(Photo by Jenny Graham. Pictured: Naomi Wallace. This essay was originally published in the January 2013 issue of AMERICAN THEATRE.)
On resistance, hospitality and new writing for the American stage
All writing for the theatre is in some sense an act of violation. By this I mean that when we enter into the lives of others and try to imagine a perspective that is not our own, we have to push through what we know, what we are sure of, what we value—push into the very skin of another life and vision. Sure, that’s common sense for a writer, but mainstream theatre does not generally enter into the lives and bodies of those we consider “strangers”; more often than not it bounces off the barriers, contenting itself with the safe and recycled materials of stereotype (albeit refreshed for the present moment), cliché and hearsay. Writing that does not actually violate boundaries, that does not enter into the process of trespass, is often a writing that is safe, consumable and shallow. A theatre that does not challenge its own assumptions, its own ignorance, with curiosity and humility is a contracted theatre, a diminished theatre.
And in these harsh and difficult days, when we are afraid of losing what we have, afraid of losing what we almost had, afraid of getting what we’ve always feared, we make choices. Playwrights make choices. About who enters their stages. Who gets the light and who gets only a glancing view. Who stays around and has the last word, the best word, and who is at the center of the joke. The center of love or humiliation. We are encouraged to fear the outsider, the one at the edge of our stage, the In/spectre at the door.
And here, I am not summoning the overly esoteric otherness in the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, the stranger who shatters and consumes us, but rather noting the ones who enter the landscapes of our stage, and the ones who are refused its geography. If, as Terry Eagleton says, “Neighborhood is a practice rather than a locality,” we must investigate the neighborhoods of our theatre and highlight what is rendered invisible: Who is missing, who is spoken for and who is unmentionable. How does the policing of these “neighborhoods on stage,” through our selves and/or our institutions, perpetuate a retracted, redacted and inhospitable theatre?
Coming into stories that we are not familiar with, entering into bodies and genders that are not our own, is a risk and a responsibility that I believe is often taken too lightly, if taken at all. For example, white playwrights, over many decades, have rarely given a second thought to creating characters for black Americans. Our conscious and unconscious sense of entitlement, our skin privilege, our general and often nursed ignorance, have created a legacy of demeaning, shallow and stereotypical portraits of African Americans and other people of color on stage. Considering the damage that white writers have done, one might come to the conclusion that it’s best for white writers to stick to writing for white folks. Too much damage otherwise. And yet I believe that all of us must take the risk to represent anyone and everyone.
But why focus on imagination and its power to violate and trespass? Am I not in danger of advocating a sort of colonization, given that violation also signifies the oppression of one by another? Why not stick with what we know? Write about what we know? Well, certainly there is a place for that. Especially for the stories of those artists and their communities who have not been welcomed onto the American stage but have had to forge a space for themselves there: black artists, Asian American, Latino, Native American, Arab American and others. However, mainstream American theatre is still largely a white, middle-class endeavor—and, in being so, is not really an “American” theatre, but a specialized, illusionary theatre.
So how do we pillage the material of our own lives to find our connection to the larger historical and social forces swirling around our heads, if not inside them? The important word here is find rather than create. Because these connections already exist. The goal is to uncover these live wires, no matter how buried or twisted. The trick is to tap into these lines and charge up our imaginations.
Hospitality plays an important role in Shakespeare. One of drama’s worst hosts, Macbeth, is thus because of his appetite for self-serving power. While a victim of inhospitable forces, King Lear comes to disregard power and embrace the out/cast as well as a more egalitarian world:
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.
In thinking about hospitality, we’ll need to consider not only whom we welcome onto the stage but how in our writing we might cross the divide between our own personal experiences and that of others, from our own sexuality to that of another sexuality; our own race to that of another race; our own class and gender to that of another class or gender.
First, let us recall that hospitality derives from the Latin “hospitare”—to entertain. This neatly encapsulates the type of theatre I believe we strive for: one that gives, that offers pleasure and nourishment; but it is also a theatre of consideration, that is open to ideas, others, dissident selves. The tradition of the unexpected guest who provokes a revelation, if not a reconfiguration of the familiar, is well worn. But as in J.B. Priestley’s The Inspector Calls, I would like to take this tradition a step further: The Other and ourselves should not be seen as the foreign facing off against the familiar.
As the inspector shows, we already know the unknown even if we didn’t know we knew it (shades of Donald Rumsfeld there—apologies). My point is this: We are already and always complicit, interconnected and related to the stranger, the Other, the unfamiliar.
I GREW UP IN KENTUCKY. UNLIKE most Kentuckians, I grew up with privilege. My father, Henry, was a journalist and, as he liked to refer to himself, a “gentleman-farmer.” I was raised on a small cattle farm which, while rarely breaking even, was kept going by the sizeable inheritance bestowed on my father. Even though my mother, Sonia, was Dutch working class and educated me in class consciousness, I grew up in an idyllic pastoral landscape.
