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A Lover's Guide to American Playwrights

Stephen Adly Guirgis

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 theatre.

New York’s LAByrinth Theater Company announces a new Stephen Adly Guirgis play. My pulse goes jumpy. It’s a curious thrill in the oh-so-appropriate American theatre, this combo of playwright and acting company, a hundred plus super-talented, hyper-expressive, hottie lunatics with scary-easy access to their emotions, dancing to the music of their own piper/playwright/co-artistic director, as they’ve done every few years since the late nineties. When was the last time a company found body and voice together like this? When was the last time a gang scorched the stage the way they do together? They make so much other theatre feel too bookish. Too white. “Like white bread soaked in milk,” as Guirgis’s Little Flower of East Orange says.

Guirgis sets his actors free. His truthfulness sets us free. He speaks his heart with the most direct, uncensored eloquence. He calls “a fuckin’ piece-of-dirt-Shanty-Irish Mick-fuck father!” a “fuckin’ piece-of-dirt-Shanty-Irish Mick-fuck father!” His writing shines like the light from an approaching subway car at the moment Jesus hops aboard. His plays are straightforward and kind of old-fashioned. But they’re true. They’re full of heart. They’re full of love for the people he creates. I love Guirgis because he reminds us what it means to respect others, to do battle with respect for ourselves. He reconnects us to the search for grace and goodness.

When was the last time a company found body and voice together like this? When was the last time a gang scorched the stage the way they do together? They make so much other theatre feel too bookish. Too white.

Portrait of Stephen Adly Guirgis.
Stephen Adly Guirgis. Photo by The Wall Street Journal.

Reading and watching his plays I always imagine they begin with the people themselves. I say people because, though his characters are as distinct and character rich as any in the contemporary theatre, they never feel made up. They don’t take the stage the way a character might, they populate it. Of course, he makes them up, but they feel alive the way in a can’t-make-this-shit-up kind of way, like you couldn’t make up New York City itself.

Here’s a scene from Our Lady of 121st Street. Marcia and Edwin have met in the hours leading up to what’s supposed to be the funeral of Sister Rose, a neighborhood tough-love saint, whose body has been stolen from her casket. The dialogue is so crafted and so authentic at the same time, as are the ways the characters miss every possible bid for agreement and connection. Marcia has just come out of an asthma attack, caused, at least in part, by Edwin’s cigarette.

MARCIA. … You saved my life.
EDWIN. Actually I was one of the smokers that caused your conniption.
MARCIA. —Look, I rarely feel grateful for anything, so could you just shut up and let me be grateful for a second? (Pause.)
EDWIN. You’re a very strange lady.
MARCIA. Ssh. (Pause.)
EDWIN. …Are you sad about Sister Rose’s body gettin’ vicked?
EDWIN …Do you think—
MARCIA. Pipe down! People get so intimidated by silence, they just wanna talk, talk, talk—(Pause.) Are you touching my breast?
EDWIN. That was accidental.
EDWIN. …You were very nice to my brother.
MARCIA. Well, I was raised to be kind to the disabled.—I mean—
EDWIN. That’s OK…
MARCIA. I didn’t mean to infer—
EDWIN. He ain’t retarded, he just suffered a accident when we was little. I accidentally threw a brick out the window which ended up on his head.
MARCIA. …I’m sorry.
EDWIN … Are you, are you crying?
MARCIA. I just, any time I see someone like that, you know, it just makes me very sad, like I should be nicer to people … or devote more time to charities. .. Something … Something. You know?
EDWIN. So why don’t you just do that then?
MARCIA … What?
EDWIN. I said, Do it then. Help out more.
MARCIA. Look, I help out plenty already—
EDWIN. But maybe you could do more—
MARCIA. OK, like, back off?
EDWIN. Back off?
MARCIA. You know nothing about me, or what I do or don’t do! When was the last time you wrote a check or helped an old lady cross the street?
EDWIN. Um…I’m not sure.
MARCIA. Right. So… “People in glass houses,” OK, mister?!
EDWIN. People in glass houses what?
MARCIA. You know.
EDWIN. I know what?
MARCIA. You’ve never heard that before?!
EDWIN. Why would anyone wanna live in a glass house? It could break, or, people could peep at you—
MARCIA. You know what? I’ve gotta find my friend Sonia.
EDWIN. Did I say something wrong?
MARCIA. Look: Goodbye, thanks for saving me.
EDWIN. Why donchu hang out, have a Yodel?
MARCIA. I’m allergic to chocolate.
EDWIN. Have a soda then.
MARCIA. Caffeine?
EDWIN. How ‘bout a slice a pizza?
MARCIA. Pizza! Hello? Cheese?! God, did someone throw a brick on your head, too?! (Marcia exits.)

