Lyrics and Language: How Fabrizio Naccarelli helped me to teach English in Italy

 

I’ve always found foreign songs to be a helpful way of reinforcing one’s memory of new words in other languages. For example, as a first year French student in ninth grade, I listened to the original French concept album of Les Misérables over and over again.  In anticipation of teaching English to middle schoolers in Italy, I turned to The Light in the Piazza for guidance. I had already gleaned several useful phrases from the Italian sprinkled throughout the score of the 2004 award winning musical. I knew that “aiuta me” meant “help me”, “cara” meant “dear” and that “passeggiata” was the name given to the Italian tradition of taking long walks.

Upon a more in depth examination of the Italian lyrics, I learned Italian grammar as well as vocabulary. In Italian, “in” and “the” are technically two separate words (in and il/la/i/le respectively, depending upon the gender and quantity of the noun in question) but when the words appear one after the other in a sentence, they merge to become nel/nella/nei/nelle (again depending upon the gender and quantity of the noun). The word piazza is feminine. Therefore in Italian, the show’s title phrase “the light in the piazza” translates to “la lucé nella piazza”. Thanks to that reference, I have never once forgotten how to use in/the in a singular feminine context, and I’ve found it much easier to remember other merged preposition/article words such as from the (della) and on the (sulla) in a feminine singular context as well.

Fabrizio, the romantic male lead, taught me about past tense in Italian too. In his big love aria, he sings about how “il mondo era vuoto” or “the world was empty” before he met Clara, his American love interest. This is the form of the imperfect past tense that refers to a formerly continuous state. Many Italians use “era” to talk about when a now grown child was little, for example. If Fabrizio had wanted to imply something such as  “the world has been empty” at a more fixed time in the more recent past, then he likely would have used the past simple form “è stato” instead.

Not only did Fabrizio’s Italian help me to learn Italian; he helped me to teach Italian students too. The mistakes Fabrizio made when he spoke English gave me insight into and empathy for the thought process behind my students’ errors.

For example, when Fabrizio asks Clara out on a passeggiata, he primarily communicates with her in English. He invites her “to make” and then immediately tries to correct himself “to walking…on the road in a circle”.  The reason Fabrizio initially asks Clara if she wants “to make” a walk with him instead of “to go on a walk or simply “to walk “ is likely because in Italian, the phrase is “fare una passeggiata” which literally translates as “to make a passeggiata” or “to do a passeggiata”.  He then clearly remembers that in English the turn of phrase is different and tries to ask her to walk with him. However, he uses the wrong form of the verb “walking” instead of “walk”.  I noticed many of my students having trouble identifying when a present tense verb is in the present simple (such as “walk”) or a present continuous gerund (such as “walking”). The trick of course is that you have to look for whether there is an “ing” or not at the end, just as in the Italian form of the continuous gerund you have to look for an “ando” or “endo” at the end.

Later on in the song, when Fabrizio tries to compliment Clara’s complexion, he does not know the word for skin. Instead, he sings, “is like milk” and indicates, “is here” on Clara’s body to show what he means. Clara figures out that he is referring to her skin and Fabrizio is then able to triumphantly tell her “your skin is like milk”.  It is common in Italian for the subject of a sentence to be left off, which means, in this case, dropping the “it” in “it is like milk” or “it is here”. Since the verb is usually specifically tailored to the gender and quantity of the subject, it is much easier to identify the subject from the context of the sentence. For example, if an English sentence starts with “go to school”, it is not clear whether I go to school, you go to school, we go to school, you all go to school or they go to school. In Italian, the sentence would be “vado a scuola” which can only refer to I as the subject.  My students would often need reminders to include subjects in English sentences because, like Fabrizio, their natural tendency was often to leave them off, assuming that the ensuing verb would sufficiently clarify the context.

I spent a lot of time writing deliberately silly examples on the board to help them understand the importance of including a subject at the beginning of an English sentence. In turn, I’ve remembered that it is not always necessary to include the subject in Italian. Discovering why my students (and Fabrizio) struggle with certain literal Italian to English translations has made such a strong impression on me that it has helped me to remember the proper phrasing for that grammar in Italian.

Clearly lyrics can have value even beyond their original storytelling purpose. Lyrics can help people learn and remember new languages; they can even provide insight into the verbal thought process of a foreign culture.

Advertisements

Female Empowerment: Finding Strength Through Embracing Vulnerability

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

In taking stock of the past year, especially the past few months, I’ve noticed a prevalent theme in many of the stories that have impacted me most: Women who were not afraid to explore their complexities, their imperfections, their messiness. Women who, in fact, found strength through revealing vulnerability.

Back in November, I attended “Ambition and Hunger: A Conversation with Jeanine Tesori”, which was an event hosted by The Interval. I was particularly struck by Jeanine’s observation that people who feel the need to constantly pretend to be perfect (especially on social media) aren’t as real or as interesting as people who own up to their humanity. This assertion was not stated in a judgmental way; her intention was not to put down perfectionists, but rather to build up those who are overly aware of their faults and fallibility. Similarly, the characters in her musical Fun Home are presented as complex, flawed beings struggling to figure out their own identities. In fact, the character who is most preoccupied with maintaining appearances is also the most unhappy. It occurred to me that the most interesting characters are often the most flawed, perhaps because they are the most human. Unfortunately, many female roles are not written with such complexity. For every Momma Rose or Mame, there are multitudes of Adelaides and Cosettes. Both onstage and in real life, it can sometime feel like there is a dearth of strong, multi-dimensional female role models who are unafraid to face difficult truths.