But over the hill and not so far away, there lived two different communities. One was white working class, the other black working class. They were my neighbors. I slept in their houses. I ran with their children. I kissed their boys. I fell in love with their girls. But the most fruitful thing I did was shut my mouth in the presence of the adults of these families. And I listened. I listened to their dinner chat, their courtesies, their hopes, the vulnerability of their fears that they exposed to me because as long as I was a child, I was still harmless. I hadn’t yet stepped into my full privilege of class and skin.
And it was here that I learned most intimately about the magic and seduction of the American dream. In one of these communities over the hill, I found a pick-up-truck-driving boyfriend named Jay. Jay’s father had fought in Korea and he’d been poisoned by the tin food rations that were distributed to troops by the U.S. government. The poison had corroded his lungs. He had one lung removed, then another half. But this man, Mr. Aldridge, continued to work. I remember a few years later—when I’d lost contact with both Jay and his family—stopping by the local restaurant. There I saw Mr. Aldridge sitting in the corner with a paper cup of coffee and a cigarette. I was taught to be a polite young woman, so I sat with him some moments to say hello. Already he was dying, though he did his best to ignore it. But he asked me a question that I have never forgotten. He said, “How is it that I have worked hard all my life and still I have nothing?” I didn’t have an answer. My own father had two lungs. And we didn’t have “nothing.” We had a lot of things.
I can recall that moment easily and yet still not without unease. Mr. Aldridge must have been in his forties when he started his dying. He was a handsome man. Years later he suffocated to death on what was left of his lung. Jay found him and tried to resuscitate his father with mouth to mouth—for three hours, long after he was dead. Jay never got over his father’s death, which was both an economic and physical suffocation. I have not seen Jay for decades. I hear he speaks to invisible beings and lives on the streets.
Mr. Aldridge worked for his family all his life. He died broke and left a broken family behind him because of it. To this day our government continues to deny its culpability for the poisoning of its own troops.
Of course, when Mr. Aldridge asked me that question in the restaurant, I was still only a teenager. I was interested in Bacardi and boys, fishing in Harrod’s creek, and field parties where we danced on the hoods of banged-up trucks. While some sense of discomfort lived within me, I thought neither long nor hard on Mr. Aldridge’s question. Not until many years later.
We are responsible for the education of our imaginations, for its focus and direction. We must ask ourselves: Whom and what does my imagination serve? Where will I urge my mind to venture and roam, and to what purpose? As Edward Bond, in his Theatre Poems and Songs, puts it:
How is society organized?
For the happiness of the people?
Or so that profit can be drawn
At as many points as possible?
What childhood experiences like knowing Mr. Aldridge relayed to me is that there is something seriously and morally wrong with an economic system that nurtures the few rich and powerful, and diminishes and devours the rest. It is not for lack of effort, will power, or moral fiber that so many have been left broken, impoverished and afraid, but the fault of a racist and classist social system designed to have the majority struggling and a minority living in the lap of luxury.
Again, I come back to the question: How do we resist the temptation to write it safe? How do we as artists engage with the most urgent questions of our time? With oppression and injustice here within our turbulent home? How do we engage with war without fetishizing it?
As playwrights we need, I would suggest, to become detectives, inspectors and investigators into our own privilege and power, our culpability, our closing of the door. When we write, we can investigate the unseen, the disremembered. We can cultivate a hospitality toward dissent rather than a nurtured contempt for truth. We can do the hard work of inquiring into history, both immediate and past, both near and remote, with seriousness, imaginative thinking, playfulness, curiosity and a ruthless, carnivalesque sense of hope. We must do research. If possible, we should travel and talk to others. We read and reread and digest and consider. We imagine. We imagine some more. We listen. And then, if we’re lucky, we write something that “entertains.”
TO GO BEYOND OURSELVES, TO imagine the worlds of others, is always a worthwhile endeavor. With all the obvious and discomforting flaws, we are still grateful for Othello, Lady Macbeth and Shylock. As we are grateful for the engaged, radical stages created by such a wealth of writers as Kia Corthron, Tanya Barfield, Young Jean Lee, Richard Montoya, Caridad Svich, Ismail Khalidi, Roger Guenveur Smith, Basil Kreimendahl, Yussef El Guindi, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Mike Geither, Betty Shamieh and Kwame Kwei-Armah, to name just a few. And to keep hope alive, we have the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s courageous AmericanRevolutions: TheUnitedStatesHistoryCycle, a 10-year program commissioning up to 37 new plays sprung from moments of change in U.S. history; NewYorkTheatreWorkshop and its continuing creative interaction with its associate company, the FreedomTheaterofJenin; CENTERSTAGE of Baltimore’s daring social media project, My America; and Michael Dixon’s New Play Project at Minneapolis’s GuthrieTheater, which encouraged playwrights to explore a wider cultural representation in their plays, and to travel to Liberia, Cambodia, Turkey, Korea, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and other neighborhoods coming to a city near you.
