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Invitation to a Party Interrupted

A question in a time of absence: Now that we can’t be together, how will we gather when we can? A question in a time of anti-racism: How will we gather together when the fiction of that “we” has been so completely revealed—to some a definition of belonging and to others an excision?

Every act of theatre extends a simple, powerful invitation: Let me sit with you awhile. This invitation, and the gatherings it inspires, transforms plays from literary events to social ones. They make plays theatre.

The mainstream, predominantly white American theatre, both nonprofit and commercial, has skipped half the equation. So good at making plays, it has failed at gathering.

Over the coming months, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders of our theatres will rethink the architecture of space: how many seats their theatres can hold and still ensure the safety of its audience, how far apart, in what configuration. They will, along with everyone from unions to productions managers, playwrights to intimacy directors, rethink the healthy placement of artist bodies in space. My heart is with those who use this process to transform our relations, too, rethinking the way those relations are baked into the structures of our gatherings: What is true community? True inclusiveness? Truly just practice? My hope is with those who rethink the invitation.

How will the resulting architecture—or dramaturgy—of space meet the dramaturgy—or architecture—of the plays that fill it? It shouldn’t surprise that writers of color have long addressed the questions institutional theatres have skirted: Why do we gather? Who is the “we”? How can we be together? Coming from different generations and aesthetics, playwrights Jackie Sibblies Drury, Aleshea Harris, Anna Deavere Smith, and Dael Orlandersmith, each of whom hosts her audience in a distinctive way, offer us sample maps for this moment of revision. Might the ways these artists assemble or dismantle a gathering—both in writing and in space—point us forward?

an actor onstage

Anna Deavere Smith in Notes From the Field. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, has an answer to that first question:

We gather to solve problems we can’t solve on our own. We gather to celebrate, to mourn, and to mark transitions. We gather to make decisions. We gather because we need one another. We gather to show strength. We gather to honor and acknowledge. We gather to build companies and schools and neighborhoods. We gather to welcome, and we gather to say goodbye.

And yet, she points out, with “so many good reasons” for getting together, we often “don’t know precisely why we are doing so.”

In theatre we, too, have “so many good reasons” and usually so little precision of purpose. We share space to share stories or ideas or ways of being together. We seek to educate and entertain. We put on plays to promote empathy, to be more cognizant of others—those we love and those we’ve never met. We heighten our awareness of human distinction and human connection. We grapple with conflict and uncertainty; we grapple, in tragic form, with the inexorable.

But these are what Parker calls categories for gathering, not “vivid” purposes. How, for example, do we define the “space” we wish to share? Even within the profession, our uneasy terminology reveals a lack of clarity: Are we creating “sacred” space, “safe” space, “brave” space, “healing” space, “play” or “imaginative” space? What if my bravery triggers your trauma? If we bring audiences into a “shared” or “communal” space, what have we done to make it so?

And who is here among us? Who was left off the invite list? Will our sitting together confirm our similarity or help us overleap difference? What do we really want: Confirmation or challenge?

I ask these questions in a time of absence, which has made my heart grow fonder of the theatre I miss. I ask these questions as a white male, older than I like to acknowledge, who has held several leadership positions in the field. And I ask them in times that keep changing: before pandemic, during lockdown, immediately after the killing of George Floyd, in the days of uprising that become powerful weeks.

As I write, the streets of the cities in which we have built so many of our theatres are filled with protestors. In these cities, where we have built repertoires of mostly Western European dramas and their American offspring, secure in the knowledge that this canon revealed our “common humanity,” Black and brown people continue to be beaten, corralled, and killed. Artist-leaders of color, with more frequency and urgency, call out the lies—the under-lies—of our institutions and practices, the many ways “common humanity” is just another term for “dominant culture.” In her address to the Theatre Communications Group virtual conference in early June, actress and writer Nikkole Salter labeled this “epically injurious” time an “opportune time” as well. Might this moment of “breakdown,” she asked, also be one of “breakthrough”? What if this interregnum offers our best chance to take stock and, being so radically undone, redo what we’ve done so wrong? How might we sit together?