Around the same time that I attended the conversation with Jeanine Tesori, I was working as a script supervisor on a one-woman show created and presented by Melissa Errico at Joe’s Pub. The show, called Sing the Silence, explored the silences in women’s lives, particularly the women in Melissa’s family, through the lens of Melissa’s own silent journey during a vocal injury and an extended period of vocal rest. By choosing to publicly tell the story of her enforced silence, and to literally sing about it, Melissa boldly and successfully asserted that such injuries are a common occurrence in the musical world, as in the world of sports, and not weaknesses behind which to retreat. Her show was an engaging, emotional and unique cabaret because she wasn’t hiding behind a glamorous façade. Instead, she embraced the messiness of life, the challenges she overcame and the subsequent battle scars. She honored her own humanity, in a way that few singers have done in the past.

Luckily, we seem to be entering a new era of empowerment for women, especially for women in the theatre. This past fall, Laura Benanti publicly discussed her miscarriage, in an effort to serve as a positive role model to other women undergoing similar losses. “If we as a culture can talk about it then it’s healing in some way,” she stated in an interview with CBS. Furthermore, Marin Mazzie has opened up about her battle with ovarian cancer and how she refuses to let it define her. As she told The New York Times, “I am dealing with what I’m dealing with, but I’m really strong and I’m really healthy, and I’m getting through it. And there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

When we as a society can accept that vocal trauma, miscarriage, serious illness and other challenges women face are not weaknesses of which to be ashamed, we will be healthier, happier, and much closer to reaching gender parity. In the coming year, let us all try to applaud those who speak out about overcoming personal struggles and to support those who present characterizations of strong, flawed, dynamic women whether it be on the stage or in any other artistic medium.

 

 

 

#ReadingForParity BONUS PLAY: Passion Play by Sarah Ruhl

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

You thought I was finished with the Parity project, didn’t you?

Although I said I was going to read and blog about 12 plays this summer, I’ve had a hard time narrowing down the number of plays to just 12. There are many more fascinating contemporary female playwrights whose work I am hoping to read over the next few months. In some cases, I couldn’t find a copy of their play in time for this project. In other cases, the work was not yet published.

But I decided that I couldn’t take on a project like my #ReadingForParity one and not include a play by Sarah Ruhl. Not only does she have fantastic initials (I too am a Sarah R.) but I can definitively say that seeing her Eurydice at Second Stage Theatre in June 2007 was the first time I was aware of seeing a contemporary female voice writing for the theater. Obviously there were women writing brilliant plays before 2007 (some of which I’ve read this past summer such as Tomorrowland and Las Meninas) but for me, Sarah Ruhl, was the beginning of my understanding that there were women in contemporary theater breaking boundaries, experimenting with style and language and, most importantly, writing compelling plays from the point of view of compelling female characters.

To that end, just before summer officially comes to a calendar close this week, I’ve decided to include a bonus blog post for #ReadingForParity. And in fact, this is sort of like a triple bonus blog because I chose to read Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play trilogy- three full length plays in one.

In Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play, she explores the behind the scenes stories of three different communities in three different time periods as they each take on a passion play- a dramatic performance of Christ’s story. The first play takes place in Elizabethan England, when practicing Catholicism – and by extension, putting up traditional passion plays- was severely frowned upon by the Queen. The second play takes place in the German village of Oberammergau on the eve of the Nazis’ rise to power. The third play takes place in Spearfish, South Dakota in the years of the Vietnam war through the Reagan administration.

All three of these locations actually have histories of producing passion plays, but that is not the only thing Sarah Ruhl finds in common between these three seemingly disparate communities. There is a story of forbidden love at the heart of all three plays. In one play, the unmarried woman who plays the Virgin Mary sleeps with the unmarried man who plays Pontius Pilote and becomes pregnant. To save her reputation, she lies about her baby’s origins, claiming that her pregnancy too was miraculous and immaculate. In another play, the man playing Jesus falls in love with the woman playing the Virgin Mary- who also happens to be his married sister-in-law- while her husband is fighting in VietnamThere are also instances of homosexual love at times in which that type of relationship would have been perceived as dangerous and sinful.

The same actors appear in all three plays, often portraying different characters in each piece but with traces of similarities. There is always a seemingly innocent but actually sexually active woman (often called Mary I) who plays the Virgin Mary in the town passion play, and there is always a Mary II who plays Mary Magdalene in the town’s passion play. The man who plays the character of Pontius the fish gutter in the first play (and plays Pontius Pilate in all of the passion plays) is the foot soldier in the second play and P, the Vietnam pilot in the third play. In all three plays, he is restless and, especially in the first and third plays, seems to percieve himself as slightly different from the rest of his community.

Throughout the three plays, the characters grapple with how the world of the play influences their own reality. Is the actor who plays Jesus inherently holier than the actor who plays Pontius? Is the actress who plays Mary Magdalene less pure than the actress who plays Mary? There is a sense of finiteness to the casting: when the women playing the two Marys want to switch roles, the director refuses to let them. When an old man becomes too infirmed to play Jesus, his son struggles to take on the responsibility of playing the son of God and claims that there was a holy glow emanating from his father when his father played the role.

