Robert Schneider in Kentucky
At the 43rd Humana Festival of New American Plays
The 43rd Humana Festival of New American Plays was eclectic even by Humana standards. There was a topical play about sexual assault and a distinctly un-topical play about spiritualism — a mostly discredited cult that came to prominence in the late nineteenth century. There was a play set in war-torn Baghdad that was clear-eyed and calm, and a spot-on send up of Afro-American classics that was almost giddy with self-delight. If there was a hint of a theme, it might have something to do with frauds and the unmasking of frauds.
Lucas Hnath’s The Thin Place was hotly anticipated. Hnath has become interested in spiritualism. His play ﬂirts with the frauds that historical spiritualists have carried out, as well as with the legitimate skills they developed in listening to their clients and crafting personalized visions of a happy and convivial afterlife for their clients’ loved ones.
The Thin Place also implies, without actually declaring, that the boundary between this life and the next is permeable in both directions. It accomplishes this with some mystical stagecraft that I don’t pretend to understand, although I think I can rule out the most obvious explanation: a shill in the audience posing as an audience member. I suspect, however, that the production in the intimate Victor Jory Theatre at the Actors Theatre of Louisville required a trap door in one wall, artfully camouﬂaged so you can barely see the crack between the black-painted cinderblocks.
The un-camouflaged part of Kristen Robinson’s setting consists of a Persian carpet, two armchairs, and a small table between them. Hilda (a luminous, intelligent performance by Emily Cass McDonnell) sits in the right-hand armchair and never gets up. She narrates the story from that position, but also takes part. The left-hand armchair is occupied successively by Linda, a middle-aged medium who becomes Linda’s friend (Robin Bartlett, perfect right down to the not-too-posh British accent), and Jerry, Linda’s brash, American nephew (Triney Sandoval). Sylvia, Jerry’s wife (played by a brassy Kelly McAndrew) joins the party but never sits down — except on the arm of Linda’s chair.
Kelly McAndrew, Robin Bartlett, Emily Cass McDonnell and Triney Sandoval in The Thin Place. Photo credit: Jonathan Roberts.
Nobody sits on the arm of Hilda’s chair; Hilda is subtly set apart. You sense her emptiness, her willingness to be ﬁlled up, as if all the people she mentions are elixirs of different ﬂavours, and she’s so thirsty. Hnath invests 30 pages of text to get us to this point. We’re carried along effortlessly, not by Hilda’s desire to ﬁll us with her story but, on the contrary, by her desire to be ﬁlled. If Hilda is sucked through life by a partial vacuum, she nevertheless exudes power, a mysterious power that she doesn’t seem to control or comprehend. Is she an actual medium who has befriended a fraudulent one out of curiosity? Without pushing, McDonnell makes the character’s eeriness palpable. Her voice is pure pen-and-ink: lots of detail, little tonal variation. When Jerry is left alone with Hilda for the ﬁrst time this exchange ensues:
JERRY: Hey – you know we’ve hung out a little at Linda’s get-togethers, but really, l feel like I know next to nothing about you.
HILDA: Oh. There’s nothing to know.
JERRY: I’m sure that’s not true.
HILDA: Oh. It is.
JERRY: What is it that you do for work?
HILDA: Nothing special. I answer phones. For a store.
Jerry’s loquacious bonhomie sets off Hilda’s minimalism perfectly.
Hnath thrives on renunciations of conventional staging. In one of his previous Humana offerings, The Christians, all the dialogue was spoken into corded microphones, even the pillow talk of a married couple. That play, like this one, was directed by Les Waters, a master of directorial delinquency; whatever is conventional wisdom in theatre, Waters will show that it’s unnecessary. (He began his production of Charles Mee’s The Glory of the World with 20 minutes of silence.)
Between them, Hnath and Waters ﬁnd ways of refreshing theatre itself, ways of presenting stories that ﬁlm can’t touch. A case in point: from her right-hand armchair, Hilda tells us about Linda; Linda then enters and takes the left-hand chair. Linda begins talking to a large group (us) about her work as a medium. Hilda, however, is still talking to a large group (also us) about what she remembers of being in the ﬁrst group.
Implicitly, Hilda is present in front of us and among us simultaneously. We receive Linda’s presentation directly, but only because Hilda is telling us about receiving it with us at some indeterminate moment in the past. We double as two audiences listening more-or-less simultaneously to similar-but-different tales. At moments like these, Hnath’s dramaturgy neatly carries out the promise of the title: the thin place is where the boundary between life and memory is scarcely thicker than paper.
Arash Mokhtar and Mehry Eslamina in The Corpse Washer.
Photo credit: Jonathan Roberts.
The Corpse Washer, adapted for the stage by Ismail Khalidi and Naomi Wallace from the 2014 novel of the same name by Sinan Antoon, is a distinguished piece of sound design with a beautiful play attached. Set in Baghdad over the last 30 years, it’s witty and cleverly staged by Mark Brokaw, but the events are mostly grim. Jawad (Arash Mokhtar) is a young man who wants to be a sculptor and clearly has the talent for it. His father (played by J. Paul Nicholas) is a corpse washer in a Shi’ite neighbourhood. By the grim logic of the marketplace, Jawad is destined to follow in the family profession whether he wants to or not.