The mainstream, predominantly white American theatre, both nonprofit and commercial, has skipped half the equation. So good at making plays, it has failed at gathering.

A Moment to Just Be with Each Other

Sometimes it doesn’t help to sit together. Sometimes somebody needs space apart. “Thoughtful, considered exclusion is vital to any gathering,” says Parker “because over-inclusion is a symptom of deeper problems—above all, a confusion about why you are gathering and a lack of commitment to your purpose and your guests.” The idea of exclusion runs counter to deep-held liberal theatre principles, but even our most high-minded theatres have been excluding a lot of people for a long time—by means of ticket price, season offerings, architectural design, location, marketing—and lying to themselves about it. As someone who has almost never felt unsafe or unwelcome in a theatre, I don’t have to work hard to conjure up the people who would probably feel unsafe and/or unwelcome in any one of the thousands I’ve visited.

In today’s theatre (or yesterday’s theatre, right before the global hold button froze everything mid-stride) the need for a space apart is especially true for artists of color, who, in the United States, have seen themselves portrayed through the eyes of a dominant culture since before minstrelsy. In the nonprofit professional theatre, this call for a space apart dates at least from 1926, when W.E.B. Dubois imagined a Black “folk” theatre “about us, by us, for us, near us.” Forty years later playwright/director Douglas Turner Ward published the New York Times essay “For Whites Only?” that led to creation of the seminal Negro Ensemble Company. Ward wrote that, for Black playwrights, “the screaming need is for a sufficient audience of other Negroes, better informed through commonly shared experience to readily understand, debate, confirm or reject the truth or falsity of [the playwright’s] creative explorations.”

While Ward sought a mostly Black audience, playwrights like Jackie Sibblies Drury and Aleshea Harris answer his “screaming need” from inside their plays, charting a new canon by creating intentionally separate spaces—or what Ibram X. Kendi refers to as anti-racist spaces. “Separation is not always segregation,” Kendi writes in his memoir/treatise How to Be an Anti-Racist. Sometimes, for example, when Black people “voluntarily gather among themselves,” separation is an attempt “to separate, not from Whites but from White racism.” As Parker puts it, “Let purpose be your bouncer.”

four actors onstage

Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury. Photo by Richard Termine for The New York Times.

In the Pulitzer Prize–winning Fairview, Drury takes a moment to literally segregate her audience. Keisha, a young Black woman at the center of the play, remakes the stage in order to get clear of the white gaze that has defined and distorted her. (The entire second act and much of the third offer up increasingly intrusive, white-dominating, shock-comic enactments of that distortion.) “I can’t hear myself think,” Keisha tells an older white woman onstage. “I can’t hear anything but you staring at me.”

I need to ask you to leave
so that I can have some space to think.
I can’t think
in the face of you telling me who you think I am
with your loud self and your loud eyes
and your loud guilt —
I can’t hear myself think.

Later, speaking directly to a Black member of the audience, she continues the strain: “Do I have to keep talking to the white people? … Do I have to tell them that I want them to make space for us?” So Keisha creates a forum for speaking separately with the people of color in the audience unmediated by that dominating gaze.

By dismantling both the play and the space, Drury exposes the structures/systems on which they stand. By turning the tables on the white audience, the playwright makes them (us, when I, yet another white man, was in the audience) visible in a way that white theatre watchers, by being preponderant, stay invisible, unlike the Black bodies on the stage who, before majority white audiences, withstand constant scrutiny, not to mention misapprehension. For evidence, see nearly all reviews of African-American performance by white reviewers.

“You sit in your soft chair/You review me and you do not feel the foolishness of it,” Aleshea Harris writes in What to Send Up When It Goes Down. In that Obie-winning play, Harris, likewise, creates a space apart, in this case a healing space, a healing whose ritual requires a separate gathering of the African Americans in the audience. Harris has her “facilitator” tell a gathering of “non-Black folx” in an area of the theatre at a remove from the Black folx that, “As a Black woman and writer, I am uniquely positioned to create a piece of theatre focused on making space for Black people. This is one way I can contribute. This is my offering.”