However, the artificiality of theater is acknowledged too, and used as a means of seduction. In the first play, Pontius tells Mary I (the Mary who subsequently becomes pregnant and claims divine conception) that, “plays aren’t real. Your knee on my chest, Mary, that’s real.” Echoes of this same logic can be found in the second play when the Foot Soldier- played by the same actor who played Pontius in the first play- tells his love interest Eric that “play aren’t real. The soldier’s boot – that’s real.” It’s interesting that the version of the line said in the Elizabethan era  talks about physical intimacy as being more real than theatre while the version said in the Nazi Germany  talks about violence as being more real than theatre. In both cases, one has to wonder if the statement is actually true.

Throughout the three plays, the relationship between politics, religion and theater is explored. In her playwright’s note, Sarah Ruhl states: “I found myself fascinated by how leaders use, misuse and legislate religion for their own political aims, and how leaders turn themselves into theatrical icons.” Though the trilogy was finished during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency, this theme is particularly relevant in 2015 given the hype and theatrics already demonstrated by the 2016 presidential candidates. (Were Sarah Ruhl ever to consider adding a fourth, contemporary play to this work- which I doubt she would- it would be great to see Donald Trump make an appearance at a twenty-first century passion play!)

Parallels exist not only between the actors in all three plays but also between the depictions of the political leaders. The Reagan character makes a speech that echoes imagery from the speech made by the Queen Elizabeth I character at the end of the first play. In fact, Queen Elizabeth and Hitler both make out-of-time appearances in the third play as well. And in every play, every political leader is championing a war. In her playwright’s note, Sarah Ruhl wonders about the similarities between theater and war, “what is the difference between acting as performance and acting as moral action? It is no accident that we refer to theaters of war.”

The impact of war is perhaps most obvious in the play set in Nazi Germany but Queen Elizabeth’s religious war leads to the culminating action of the first play and the effects of the Vietnam war make their mark on the third play. This pattern is best stated by the child Violet, played by the same actor who plays the Village Idiot in the first play and the town’s only Jewish child in the second play. She often says and does extraordinary things that the rest of the community ignores or misunderstands. In the third play she tells her father, the former Vietnam Pilot played by the same actor that plays the German foot soldier and the English Pontius, “there is always a war before and a war after”. What a truthful and yet damning perception of human nature, especially from the mouth of a child.

But Sarah Ruhl is not writing a nihilistic piece of theater. And she is quick to deny that Passion Play is any sort of “a political treatise”. Instead, she intends for her Passion Play to “provide us with another occasion to be in one room together as we continue to meditate on the relationship of community to political icons.” And so there is indeed hope in Sarah Ruhl’s three passion plays, alongside and perhaps because of the terrible social truths she explores.

This is particularly true in the third and final play, where she seems to be suggesting that coming together as a community could be the first step towards social harmony. For one thing, the director of the South Dakota passion play exasperatedly asks, “If we can’t get along in a theater when the world is falling apart then how can you expect anyone to get along in this world?” An inversion of his question could lead readers/audience members to the notion that if one can get along in a theater, then maybe one can learn to get along in the world as well. But even more significantly, at the very end of the third play, P the veteran has the realization that “when you’re awake you can fight for what you believe in, no matter what costume you’re wearing.” It doesn’t matter what role you play in the theater or in life. What matters are your beliefs and how you intend to act upon them.

#ReadingForParity Week 12: Las Meninas by Lynn Nottage

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Las Meninas is an exploration into historiography, as well as being a thoroughly entertaining and well-written play. It poignantly examines the question of “who lives, who dies, who tells your story”, to quote the new Broadway musical HAMILTON (also a strong example of historiography in theater). This play tells the story of Queen Marie Therese (wife of the famous ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV) and her illicit relationship with Nabo, an African dwarf. The tale is told by their daughter Louise who has spent her whole life locked up in a convent and is about to take holy orders. Her harsh treatment is the result of the Sun King’s attempt to erase her very existence from history.

Interestingly, one of the main pieces of historical evidence given at the top of the play (and included in the program of the play’s 1997 Brown University production) is a source from a woman: the memoirs of the royal mistress Madame de Montespan. The Sun King may have succeeded in removing Louise’s presence from the official court records of the time, which effectively wrote her out of mainstream European history dominated by white men, but he seemed to have overlooked the importance of historical documentation kept by women. Paradoxically, it is the Sun King’s own narrow-minded conception of history that permitted the very story he tried to erase to still be told.

But in Lynn Nottage’s play, Louise has no written sources upon which to rely. She must piece together the story of her own creation, often from a mixture of gossip, logic and imagination. The very fact that this story is framed by Louise’s narration, thirty years after it happened, encourages the audience to question the power of memory and the accuracy of historical narrative.

