the history of marginality than we are used to seeing in mainstream media, yet it is difficult to say whether this alternative proposal can supersede the prescribed narratives that dominate nationalist fantasies. The complicated sensuality of being two things at once—of acknowledging with dignity the two places that inhabit you—remains one of the universal challenges of all times. For Roadside and Pregones the metric that exceeds all others in determining success in pushing the envelope in these terms—for BETSY! or any other play—is respect for the audience.

Since its inception, each BETSY! production has generated remarkable testimonials from audience members about their own family racial entanglements. One man in the Bronx was so deeply affected by the play that he walked out midway and explained to one of the Pregones team members that his own story paralleled Betsy’s in ways that he had never been able to confess to his own wife before. Yet, audience impact work is so much more than emotional stirring or “outreach” to vulnerable populations. Not all of the intricacies of meaning-making are explicit in a metric of “impact” imposed superficially on a work of art.

Rosalba Rolón, artistic director of Pregones, is emphatic on this point: “Making art that impacts the way a neighborhood sees itself, with its specific colors, music, movements, rhythms, etc. is far more relevant to me, as an artist, than arguing for generic impact on every social ill known to a community.”

Diversity: Anybody Can Do It, Right?
If we could successfully condense into a slogan the American artistic approach to multiculturalism in the last twenty-five years, the phrase “Diversity: Anybody Can Do It” would be a good candidate. An optimistic and capacious slogan suits an art world convinced of its own merits. It is the American birthright to identify a problem and craft a solution. “We got this,” seems often to emerge as the overarching theme in many of the most widely publicized efforts by museums, symphonies, dance, and theatre companies’ efforts to diversify boards and include minority playwrights, conductors, or painters as keynote attractions in their seasons.

At some point along the path to tackling the diversity problem in American Theatre, collaboration emerged as an efficacious, recommended strategy.

Black and “mainstream” (code for “white”) companies co-produced plays; playwrights of color were offered residencies at major institutions; Latino and Asian community theatres were invited to partner with repertory companies in audience development plans; and outreach to disadvantaged youth through summer and after-school theatre workshops became commonplace. These initiatives assumed success. Largely, because “diversity” came to be regarded as a condition that can be operationalized and remedied: from less awareness to more awareness, from exclusion to inclusion, from status quo to affirmative actions that close the gap.
 

Under a glow of optimism that asserted our capacity to overcome our past shortcomings (to unremember, for instance, how one group’s pain symbiotically contributed to the other group’s happiness) diversity emerged as a discourse of social action.

 

The American artistic apparatus, in both its nonprofit and commercial registers, takes for granted the assumption that art has the ability to represent the stories of others who are not like us, but from whom we can learn universal lessons. A certain blind faith in the commonality that dissects across our human experiences—beyond race, ethnicity, or regionalist ideologies—dominated most calls from proposals from large foundations for art organizations to “collaborate.”

Under a glow of optimism that asserted our capacity to overcome our past shortcomings (to unremember, for instance, how one group’s pain symbiotically contributed to the other group’s happiness) diversity emerged as a discourse of social action. As such, diversity is always deemed productive—a gesture that once spoken shatters the silence and leads to new practices. And vice versa, each practice derived from the discourse a step in the right direction: getting us closer to the goal of universal empathy that is art’s aspiration, a workable solution to our histories of displacement, or perhaps a healing to the wound caused by our national “family secrets.”

The productive collaboration of Roadside and Pregones on BETSY! offers something fresh to this mix, for one simple reason: by taking the subject of diversity off the grid of the predictable vectors—large/small, community/professional, wealthy/low income—and exploring it in-depth from a dual subject position on the margins, the exercise of telling each other’s stories immediately became far more textured and complicated. It is a doing together that obeys to coordinates of aesthetic experiment, enjoyment, success, and failure—a certain poetics of creative practice, with or without the burden of a message of uplift.

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Thoughts from the curators

How can we produce works of art that probe beyond clichés into the frayed ends of American pluralism? What kind of love-making work does it take to engender an artistic product that aspires to tell the story of us today—skeletons out of the closet and all?

In this series, artists and scholars from across the country discuss these questions articulated by noted folklorist and anthropologist Dr. Maribel Álvarez in the context of the twenty-one-year artistic collaboration between Pregones Theater and Roadside Theater. The collaboration bridges two vast geographies and cultures, Puerto Rican and Appalachian, and two distinct aesthetics.

Pregones Theater & Roadside Theater Series on BETSY!

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