In today’s theatre … the need for a space apart is especially true for artists of color, who, in the United States, have seen themselves portrayed through the eyes of a dominant culture since before minstrelsy.

Harris’s offering, in addition to being a play, is “a pageant… ritual… homegoing celebration,” all theatrical responses to the killing of Black people by police (the “It” of her title). “The emotional and physiological toll of this concerns us and is the reason for this ritual.” Her invitation is as explicit as her purpose: “This ritual is first and foremost for Black people./Again. We are glad non-Black people are here. We welcome you but this piece was created and is expressed with Black folks in mind.”

Harris plays with structure to forge communion with her principal audience; she also plays with meaning, including that of her title. To send something up is to satirize it, and one murderously absurd thread parodies every Driving Miss Daisy–like movie that features “friendship” between a white lady of privilege and her Black driver. (Hear the pitch perfect “I non-racistly assert the right to have whichever colored maid I like!”) The participant actors also literally send up names by speaking them—their own and those of people lost to racialized violence. Next, in a kind of self-exorcism for the Black audience, “They send it up.” The playwright explains her new meaning: “This is a rigorous movement to rid the body/spirit of things that need ridding. Like shaking off a haint.” Finally, in a healing circle, an act of communion which takes place in a space exclusively for the Black audience, words are sent up like prayers. “Black people, can we form a circle together and join hands./We’re gonna take a moment to just be with each other.”

The Space Between Us

One day we will be able to sit together again. (I mean this literally.) Hard as it is to imagine, we may even be able to sit together in a new way—in our miraculous difference, in peace wrung from justice. (I mean this aspirationally.) What might our theatre look like when we do?

There is a strain of Western dramatic literature from its beginnings that emphasizes this distance of knowing between humans, a strain that alternately stresses our inability to know one another—the kind of intrinsic blindness you find in classical comedy—and our refusal the know one another, which you find in more tragic forms, a kind of willful blindness the allows us to see only one way.

On the comic side, we have the archetypal characters of Molière, like the foolish, sycophantic Orgon, so fixed on his religious purity that he remains blinkered while his spiritual mentor, Tartuffe, seduces his wife and robs him (pun intended) blind. In the tragic vein, blindness is more willful, including in characters who have the power to see more clearly—and do so in the end, when it’s too late. The blindness that leads King Lear and the Earl of Gloucester to misjudge their children also leads to their destruction: Gloucester’s literal blinding and death and Lear’s loss of everything he holds dear, including, ultimately, his only loving daughter and his life. They learn, too late, to know the hearts closest to them.

an actor onstage

Until the Flood written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith at Repertory Theater in St. Louis in 2016. Photo by Peter Wochniak.

Are we constitutionally unable to know one another or do we refuse knowledge of even the closest hearts? That’s a question theatre, maybe uniquely, asks us to wrestle with. This artform teaches empathy, but it also probes its opposite: the small, infinite gulf between human souls.

I started thinking about this contradiction reading the plays of Anton Chekhov, where many characters suffer from what I think of as “impacted subjectivity,” a self-centeredness so acute that, despite chronically close quarters and lifetimes together, they ricochet past each other and so miss what’s happening in the hearts of the people they love, even right under their noses. They live, as so many of us do, on the borderline between inability and refusal, between intrinsic and willful blindness.

What is the exact nature of this space between us, the space that theatre, by bringing us together in physical and metaphysical ways, seeks to help us ford? There you are, as you feel yourself to be, confronted by me, as I feel myself to be. Playwright/performance artist Daniel Alexander Jones introduced me to a three-part understanding of this problem of self and other: You have your interior sense of self—how it feels to be you, with all the expanse and possibility you contain. You also have “the skin you’re in,” your face and body, the embodied self. And, finally, you have “projected self,” the way that exterior is read by others. The story of you as told by you is read by those who are not you through a lens of their own interiority, their own inner storylines, created from their own experiences and prejudices born of life in their skins and faces and bodies. How is it possible to see each other clearly? How is it possible to address each other compassionately? If a bunch of fin-de-siècle Russians living in a single house can’t know each other, how can the motley, riven citizens of twenty-first-century America hope to overcome differences as thick as race and gender?