Not only does Lynn Nottage ask the audience to redefine their understanding of how history is told and how Africans fit into the royal narrative of seventeenth century France, she also presents a court that is less glorious and sympathetic than many history books would suggest. In Las Meninas, the pious and dutiful Queen Marie Therese is angered by her husband’s infidelity, telling Nabo that she prays the king will “contract syphilis from one of his whores and die and I’ll rule”. Furthermore, Lynn Nottage pokes fun at the system of the ruling classes, who appear to do more gambling than ruling. When Nabo asks the Queen what she likes to do, the Queen responds as follows:

QUEEN: I do whatever I like.

NABO: Which is?

QUEEN: Oh I see… I’m queen of France, I don’t know… I rule.

Marie Therese speaks a rough Spanish accent written into the text of the play, which serves as a constant reminder that she is an outsider at the French court, sent there against her will as part of an “unfortunate alliance that brought peace between Spain and France but no peace to the bedroom”. While the Queen’s situation is certainly much better than the horrors the enslaved Nabo had to endure, Lynn Nottage does recognize an interesting parallel that could have helped the Queen and Nabo to find some common ground: albeit for very different reasons, they were essentially both strangers in a strange land. Nabo bravely suggests this similarity to the queen but she refuses to see his point.

QUEEN: Are you equating yourself with a queen?

NABO: No, with a sad woman a long way from home.

QUEEN: You have no shame!

NABO: You, Your Majesty, own it.

In a brief but brilliantly crafted exchange, Lynn Nottage manages to highlight both the similarities and the differences between the Queen and Nabo as their relationship dynamic continuously shifts from mistress/servant to friends (later lovers) and back again. Despite the lonely Queen’s frequent statements that she wants Nabo to be her friend, she does not seem capable of understanding what true friendship or freedom means. At one point, she even says to Nabo “if every man had a free will, then imagine the chaos that would be imparted.”

The queen is, in this regard, an example of the unfortunate narrowmindedness of her court and of her time. When she gives birth to Nabo’s child, everyone chooses to believe that the baby looks part African because Nabo looked at her while she was pregnant. It is inconceivable or inadmissible to them to admit that a queen could have had a sexual relationship with an African slave. The king arranges to have the baby Louise sent away to a convent and he tells the queen that her child was stillborn. This lie makes her want to run away with Nabo. First, she suggests that they go to Africa.

NABO: You wouldn’t survive there.

QUEEN: Why not? You’ve survived here.

NABO: Some of me, but not all.

QUEEN: To the New World.

NABO: Old values have taken root.

There seems to be no place in the world of the seventeenth century where a European queen who is supposed to be “a vessel of empires to come” can be with an African. Similarly, there is no place in the Sun King’s world for Louise’s existence. Ultimately, he manages to make both Louise and her father disappear from the court and from history. As Louise takes her vows at the end of the play, effectively becoming a nun, she states “I have no family…the King decreed them out of existence. And now I too will be lost to history.”

It is fortunate that Lynn Nottage and others have prevented Louise’s prediction from coming true. One can only hope that by examining the hidden truths of the Sun King’s court, Las Meninas provides audiences with a broader understanding of the racial complexities in our own recent past, as well as the importance of how we choose to remember history.

Click here to read #ReadingForParity Week 11: Belleville by Amy Herzog.

#ReadingForParity Week 11: Belleville by Amy Herzog

Tags

, , , ,

When I first read that Belleville was about a young American couple living in Paris, I imagined that the characters would be leading vibrant, chic, enviable lives. But the world in the play Belleville (which literally means Beautiful City) is like a fantasy gone wrong.

Although the couple’s Parisian experience appears to be pretty perfect on paper, it is clear from the first scene that something is amiss. Zack is supposedly working at Doctors Without Boarders (a job for which he missed his own med school graduation) but he is home, pleasuring himself, in the middle of the day. He receives frequent calls from a mysterious woman, supposedly his secretary, and he claims that they cannot return to the States for Christmas because one of his superiors messed up their visas.

The play’s protagonist Abby used to dream of going on vacation to Paris but the reality of ex-pat life is not what she wanted. She has stopped taking French language classes and has given up on pursuing a career as an actor (she teaches yoga now instead). Abby rationalizes her career change by explaining that “to be an actor you have to love to suffer and I only like to suffer”.

Happiness and suffering seem to be on Abby’s mind quite a lot. She might only like to suffer but she does not seem to believe that happiness is possible for her either. At one point, an exasperated Abby tells her husband:

ABBY: I am so tired of this fucking pressure to be happy. I am not happy, okay, that’s just not my, like, mode of being, so if that’s what you’re trying to accomplish, stop.

One of the reasons why Abby might find it difficult to be happy is because she constantly compares herself to other people, particularly to her pregnant sister Meg who is back home in America and about to go into labor. Abby constantly seems to struggle with the fact that she and her husband picked a less conventional lifestyle than did Meg and Meg’s husband. At one point, Zack actually calls her out on it and she admits an unhappy truth:

ZACK: You wishing you had a corporate job and a husband who enjoys shopping for lawn furniture online?

ABBY: I’m wishing I felt less disdainful of everyone else and expected a little less from myself. So maybe if I were more like that I would have a corporate job and a husband who shops online, yes.

But Abby’s sister and brother-in-law aren’t the only married couple who impact Abby and Zack’s world. There are also frequent appearances by Alioune and Amina, the Senegalese-French husband and wife who are Abby and Zack’s landlords. In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of Belleville, for me, was how these two couples function as foils to the central couple’s story. Alioune and Amina are younger than Abby and Zack but they are more settled and, perhaps, more grounded. At 25, Alioune has a property management business and two young children. Like Meg, Alioune and Amina seem to be embracing an aspect of adulthood for which Abby and Zack are not yet ready.