Let me be clear here: There are a thousand ways we can trip and flounder when we enter into writing about experiences far from our own. We might fail to honor the complicated humanity of another. We might find that cliché sneaks into our path and we stand on it and build from there. We might, simply, miss the boat. To aid us in this challenge, we might stay alert to the corrective that Edward Said suggests in his HumanismandDemocraticCriticism (and here I will substitute the word “playwright” for “intellectual,” for we are both): The playwright should be “a kind of counter memory” with his or her “own counter-discourse that will not allow conscience to look away or fall asleep. The best corrective…is to imagine the person you are discussing” —or writing about—“in this case the person on whom the bombs will fall—reading you in your presence.”
We live in increasingly inhospitable times. Fanning anti-immigrant hysteria, racism, and increasing attacks on the poor, unions and women’s health are part and parcel of the voracious and reactionary program which distorts our understanding of the world and our place in it, and is rapidly dismantling civic society: undermining our libraries, disappearing our public spaces, threatening our schools and the right to free education. All the necessary public places where we fall in love with the world, and one another, free from the fundamentalism of the profit-motive.
Inhospitality is about tending one’s own garden and locking the gate; it’s about greed and fear. NIMBYism as a life philosophy. Mainstream culture suffocates our awareness of the inherent connection, however tenuous, between you and me. Between L.A. and Afghanistan. Between Kentucky and Sudan. Between Jenin and New York. Between Pakistan and Cleveland. Between you and you and you.
In bombers named for girls, we burned—
The cities we had learned about in school
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
The pilot knows that there is a thread, a wire, connecting his experience to those beneath his bomber. This was exactly the coming to consciousness that turned the late Howard Zinn into both a pacifist and groundbreaking historian-activist. The pilot and the bomb. But what does this have to do with those of us who are neither the pilot nor the bombed? Our connection is actually terribly intimate, and we might begin our investigation of this link, for instance, with a bodily fluid: sweat.
Produced by labor—a good day’s labor. We work. All of us. We care about our work. We are citizens. We pay taxes. So I speak to you because I want to be of use—we all want to be of use, and the fruit of our labor is to see our loved ones bloom.
But the fruit of our labor also goes to kill others like us. The bombs we have paid for, the aircraft we have assembled, the napalm we have sweated for. This is the painful and heart-breaking contradiction of living in this culture, this society. How do we open out these contradictions so that they inspire us rather than cripple us?
We might begin with curiosity. For example, in this country, our labor is harnessed in the manufacturing of the near-lethal tear gas, created in Pennsylvania, courtesy of Combined Systems, and used in Egypt, in other Middle Eastern countries and the illegally occupied Palestinian Territories. Our toil and grind is exploited to build F-16s, drones, Apache helicopters, depleted uranium and cluster munitions. Curiosity. What is our part in the brutal and lawless killing in 2009 of more than 1,200 Gazan civilians, more than 300 of whom were children, trapped in the largest open-air prison in the world? How might we begin to imagine the ongoing, relentless violence of an occupation bankrolled by our government and nurtured by our toil? To envision the lives of civilians who live in fear and under the shadow of the fruits of a fruitless Middle East peace plan that has to be, in the words of Sara Roy, one of the most “spectacular deceptions of modern history”?
We must, I believe, disrupt the lie with an imagination that is fierce, demystifying and persistent. We must meet the perversion of human intellect for the benefit of war and oppression with a creative force, a theatrical force that challenges, interrogates and disorientates. Or, in more poetic terms, do as Keats suggests, and be “awake for ever in a sweet unrest.” Unrest. Yes, that’s where the sweetness, the sexiness, the seriousness makes things happen on stage by speaking truth to that most inhospitable terrain of human thriving: global capitalism.
That is all to say that we should aspire to be interested writers. Interest: a word too often hijacked by finance. The Latin prefix inter means between or among; also mutually, together. Thus interact, interrelate and international. Wonderful injunctions for writers. As if describing engaged and challenging writing, the Latin word interresse means “to concern, be of importance,” and, here’s the kicker, “to make a difference.” Break interest down, it means basically inter—“between” and esse—“to be.” To live between. To live between self and world, self and others, ourselves, our others, our histories, their histories. Sure, our own stories are occasionally interesting, but what I am talking about is connecting our everyday experiences to a world view, the longue durée, the grand narrative, the big picture.
The myth of free enterprise is that we are independent of one another, that we flourish in the me, mine and myself. But ultimately we are social beings and we need each other to understand ourselves and history. The stranger at the door is there so that we may realize that the stranger is also us. That hospitality, on the stage and off the stage, is what enriches, challenges, haunts and articulates our lives.
When we cross boundaries, when we violate our own skin to know the heartbreak or hope or resistance of another, what we come closer to, surprisingly, is ourselves. Because through imaginative empathy, we revive our own humanity. So, to put it simply, we must be where we are not, because if we look down we will see that we are already there, here, among those we are encouraged to believe are strangers. Who suddenly are no longer strangers.
Playwright Naomi Wallace divides her time between Kentucky and England.