Listening to the Listeners

If the foundational Western comic/tragic canon is rooted in the refusal or inability to hear and see each other, and in dominant thinking dressed as common humanity, might a new canon in-the-making be forged from acknowledged difference and the determination to listen? Playwrights Anna Deavere Smith and Dael Orlandersmith are two of our great listeners. They have each reached across human distance in ways that maybe only theatre can: by embodying, in real space and time, the conflict between individuals of divergent views, different realities, within a single body politic and, even, a single body. Smith and Orlandersmith, both significant playwrights as well as virtuosic performers, working extensively in predominantly white institutions, often perform solo, even as they populate the stage with dozens of characters. They conjure the scores of people/characters they dramatize, relying on simple costume changes and extraordinary acting chops. We—whoever we are—sit with them, among them.

If the foundational Western comic/tragic canon is rooted in the refusal or inability to hear and see each other … might a new canon in-the-making be forged from acknowledged difference and the determination to listen?

Smith is a master of deep listening, which begins with interviews from all sides of her central topic or event, often but not always a race-based conflict. These interviews become her material, and her plays are wrought from this verbatim text. More, though, her plays are made out of that deep listening and the empathic transformation of her performance, as she takes on the body and voice—the character—of the person she interviews. Empathic transformation aims at change in a larger sense, moving us from the individual to what Smith calls “a bigger we.” Empathic transformation becomes, just possibly, transformative empathy.

Smith famously works from speech rhythms and the characterological exactitude of language, as well as from the gestural language of the body. She both inhabits the people she presents and appears to stand to the side, narrating for us (though never in her own voice). The guiding mind of her work both distills and complicates conflict. By placing one perspective after another, often at odds with each other, she forces us not just to feel but to think, to contemplate action and answers. Talk to Me is the title of her memoir-like meditation on these attempts to capture the American character. It’s also her invitation to sit together awhile, to confront the hardest parts of our shared world.

Her recent Notes from the Field responds to the American criminal justice system and its violence towards African American citizens—from the brutality used to control school children to the extreme force that results in the deaths of young men like Freddie Gray at the hands of police and the “school-to-prison pipeline” that has led to the mass incarceration of Black men in America. To say Smith responds is, in a sense, inaccurate. Rather, she embodies and voices other responders, culled from the 250 interviews she held around country—in Baltimore, Stockton, Philadelphia, Charleston, Washington, with pastors and politicians, activists and academics, students and parents and teachers, trauma and education specialists, journalists and others.

I was particularly struck by these words from one of those she portrays, Yurok Tribal Court Chief Judge Abby Abinanti, as she talks to an unseen interviewer about a man named Taos—a self-described “monster” who cleaned up his act after being thrown out of school after school and moving up the prison ladder before getting free and clean. Judge Abinanti reflects on Taos, the boy:

You cannot deal with children, if you don’t have a sense of kindness and respect. And if you don’t like ’em. And if you don’t have systems that like them, support them, and stay with them. I get mad at you, so I throw you out of school? What is that? No! If I get mad at you then we need to come closer.… We need to come close, we don’t need to be further.

seven actors onstage

The cast of What to Send Up When It Goes Down by Aleshea Harris. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

A Bigger We

Orlandersmith’s writing more often draws on personal sources, including autobiography, but in her new piece, Until the Flood, she offers a powerful answer to the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Like Smith, she began this play with numerous interviews in and around St. Louis, but rather than presenting the interviews verbatim, she uses the material as a springboard for her own stage poetry. She fuses it imaginatively, creating composite characters and writing her own monologues for them, drawing heavily on her listening research.