Interestingly, there are barriers preventing the audience from truly getting to know both of these foil couples. Meg and her husband never appear onstage. We hear a lot about them, especially once Meg goes into labor, and we understand that the sister dynamic played a crucial part in how Abby sees herself, but we never actually meet anyone from Abby’s family. Alioune and Amina do appear in the play but many of their lines (and the play’s entire last scene) are in French. Presumably not everyone in an American audience would be able to understand what these characters are saying when they speak their native language.

Therefore, we have a language barrier surrounding one seemingly responsible married couple and we never actually get to meet the other seemingly responsible married couple. We are left with the central couple, who married at a very young age, for all the wrong reasons. Their relationship is built on a foundation of lies and mental instability that lurk beneath the surface of a seemingly affable marriage.

As Abby and Zack’s Parisian fantasy takes on a more nightmarish tone (involving excessive drinking, blood and a kitchen knife), Alioune and Amina are the only characters onstage that appear to remain grounded. As a result, their observations of the central couple often provide a way into the mystery of the play, giving the audience clues that something more sinister is amiss with Abby and Zack. For example, at one point, Alioune realizes Zack has been lying about some very important things (I won’t give away exactly what) and confronts him, saying, “we don’t know you. I thought I knew you”. It takes Abby many years of marriage to notice what Alioune and Amina noticed in just a few short months.

But perhaps that is how it always is in a marriage. Those on the outside have enough perspective to notice things about the relationship that the couple is too close to see for themselves, until it is too late. In this way, Belleville could be seen as a dark, honest commentary on some of the unacknowledged truths of contemporary relationships.

Click here to read #ReadingForParity Week 10: 26 Miles by Quiara Alegría Hudes

#ReadingForParity Week 10: 26 Miles by Quiara Alegría Hudes

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

26 Miles opens with 15-year-old Olivia sharing the editor’s note she has written for the sixth issue of the magazine she has founded. The amount of information gleaned from this editor’s note is massive– which speaks to Quiara Alegría Hudes’ great skill at packing in a lot of character detail in simple ways. Immediately, the audience learns that this protagonist is an unusually intelligent and driven girl; she came up with an ambitious idea- to found her own magazine- and followed through with it six times. (It is worth noting that the play is set in 1986. Olivia was not using Photoshop or Microsoft Word for her magazine but rather, a typewriter which makes her endeavor even more admirable.)

Olivia longs to explore and to travel, asking her readers, “what if these pages reach eyes I’ve never seen? What if these words travel places I’ve never been?” Olivia goes on to clarify that she’s “only been two places: Philadelphia and Paoli, a suburb of Philadelphia”.

Olivia’s yen for exploration can be traced, in large part, to a desire to escape her family dynamic. Her parents are separated (we learn later that they were never married) and there was a terrible custody battle ten years ago when six-year-old Olivia had to choose which parent with which to live. The result is that her Jewish father, Aaron, and his new wife, Deborah, have had full custody over Olivia for the past ten years. She has grown up in a predominantly white, comfortable suburb, barely seeing or speaking to her Hispanic mother.

However, a mysterious illness leads Olivia to call her mother Beatriz, who ends up taking her away from her father’s house in the dead of night. These actions might seem sinister in another play, and the playwright does not dismiss the gravity of the situation. The end result is that Olivia and Beatriz go on a spontaneous road trip, a journey full of bonding, healing and revelations for both mother and daughter as they struggle to reconnect.

On this road trip, Beatriz teaches her daughter about being Latina. She helps Olivia learn five Spanish words a day. (Language is such a potent metaphor for communication. How can a mother and daughter be truly connected if the daughter cannot speak her mother’s native tongue?!) Beatriz reminds Olivia that even if she appears to be white, her Hispanic roots are still a part of her. For Olivia, reconnecting with her mother also gives her a chance to get in touch with a part of her own developing identity.

BEATRIZ. Whether anyone else sees, you wear the skin of your mother… Long after I’m in the ground and crumbled to dust, you’ll still be wearing it. There’s nothing you can do to ever get rid of it, and you better NEVER apologize for it.

Another aspect of Olivia’s identity that continues to take shape on the road trip is her interconnected skills as both a writer and explorer. Their final destination becomes Yellowstone National Park because Olivia longs to see the buffalo there firsthand. She explains why she has been captivated for years by a photograph from the first issue she encountered of National Geographic:

OLIVIA. A mountain covered in snow. And one single buffalo running, like a dark brown iris on a white white eye… In the photograph, he was completely airborne, none of his hooves were touching the ground. Like he was flying. And I thought, I need to feel the rhythm, the earth shaking. It’s the only way I’ll believe his feet ever touch the ground.

Olivia has a wonderfully poetic way of observing, and often personifying, nature. She sees buffalo on snow as irises within eyes. She imagines that the fog is “scowling” at her, and the shadows of the Badlands are “like an old woman’s scattered bones”. She is fascinated by the landscape through which they are driving and even finds ways to connect her geographical insights to her own familial situation:

OLIVIA. Plates shift one centimeter a year, they collide slowly. Mom and me and Dad and Deborah. We’re all plates. Shifting, eliding, colliding, trying to fit together like jigsaw pieces, searching for compatible edges…Trying to come together but making mountains instead.

