Furthering the Conversation about Blackbird
“Cultural microaggressions” is the locution Harvard professor Chester M. Pierce came up with in 1970 to describe subtle racial injustices. This phrasing has been extended to other realms as a useful, purposively sword-like, and kind way of thinking about our cultural blindnesses. I would like to pose another instance of something like it in several reviews that surround the latest production of David Harrower’s Blackbird.
The sexual use of children—the notion of children and sexuality at all—is terrifying territory often evidenced by our hysterical responses to it. It is hard to think clearly about children and sex. I am profoundly grateful for the moments that live bodies onstage open our hearts and minds, as only theatre can, to the possibility of new information. I don’t claim crystalline vision in this territory myself, but I would like to raise some questions and point to the microaggressions toward women/girls, especially female sexuality, which emerge in the conversations around Blackbird—particularly in the use of the word “love.” Blackbird gives us a wealth of emotional information about the domestic version of this territory similar to Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive. Vogel showed us how a “love affair” grew, helping us to know the nature of “love.” Harrower gives us more information by showing us “love’s” aftereffects.
Audience members are led to ask: ‘What would have happened if they had not been discovered? If the “affair” had been allowed to play itself out?’
“Love affair,” “love story,” and “great love,” are phrases reviewers use when describing the early relationship between Una (a twelve-year-old) and Ray (a forty-year-old) in Blackbird. These phrases are used in the context of questions like, “Was it love or was it statutory rape?” in Variety. I am glad the element of love is part of the conversation. But the word is used without examination, as if love or a love affair has a single meaning. We have a desperate need for parsing this kind of love. The response of the critics is like our own; it is another Rorschach of our inability to think clearly about children and sexuality.
We get scant background on either of the characters’ lives before their onstage meeting fifteen years after their sexual encounter, but we do get clues. Una’s mother didn’t ask her questions when the affair was revealed. Yet like the judge in the criminal case against Ray, she judged and rejected her daughter. Una’s father died of shame and no one in the family seems to have broken out of their hysterical response to ask her why, to help her sort through what happened to her. Una seems to have sorted through what happened to her, helping herself grow up and leave the home that contained her. There was little emotional intelligence visible in her family (not unlike most of us in this arena). It is a small, telling portrait of the very ordinary family from which Una came.
At forty, Ray lived alone in a suburban family neighborhood of barbecues and driveway car repairs. We get no information about his previous marriage, or his ties to anyone, but a woman who isn’t his “girlfriend.” But there is nothing evidently pathological here: Ray is an ordinary man brought to life by a girl who likes him and wants to talk to him. A girl who has begun to feel the astonishment of her own sexual power and longing.
In his fine book and solo performance piece The Tricky Part, Martin Moran quotes his therapist: “The job of a little kid is to fall in love. The job of the adult is to have boundaries.” Whatever Una’s reasons for “falling in love” with this paunchy, dull man it was her job as a live, growing girl to do so. In her version of love at twelve, she and her best friend put Ray’s picture on their pillow and cover it with kisses. As reviewer Megan Patterson importantly gives us at the outset of her HowlRound essay, Ray’s first words to Una on the afternoon they met were: “Why aren’t you happy? You should be happy.” Surely he seemed to treat her like a real person by seeing her. Among the things he failed to see, however, was that she was a child. What Harrower, the creative team, Director Joe Mantello, and actors Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels show us so clearly is that fifteen years later Ray fails to see it again. As their defenses break down in the encounter, the belligerent, in-charge Una becomes twelve-years-old again—still afraid of the dark, and of being left alone as she was fifteen years earlier. She still contains the twelve-year-old not because she has never gotten over this “great love of her life,” but because what should have been her gorgeous young sexuality was out of her hands. She was given rules and definitions that were not her own by her parents and the courts, and by Ray. In the fifteen years after Ray, she has had eighty-three “lovers.”
Audience members are led to ask: “What would have happened if they had not been discovered? If the ‘affair’ had been allowed to play itself out?” Sexuality at its onset is best invented by its owner without the imposition of rules, pleasures, neuroses, and bad habits someone with twenty-eight years more experience brings. But let us say that Ray had no more experience in sexuality than Una did, and that they would have happily explored together. Let us say that Ray would have masterfully taught Una all he knew. He would have “helped” her be happy. Even if all of that were true, Ray and Una were never not going to be discovered and defined by the cultural version of their affair. Ray could not but fail her in missing this reality to begin with. But setting aside whether he should have pursued the relationship in the first place, he fails as a lover in not seeing who she actually is on their first night. Acting out of his own (instructive) fear, Ray leaves a little girl sexually open, all alone, and in a strange place.
You could argue Ray was tricked by Una into believing her seductions were a real invitation. The judge confirms this judgment by naming Una’s “suspiciously adult yearnings.” (I am thinking of Sally Mann’s delicious and terrifying portraits of girls in At Twelve.) I am also remembering my blinding realization of both desire and desirability at the same age, walking down a street in Tulsa, OK. Like Una, it was my job to play that recognition out, to glory in it and learn it within the boundaries adults in our lives provide for us.
Blackbird is a courageous play, and its subject is an important one. Not unlike our inability to see the depth of our cultural racism, we seem unable to really look at the sexual use of children except through denial and hysteria. I admire Harrower’s exploration of this subject and I’m grateful for the emotional information he gives us. In theatre and other art forms, the hope is always that some new facet of the world is revealed, and that we generate discourse in post-show conversations (public and private), and in scholarship and criticism. I appreciate the questions that are being asked, but too easily we fall back on what we know. Blackbird gives us another chance, another opening. How can we use such a moment?