Guirgis loves his characters as if he went to Catholic school with all of them, got drunk with them, and threw the bottles off the roof. He loves them as if he went to the funerals of their moms and dads, buried their little brothers; as if he visited them in the hospital, cleaned their bedpans, brought them Hostess Yodels and bottles of Scotch they were forbidden to drink. He visited them on Rikers and in Purgatory, yelled at them in court and prayed with them in bars. They screwed his girlfriend and he still loves them. He sat with them at family meals and got so pissed off that he spat out his dinner, swept the table with his arm, and jumped across to choke the life out of them or smash their faces. He wound up crying in their arms an hour later, back on the roof, smoking cigarettes and plucking pigeon feathers out of their hair. He loves his characters like a kick in the teeth, a fist in the gut, a smack on the ass. He loves his characters like Jesus washes Judas Iscariot’s feet, because Jesus loves him even after betrayal, even in despair, which is the ultimate betrayal.

“God has the biggest love for the least of his creatures.” Santa Monica says in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. And so it is with Guirgis. His characters are often, sociologically, the little people of the city—prisoners, drunk cops, hospital orderlies, forgotten old ladies, retarded little brothers, has-been writers. His epigraph to The Little Flower of East Orange lets us know the kind of garden he’s cultivating:

The splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of its scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. I realized that if every tiny flower wanted to be a rose, spring would lose its loveliness and there would be no wildflowers to make the meadows gay.

He loves his characters like a kick in the teeth, a fist in the gut, a smack on the ass. He loves his characters like Jesus washes Judas Iscariot’s feet, because Jesus loves him even after betrayal, even in despair, which is the ultimate betrayal.

The quotation is from Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, and it’s no accident. All of Guirgis’s plays to date are, in some measure, saints plays. His body of work forms a book of saints, from actual ones like Monica and Mother Teresa to local ones like Sister Rose and Therese Marie in The Little Flower. Even Therese Marie’s Jamaican nurse, Magnolia, has sainthood in her.

There are saints walking this earth, Magnolia.” Therese says, “I believe that strongly. I may be old and dopey, but I don’t miss a trick, honey. You are a saint, and I thank you.”

But Guirgis’s people are anything but small. They are ginormous outsized creations with personality for days. This, to me, is the source of his particular genius. He sees how theatrical people absolutely are. He understands that people are, in essence and by the limitations of their own rutted selves, characters. The way Chekhov’s characters are embedded in their own subjectivity, limited by their own perspective, Guirgis’s people are mired neck deep in who they can’t stop being, who they can’t get away from, that is, themselves. They are, to borrow his lingo, the stuckest motherfuckers around. “Welcome to my life that ain’t gonna change,” says one character. Stuck and slip-sliding away from the best in themselves at every turn, wannabe saints with moral attention deficit.

I love this scene from Our Lady. It’s from a long confessional scene between a paraplegic and somewhat agoraphobic Priest, Father Lux, who will try to save Rooftop, a philanderer, druggie, and up-and-coming LA dj from despair, which may be the reason Rooftop travelled cross country to Sister Rose’s funeral and ended up, accidentally or on purpose, in the confessional. This is a piece of what to me plays like Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s On First?” on crack.

FATHER LUX. They say despair is the absence of hope. Are you despairing?
FATHER LUX. You know what despair is?
ROOFTOP. The absence of hope, right?
FATHER LUX. Besides that.
FATHER LUX. Despair is marked by the termination or the cessation of action. For example: A man is stuck in a well—
ROOFTOP. Stuck in a whale?
FATHER LUX. Not a “whale,” a well.
ROOFTOP. What’s a “well”?
FATHER LUX. A well! You know, you get water from it?
ROOFTOP. Oh, you talkin’ about a “well,” like, you go with’ your pail to the well?—
FATHER LUX. Yes, a “well.”
ROOFTOP. I’m sorry, Father, I thought you said “whale.”
FATHER LUX. That’s OK, so—
ROOFTOP. ‘Cuz there’s story about a man stuck up in a whale, right?
FATHER LUX. That’s Jonah.
ROOFTOP. Yeah, “Jonah,” dass right—“Jonah and the Whale”
FATHER LUX. Yes, so—
ROOFTOP. —Sister Rose, she usta tell us that story all the time.
FATHER LUX. It’s a nice story—
ROOFTOP. I usta go home and have nightmares ‘bout getting’ stuck up inside a whale— my pops usta beat my ass wit’ a slipper talkin’ ‘bout, “Ain’t no whales in Harlem, fool, go back ta sleep, this is a workin’ family!” …Yeah…
ROOFTOP. Say, you remember them pajamas wit’ the feet on ‘em? You ever had a pair?
ROOFTOP. Dass too bad, they was snug. An’ I always usta like those little glove clips they would put on your coat, with the long string runnin’ through your sleeves, so your gloves was always hangin’ there when ya needed them? I mean, I can’t tell you how many pairs of nice leather gloves I usta lose every winter—I mean, this is before I moved out to Los Angeles—
ROOFTOP. I once lost a pair of genuine mink-lined Italian leather gloves—
ROOFTOP. Yes, Father?
FATHER LUX. Confessional! Not “conversational”! Remember?!
ROOFTOP. Right, right.