The poetic quality in Olivia’s language, particularly in how she relates to nature, seems to hint at Hudes’ affinity for magical realism, as in Yemaya’s Belly and Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue. Through Olivia’s imaginative observations, Hudes brings her unique way of perceiving the world to this seemingly straightforward and grounded story about a road trip. By viewing their environment through a heightened, magical lens, Hudes enriches her characters’ perspectives on life.

Click here to read #ReadingForParity Week 9: Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker. 

#ReadingForParity Week 9: Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker

Tags

, , ,

Between The Flick playing at the Barrow Street Theatre and John premiering at the Signature, it feels like it’s the summer of Annie Baker. Before going to see her current plays, I decided to start at the beginning with Annie Baker’s first full-length off-Broadway play from 2009: Circle Mirror Transformation.

The play depicts a small adult acting class that takes place over the course of six weeks at a community center in the fictional town of Shirley, Vermont. The five characters embark on a variety of acting exercises such as the numbers game (in which the participants have to spontaneously count to ten without more than one person speaking at the same time) and introducing themselves as other classmates. These games are the type designed to teach heightened awareness, teamwork, empathy and how to be in the moment.

The play’s language is just as unusual as the play’s structure. The dialogue is full of realistic, causal sounding speech filled with ums, likes and pauses. Those pauses are of particular importance to Annie Baker, so much so that she dedicates nearly her entire author’s note to the use of silence in her play. She explains, “without its silences, this play is a satire, and with its silences it is, hopefully, a strange little naturalistic meditation on theater and life and death and the passing of time”.

Some of the acting exercises might seem strange and possibly satirical to someone unfamiliar with theater games. The character Lauren, a high school student who wants to be an actor (or a veterinarian) actually asks her teacher Marty in the third week of class, whether there is going to be any “real acting”.

LAUREN. Um … I signed up for this class because I thought we were gonna act.

MARTY. We are acting.

LAUREN. … Yeah.

Annie Baker states that she thinks “Marty’s a pretty great teacher”. It is not the writer’s intent to judge or poke fun at her fictional acting class but rather to explore the truth of the experience.

It’s amazing how much is conveyed through acting exercises and seemingly causal chit-chat during class breaks. Without a clear protagonist, want or obstacle, the audience is invested in the characters and the story feels compelling.

Brief glimpses of characters’ outside lives (financial problems, strained familial relationships, ex-boyfriends) are displayed and there is one awkward romance between two of the class members (Teresa and Schultz) that peters out long before the six weeks are over. However the focus appears to be on how these external situations impact what the characters bring to the moment in class, as opposed to as significant plotlines on their own.

In one exercise, the class is instructed to write a deep secret on a piece of paper, after which the secrets are anonymously read aloud. One piece of paper says: “Sometimes I think that everything I do is propelled by my fear of being alone.” Interestingly, this secret is likely from Teresa, one of the characters who engaged in a brief relationship with another class member.

Another exercise has the acting teacher Marty and her husband James try to embody the essence of Lauren’s parents. As Lauren’s mom, Marty asks James, “Why don’t you engage with me anymore?” Later in the play, we discover that Marty has moved out and that James’ daughter refuses to speak to him.

Whatever may be going on in their lives outside the room, the class gives the characters a chance to relate with one another, to engage, so that they are not alone.

Click here to read #ReadingForParity Week 8: Tomorrowland by Neena Beber

#ReadingForParity Week 8: Tomorrowland By Neena Beber

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

Tomorrowland combines the backstage world of a children’s TV show with musings on grammar, parentheses and Virgina Woolf — a seemingly unlikely mix of cutthroat showbiz superficiality with wonderfully esoteric intellectualism that Neena Beber manages to make incredibly relevant to her story.

This contradictory combination lies in the play’s protagonist Anna, who is the head writer for a children’s show called “Emily’s Room” made in Florida, near Disneyworld. Several years earlier, Anna had been working on a dissertation exploring the significance of parentheses in Middlemarch and Mrs. Dalloway. However, possibly as a result of a mysterious loss, she chose to “join the real world instead”, an ironic assertion considering that her job and the Florida town in which she now resides both depend on exploiting fantasy instead of facing reality.

Anna’s former fascination with parentheses could be understood as a symbol for the way in which Anna views herself. Anna explains that “to parenthesize is to feminize: the contents withdraw, submit, recede into the background…parenthesis hold themselves apart from their surroundings, promising something more.” Anna certainly seems to hold herself apart from her surroundings, receding into the background while simultaneously promising more.