While her performance style is breathtakingly transformational like Smith’s, Orlandersmith’s richest material is internal. Many of her solo performances grow out of her own life—Monster, Beauty’s Daughter, Forever—and everything she does feels personal in that way. She never stands aside, always dives into her characters to release the full field of their lives and how those lives feel to her, as they course through the well of her sympathies, and as she writes them. At the end of Until the Flood, after submerging into the passionate, sometimes murky waters of half a dozen post-killing Ferguson lives—some in sympathy with Brown, some with the White officer who shot and killed him, some both or in-between—Orlandersmith returns to a narrator’s voice, maybe her own:

Here’s for the boys/men
frightened boys
Dark boys
White boys
Boys who roam streets—going nowhere
Trying to get somewhere boys
But don’t know how
Boys are told
To be hard – boys
Be rough boys
Don’t cry – boys
Silence the boy
Quiet the boy
Kill the boy
Punish the man
Black boy – down
White man – shoot
Both down
Both are down
Both are done
Both gone
(slight pause)
They are BOTH gone

Because of the multivocal nature of Smith and Orlandersmith’s work, we—the audience, the bystanders, the fellow witnesses, the members of a society in need of change—are able to leap momentarily that infinite distance between ourselves and the hearts of others, to feel that it’s possible to know another and, even, to live together across our differences. Which isn’t to say that either of these profoundly political artists would have us live with what is. The empathy that fuels their transformations aims to be transformational—for us, for society, for the world we live in.

To confront the challenges, these four very different writers show, we sometimes have to sit apart and, sometimes, we have to sit together better.

Can We Get Along?

To quote again from Smith, this time from her book Talk to Me: Travels in Media and Politics:

Presence is that quality that makes you feel as though you’re standing right next to the actor, no matter where you’re sitting in the theatre.… These moments have a kind of authenticity, because they reach the heart…. They speak to us not because they are natural in the sense of normal. They speak to us because they are real in their effort to be together with a very large you, the you being all men and women.

This large “you”—this “we” community of self and others, the essence of the theatre event—is also a healing force for our divisions.

As Anne Bogart, a founder and one of three artistic directors of SITI Company, writes in her book What’s the Story: “Theatre is the only art form that is always about social systems. Every play asks: Can we get along? Can we get along as a society? Can we get along in this room? How might we get along better?”

In the theatre we circle two challenges, then: 1) how to sit and talk with our neighbors about what we do and do not have in common, and 2) how to work effectively as a society in miniature for the brief time we alight together in this room? To confront the challenges, these four very different writers show, we sometimes have to sit apart and, sometimes, we have to sit together better.

Aleshea Harris onstage

Aleshea Harris at the 2020 Under the Radar Festival Professional Symposium at The Public Theater in New York City.

The Challenge of the Theatre Is the Challenge of the World

When we sit together, however temporarily, we still sit in the world and, so, grapple with the problems of that world. And we embody those problems, however good our intentions. Meaning well doesn’t give an invitation meaning. And plays are not enough; the relations between characters may reflect our relations, but they can’t fix them.

The great works of the Western canon have, largely, worked as mirror and goad. We see ourselves and, if only for a couple hours, if only imaginatively, sitting together, we feel and think our way to something better. Drury, Harris, Smith, and Orlandersmith, for all their distinctiveness, literally sit us down in spaces that both replicate the environs of our division and reconceive audience in ways that might enable us to escape that context. They spotlight the question our profession has cagily avoided: Who is talking to whom? They use our awareness of these fleeting moments seated together to make dimensional—in the body, the voice, the use of overlapping perception, the arrangement of physical audience space—those foundational systems designed to blind us to each other. There are so many names in circulation for those foundational systems—white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism—and they all apply.

What theatre uniquely provides in the struggle to illuminate and dismantle these foundations of domination is the inescapable intimacy of proximity. Here are my shoulders, inches from yours, and my knees. The air we breathe is common air—which is presently dangerous air—and the sounds we hear surround us each and all. We are watching the same events and our differences shall be known by the divergence of our response. The theatre is a laboratory for the challenges of our world, and we, in all our nearness, are the experiment.

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