If love and charity are antidotes to despair, they are harsh medicine. Saintliness, as it occurs in Guirgis’s plays, is never, to use his word, “sissy.” Saints are tough and selfish, demanding and narcissistic. They aren’t particularly sweet. They carry a big shillelagh. And they’re often born of abuse and, in his New York, addiction. The same story is told in two of his plays, almost verbatim, how Sister Rose became “Our Lady,” and how Therese Marie became “The Little Flower.” From Our Lady. Marcia speaks to Edwin:

My grandfather was an alcoholic…He used to beat up my grandmother, and my mom, and Sister Rose…When Sister Rose was eleven, she stood up to my grandfather and after that, he would only beat her…The result of this is that my mom and Sister Rose both grew up to become different kinds of maniacs…They were both alcoholics…They’re both dead…And I’m just like both of them…And I think maybe you are too.

The father confessor is, similarly, pretty damned compromised.

FATHER LUX. (To Rooftop.) I’m not a good priest. I don’t visit the sick because I’m afraid to go outside my vestments. They don’t let me say Mass anymore. I haven’t left the rectory next door since I was transferred here nine months ago. And, I don’t want to. Black people scare me. I don’t particularly like them. Or you, really. Most of the time, I don’t believe in God at all, and when I do—I’m furious at him…That’s as honest as I can be.

It’s this exact mess of harshness and goodness, aggression and love that knocks the wind out of you when you watch Guirgis’s work. You’re laughing, you’re crying. You want to leap across the table and choke the daylights out of these crazy, lovely mothers.

The road to goodness and grace isn’t straight. If it was, we wouldn’t need Guirgis. We block the road for ourselves. Maybe God will help, maybe he isn’t there. He can’t stop wrestling with God, even when his arms are empty. He debates with Christianity and Catholicism like a good Jew, like those eternal questioner/arguers among my own people; like those incorrigibly argumentative Yeshiva bochurs Martin Scorsese depicts under the desert palm in The Last Temptation of Christ, those debate-loving rabbinicals who look like they just stepped out of Goodfellas, ‘cause they did.

He’s got people to breathe life into, questions to answer, a fucked-up world to change even if it doesn’t want to change. He’s writing for his own life and death, his own grace.

In the end, Guirgis gets the pulse racing because he knows always always always that writing is a matter of life and death. He may be one of the most tortured writers I’ve encountered, but he has to do it. He’s got people to breathe life into, questions to answer, a fucked-up world to change even if it doesn’t want to change. He’s writing for his own life and death, his own grace. You feel it in every line. In every laugh. In every painful, warped, wonderful, rutted, little magnificent encounter.

“And what is “grace”? the writer Danny asks in Little Flower. . .

Grace, to me, is that thing that I constantly spit in the face of. If there’s a God, he loves me. But I don’t seem to love him back enough. And thus: my life . . . Grace offered acceptance and good counsel. And I spit in the face of it. Why? ‘Cuz somehow I felt . . . I don’t know . . . undeserving . . . and angry, and completely fuckin’ powerless.

Later, he continues the thought:

…Except that I firmly believe that grace does not remain invisible to anyone who’s looking for it. And even to those who aren’t. My mom taught me that. Grace is like your next breath. Until you die, it’s always there…

You don’t spit in the face of grace. And you don’t miss a new play by Stephen Adly Guirgis.



Thoughts from the curator

An ongoing series of tributes to contemporary playwrights.

A Lover's Guide to American Playwrights


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JUDAS was the easiest and most pleasurable 1st reads of a play I've ever experienced. I remember being locked out of my apartment and decided to read it until my roommate came home. I read it twice in one sitting. I knew immediately that I wanted to produce it at Forum. My only concern was that it felt so personal to me that I was worried that I would be the only one who loved it this much.

The thing was--it felt that personal to EVERYONE. And that's down to Stephen's brilliance as a writer.

Thanks Todd, in your love for his writing, yours also comes alive. A pleasure to read this homage and remember. Good call.

Amen. Thanks for putting me back on a Guirgis kick. I recommend the book A Jesuit Off-Broadway, which is Jesuit (and Colbert Report chaplain) James Martin's account of his experience as the theological adviser to Judas' world premiere.