Anna is consistently trying to fuse her two worlds together in her scripts for “Emily’s Room”, using big words such as “bromeliad” and making a metaphorical reference to Virgina Woolf’s suicide. When the teenage actress playing the 12 year old title character of the TV show begins to show signs of puberty, Anna is told (by the male producer and male director) to write Emily off the show and shift the focus to Emily’s younger brother Doug instead. She compares this situation to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando in which “a man transforms into a woman. While here we have the opposite, a woman transforming into a man- girl to boy, Emily to Dougie- in order to avoid the fact that a girl is transforming into a woman, an equally radical shift…”

Anna’s intellectualism sets her apart from the others who work on the show, many of whom seem to enjoy the theme park culture much more than Anna does. According to the show’s producer Wyatt “Anna doesn’t like to have too much fun”. Anna clarifies that she doesn’t like rides because she “get[s] motion sickness” and “throw[s] up on Ferris wheels”. However, Anna’s motion sickness goes deeper than an avoidance of Disneyworld; she is metaphorically unable to move forward in her life. “I go on a ride in my mind,” she says, “and I try to go forward by going backward”. Anna appears to be stuck, in part because she is still processing a tragic loss, expressed at times in musings on grammar:

ANNA. The dead are present tense. Why is that so? The dead are. We never say the dead were, the dead was. The present tense is for describing novels, dreams, plots of movies. The present tense is for fiction… The present tense is a lie. Grammatically speaking, the past is more real than the present: “the dead are” is a lie.

One of the most eye opening things about this play for me was the way in which grammar (parentheses, the present tense, etc) was utilized to reveal subtext and character. I’ve always thought of grammar as a means to an end for writers, not as a literary tool. But Anna’s relationship to grammar reveals her struggles just as poignantly as would a traditional metaphor. It seems fitting for a writer (Neena Beber) writing about a writer (Anna) to use grammar (in addition to language and imagery) as a literary device.

Interestingly, this is the 4th play out of the 8 I’ve read this summer by a female writer to feature at least one strong female writer character: A Lifetime Burning (Tess & Emma), Creature (Juliana the anchoress), Sex With Strangers (Olivia) and now Tomorrowland (Anna). That means 50% of the plays I’ve read so far for #ReadingForParity have female writers in them. Thinking about Jeanine Tesori’s now famous Tony quote “for girls, you have to see it to be it”, I take great comfort in the fact that so many women writers are writing about women writers. Hopefully, young girls encountering these plays are getting a double dose of “see it to be it” and realizing that they too can be women writers.

Click here to read #ReadingForParity Week 7: Oohrah! by Bekah Brunstetter

#ReadingForParity Week 7: Oohrah! By Bekah Brunstetter

Tags

, , ,

OOHRAH! is a hilarious, quirky play about a military family in North Carolina. The story is told primarily through the lens of two grown sisters: Sara, who is married to an Army captain returning from his fourth tour of duty in the Middle East, and Abby, who (Spoiler Alert) cheats on her finance with a mysterious solider who comes to visit. The sisters’ father was a military man as well; now elderly and confused, he spends his days retelling his war stories from Korea.

However, the relationship I’d like to explore in this blog post is not the one between the two sisters, between two lovers nor even between father and daughter. This is the first play I’ve read for my parity project that featured a mother-daughter relationship. In most of the other plays I’ve encountered this summer, any protagonists with children were psychologically incapable of taking care of their offspring (Creature) and in some cases, they even tried to kill their own babies (Nest, The World of Extreme Happiness).

In OOHRAH!, Sara is perplexed by her teenage daughter Lacey. Despite the frilly name, Lacey is a tomboy who wants to be in the marines when she’s older. We are first introduced to Lacey as she sings (poorly, according to the stage directions) the US Marines anthem. When asked why she wants to be a marine (her father is an army man), Lacey explains that “Marines are the first to fight.” She clearly identifies with her father’s military role and tries to prove how tough she is, telling him “I had this dream that I was fightin with you and I wasn’t scared”.

Sara appears unable to see, let alone accept, her daughter for who she truly is. Sara desperately wants to lead a more conventional, domestic life, one with traditional gender roles. Sara talks about redecorating the house and delights in organizing a coming out party for Lacey– even though her daughter is clearly not the debutante type.

Throughout the play, Sara prepares for the party, buying pink streamers, a tiara for Lacey, wine glasses for the adults. It becomes clear that everything Sara purchased, not just the wine, is really for her. The party may be a surface attempt for Sara to celebrate Lacey but it is really about Sara’s desire to appear a certain way (and to make her family appear that way as well) to the world.

In one of the play’s most revealing exchanges, Abby calls her sister “white trash”. Sara in turn insults Abby for not having a home or family of her own, telling her sister that if she really wanted to move out, she would have done so because “where there’s a will there’s a way”. Sara then admits, about herself, “I never had any will”. She goes on to say:

SARA. My daughter’s a little boy. She’s not supposed to be like that, she’s supposed to be like me, like mother like daughter.

This statement is significant not only because Sara is finally admitting that she knows Lacey does not conform to traditional Southern gender roles, but because of its narcissistic reveal: Sara wanted her child to be just like her. Unlike, say Gypsy’s Momma Rose, who clearly had an agenda to impress upon her daughters, Sara doesn’t seem concerned with living vicariously through Lacey. Sara’s issues seem to come more from the fact that she is unable to connect with a child who is so unlike her.

Perhaps the image that best encapsulates the Sara/Lacey dynamic is when Lacey appears at her coming out party wearing the pink dress and tiara her mother picked out for her, but with combat boots underneath. No matter how hard Sara tries to turn her daughter — and by extension, her whole family — into a traditional southern ideal, there will always be a bit of military essence lurking underneath.

