Six minutes driving in downtown Manhattan

by Catherine Banks

in Global Citizenship

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(This post is part of the Canadian theatre salon curated by Chantal Bilodeau for the World Theatre Day 2014/Crossing Borders salon series.)

I am on I-95 driving at a speed that has me slightly terrified, trying not to get squeezed into the lanes reserved for transport trucks (built twice as high as the ones on the roads in Canada) that roar pass me on my right. Just as I am about to risk changing one lane to my left, a big boat of a car – a Monte Carlo maybe, or a Chrysler Buick – passes me like I am dead stopped. The woman behind the wheel has a look that says hell bent for shoe leather; the car’s body seems to float over its axles, like one more shot of gas and it’s airborne.

About fifteen minutes later, around one of the few curves in the road, the boat of a car is fetched up in a copse of trees, facing the direction it has just come from as if the driver had attempted to execute a simple mid-air U-turn, but nose-dived instead. I can’t slow down but in an instant’s glance, I see the smashed front-end, smoke pouring from the engine, men – fire extinguishers in hand – running towards the accident, and the woman – her face and chest covered in blood – being carried away from the danger of a fiery explosion. Moments later, emergency vehicles – lights whirling, sirens wailing – stream by on the way to the scene.

It is an August day. What I am doing on I-95 is researching a play about a forty-nine-year-old rural hairdresser from Nova Scotia, who steals her husband’s plumbing van to drive to New York City and lie her way into meeting her idol, the artist Missy Elliot.

My seventeen-year old son introduced me to the music of Missy Elliott in 2005. I listened: “Love my gut so fuck a tummy tuck, oh yeah. Yup, I shakes my butt, shakes my gut like ’yeah bitch, what?” * and I listened and I listened and I listened. I played This is Not a Test, Supa Dupa Fly, Miss E…So Addictive, Under Construction, and Da Real World in rotation for months. Missy’s lyrics made something deep inside me leap up. I told my son “I think I need to write a play about Missy Elliott so I can get a Canada Council grant to go to New York and meet her.” We had a great laugh about that.

I am the kind of writer who never writes with theatre budgets in mind. But when my marriage ended in 2007, I decided I had to get sensible. I thought, time to write a two-hander, funny, ninety-minute play that every summer theatre and community theatre group will want to do. A play about a Missy-obsessed hairdresser seemed the ticket, but the play quickly took over the page and morphed into a wild ride with twenty-two zany characters played by six actors, derailing the “cheap to put on” plan. I kept writing.

I had been driven through parts of the States many times (by father and husband) but never had I ventured across the border alone at the wheel. The suggestion by several dramaturges that the zaniness needed to be grounded in an actual route took hold, so without telling anyone, and with only two sheets of Google map directions on the seat beside me, I drove out of my tiny fishing village one morning at 8am.

Thirty-six hours later, I shot out of the Lincoln tunnel onto Manhattan’s 42nd Street just as the sun was setting over the harbor. My first thought was My God there’s a harbor, of course, how perfect. I sat at the first set of lights snapping pictures out of my car windows to prove later, even to myself, that I had driven in New York City. I had the overwhelming fear that I was going to take the wrong turn and get sucked so far into the metropolis that I would never make it out again. I drove straight down 42nd Street and there it was, the most beautiful sign in the world, Lincoln Tunnel exit to New Jersey. I never hesitated. I had been in downtown Manhattan for six minutes but it was enough to rewrite my play.

I used it all – the impossibly high-sided transports, the New York harbor and the woman crashed on the side of the road:

(When a Healer arrives in the van Dawna wonders if she should turn back although all the exit ramps are closed.)

DAWNA: Your touch….I feel like a newborn.
HEALER: Happy birth (pause) day.
DAWNA: It is my birthday. I am 50 today.

HEALER’s pager goes off.

HEALER: (reads message)Rabbi needed on I 95. I need a lift Dawna and step on it.

They get into the van. They arrive at the accident, flashing lights, sirens etc. Dawna looks at the accident horrified.

HEALER: Let me out here.
DAWNA: That woman she’s ….she’s dead isn’t she?
HEALER: U-turns Dawna—never simple always tragic.

Making this trip on my own gave my script not just grounding but brought an authenticity to Dawna’s journey. When I gave the first reading of a scene from Miss N Me, a woman in the audience said “What is it with Missy Elliott and 50-year-old white women?” I am not sure that I have figured it out completely, but I think it has to do with the power, joy and most especially authenticity in her lyrics. One’s authentic self is something that some women, by their 50th birthday, have grown away from and thirst to get back to. My own deeply buried authentic self lept towards Missy Elliott’s music, carrying me over a border I had constructed within. I wanted to write a play to celebrate Miss E and to inspire another woman to make a break for it across her own interior border back to her power and joy, back to her authentic woman so deeply buried.

* Missy Elliott, Pump it Up

BanksCatherine Banks’ plays include It is Solved by Walking, Bone Cage, Three Storey Ocean View, and Bitter Rose. Bitter Rose aired on Bravo! Canada. Catherine has won the Governor General’s Award for Literature (English) Drama twice, Bone Cage in 2008 and It is Solved by Walking in 2012.

Banks’ plays are characterized by black humor, and compelling dramatic metaphor. It is Solved by Walking has been translated into Catalan by Tant per Tant and was one of three Canadian plays that toured Catalonia in November 2012.

Catherine Banks received Nova Scotia’s Established Artist Award for her body of work in 2008. She is currently completing Miss N Me as well as adapting Ernest Buckler’s remarkable novel The Mountain and the Valley for the stage.