Click here to read #ReadingForParity Week 6: The World of Extreme Happiness by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig.

#ReadingForParity Week 6: The World of Extreme Happiness by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

The world depicted in The World of Extreme Happiness is ironically intense, brutal and unhappy. The choice of title seems intentionally subversive; despite its promise of happiness, there is no time for niceties or joy in the lives of the main characters in this play. On the very first page, one of the characters, Li Han, shares a recent dream in which he literally eats shit. As his friend Ran Feng says when asked to interpret the dream’s meaning: “The symbolism’s obvious. You accepted shit into your mouth and digested it.” Ran Feng’s words could be viewed as a statement on Li Han’s character. Unlike his deceased brother (who we later discover had a revolutionary past) and his as-yet unborn children, Li Han is willing to swallow the lies of the government; he will do what it takes in order to ensure his own safety in his harsh world.

A few pages later, Li Han’s wife gives birth to a baby girl. This scene takes place in 1992 when daughters were not wanted and the birth of Li Han’s daughter is accordingly considered a failure. The parents throw the baby into their slop bucket, intending to leave her for dead. But the baby girl unexpectedly survives. More than that, she appears to be smiling at Li Han when he opens up the slop bucket. “Born into a bucket of pig slop, and she’s smiling like a Buddha. We’ll name her Sunny,” Li Han declares, deciding to let his daughter live.

It becomes clear from this point forward that the protagonist of the play is actually not Li Han or his wife; it is Sunny (yet another example of a play by a contemporary female writer with a female protagonist). Most of the action takes place two decades later, when Sunny is grown. Sunny’s very name, and her birth story of surviving against the odds, could be perceived as representing hope- a kind of hope that emerges out of deeply entrenched abuse and is tinged with revenge.

As a young woman, Sunny leaves her rural countryside home for a job cleaning toilets in a factory in the city of Shenzhen. She is not satisfied with her lot; Sunny wants to better herself and help her younger brother Pete (she pays for his education with her wages from the factory). Sunny also wants to be promoted, by whatever means necessary, and yearns to ultimately make lots of money. She seems to consider money a symbol of power, a way of reclaiming her self worth. She is well aware of her own origin story, slop bucket and all; she is angry and ashamed as a result. On some level, Sunny might even feel that being left to die entitled her to behave selflessly sometimes. No one else will help her to succeed; if she wants to get ahead, she will have to do it by herself.

When Sunny imagines what she would do with her desired wealth, she says she would use it to buy an education for her brother and to continue to improve herself. She conspicuously neglects to mention using her money to help her father or anyone else from her home village. Instead she dreams of how she’ll “go back to the countryside and laugh at everyone who’s still poor… and living in dirt.” Sunny is able to have empathy for herself and for her brother, but not for anyone else– not for her father, not for her almost mother in law, not even for her friend and fellow factory worker Ming-Ming who first encouraged Sunny to believe in self empowerment.

Of course, imagining wealth and success is much easier than obtaining it. A peasant (considered a second class citizen in this society) can move to the city but that doesn’t mean the peasant will manage to become a real city person with rights, privileges and wealth.

Sunny and Pete often talk about The Monkey King, a Chinese God and literary figure who is able to change himself into 72 different things. The Monkey King is a trickster who angers authority figures (an Emperor or even Buddha) and is entrapped in a mountain for five hundred years as a result. Sunny is fascinated by The Monkey King’s powers, how “he can change. Into anything”. (Interestingly, when written out in English transliteration, the first three letters of The Monkey King’s Chinese name Sun-Wukong share similarly to Sunny’s name.) If he could transform into 72 different things, surely she can transform herself from a lowly peasant into a successful city person. But Pete has his doubts.

Pete You want to be a fake city person.

Sunny The Monkey King wasn’t fake just because he had lots of transformations.

Pete His transformations were temporary, idiot. As soon as the danger was gone, he turned back into himself.

Later in the scene, Sunny reveals her own doubts to her brother, asking him, “I can’t live in the countryside. I can’t be a city person. How else can I act? Who should I be?”

Pete gives no answer, perhaps because there is no easy answer.

Sunny’s story does eventually have some parallels to The Monkey King’s. Like him, she has a spirited personality that she often uses to manipulate (if not outright trick) those around her, especially authority figures. She is not able to change herself into a true city person but she does change into a more insightful, empathic human being, one who is not afraid to speak up for what is right. She ends up inciting a revolution, The Sunshine Revolution (named for her) and she is changed again by the consequences of her actions.

The government officials who respond to threats of revolution by torturing – or even murdering- people considered to be political threats are not the only ones who get to decide whether to let human beings live or die. Rural Chinese peasants who have very little control over their destinies display a modicum of power over their deaths and the deaths of their relatives. Parents of unwanted daughters leave their baby girls for dead. Unhappy factory workers commit suicide. The final act in the play is one of familial euthanasia, in some ways reminiscent of the final scene in Ibsen’s Ghosts. If life, like The Monkey King’s story, can be viewed as a series of attempted transformations and changes (whether successful or not) then death is the final trick that the characters are able to play on themselves and on others. An unhappy act of autonomy in a very unhappy and otherwise unautonomous world.

Click here to read #ReadingForParity Week 5: Nest by Bathsheba Doran