Islamic tradition requires that corpses receive a ritual washing before burial; his father’s premature death in an air raid and a sudden glut of corpses require him to put his artistic talents on the shelf. As sectarian violence intensifies, other ghosts appear: the ghost of Jawad’s father is joined by those of Jawad’s older brother Hammoudy (Johann George) and his best friend Basim (Abraham Makany), both of whom died in the wars. Joining the chorus of teasing and admonishing voices is Reem, his love interest (Mehry Eslaminia). She isn’t dead, only a refugee in Rome, suffering from cancer brough on by the American use of depleted uranium weapons. Like his ghostly visitors, however, she’s present in his mind.
I’ve made the play sound darker than it is: Jawad and his entourage have a sense of humour and, more important, a sense of irony. They’re not militants or idealogues in any sense; they simply want to survive. The play forces the question: how are we defined? Do we become fully ourselves by rebelling against the traditions of our tribe or by confirming to them? Or must we first do one and then the other?
Sound designer Luqman Brown almost performs a concerto with the actors. Jets fly over; foreign soldiers speak in garbled voices; zings and whistles underscore breaks in the action. If there were a way to make the Tigris audible, he would do it.
The acting is good. As Jawad, Mokhtar remains immersed in the moment, always fully there and active, always legible, never a signpost for extraneous emotion. Brokaw’s generally minimalist physical staging makes excellent use of the Bingham Theatre.
Ashley N. Hildreth and J. Cameron Barnett in Everybody Black. Photo credit: Jonathan Roberts.
The idea behind Everybody Black is fetching: a group of white historians have offered a large check to a black colleague to write a definitive history of the Black Experience, a term to which author David Harris cheekily attaches a “TM”. The paradox the play puts forward is that Black History Month celebrated by Americans every February, marginalizes the culture it purports to celebrate.
The black historian (he has no other name) is ready to pull out all the stops: the boats, the chains, the whips, Negro spirituals, police brutality, Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin, Malcolm, and all the rest of it. He confesses to us, however, that there are two small problems; he’s mad — quite mad — and also quite indifferent to facts.
BLACK HISTORIAN: You see, I’m a wicked man and I know nothing of history. People assume all the time that cuz I’m a Black Historian, I’m the ambassador to Negrohood. Truthfully, I’ve never even met a Black person. Not a single one. I only know two Black people: me and my reﬂection. OK? The Race Problem. HAAAAAA! Well guess what? I got a big ol’ check from some white folk who think l know history. l don’t know history I wasn’t there! I just be making shit up about Black people.
It is his perception that “black history” is a narrative frozen in a particular attitude, like a deer staring into the headlights of our good intentions. It’s also a commodity that ripens every February and that can be made to pay if picked in time.
The satirical pastiche that follows is broad and occasionally funny but never quite as good as the starting idea. A black millennial has a whine-off with a slave: a TV show is devoted to black people who only date white people, a black woman misses The March because it’s raining. All the stereotypes emerge and only a few are shot down. Author Harris seems to think that cliches will autodestruct automatically if they’re exposed to fresh air.
The play is cheerfully undisciplined but slackly directed by Awoye Timpo. A long scene in the second act between Aunt Jemimah and Uncle Ben takes too long to get to the point, and mangles given circumstances which were far from clear in the beginning. Saﬁyyah Rasool’s choreography and J. Cameron Barnett’s winning turn as the black historian put a lively cap on things, but the play hunts desperately for an ending, satirizing lines from Fences and A Raisin in the Sun along the way.
Harris finally has his on-stage surrogate — who’s dressed as an astronaut for some reason I didn’t quite catch — soberly recount his own (Harris’s) family history and show slides of himself, his parents and his siblings. The slide show is touching, but more important, it’s ordinary. The implication is that “black history” is a communitarian travesty of experience that should be laid to rest in favour of every black person’s individual history — for which a modest space in cultural consciousness should be reserved.
How to Defend Yourself, set in an un-named university, focuses on a self-defence class organized by two Zeta Chi sorority sisters after a third sister is brutally raped and hospitalized with a broken jaw.
Or maybe it’s just a bruised jaw. Details like that matter to playwright Lily Padilla. The class is taught by Brandi, a senior with a black belt in karate and enough unclaimed sexual baggage to stall an airport carrousel. Self-defence is her religion.
Her colleague, Kara, has no self-defence skills but “handles the promotion”. Two freshmen, Mojdeh and Diana, take the class in part to curry favour with the organisers. They’re planning to rush Zeta Chi and Brandi and Kara are on the executive committee. Mojdeh, a fully-assimilated Iranian-American, is eager to put an end to her virginity, Diana (“DeeAHna”), an equally assimilated Mexican-American, is bisexual (we later discover) and hopes to get closer to Mojdeh. The group is rounded out by a timid Asian student, Nikki, and two fraternity brothers who join the class out of solidarity and act as practice aggressors.
So much for good intentions. These young people who say they want intercourse to be equitable, fully-consensual, well-informed, and totally above board, are also participants in a highly-charged sexual marketplace adjudicated by Tinder and fuelled by hook-up vaunting posts on Facebook and Instagram. They say they want the system to change, but they’ve invested their young lifetimes in learning to use it the way it is. Even the self-defence class ﬂoats on a subtext of sexual negotiations. The students in How to Defend Yourself aren’t sure what they want — except that they don’t want to be left behind.
The girls sense power both in bestowing their favours as well as in withholding them. The boys are bewildered by the new rules and the new personae they’re expected to adopt. Two of their frat brothers are maybe facing lengthy prison terms. Here and now, however, all the students are under intense pressure to project an image of sexual prowess and satisfaction. Tastes differ, however, and one sister’s meat can easily be another sister’s poison. Kara gradually revolts against the scenarios that Brandi habitually creates for the class. Kara likes rough sex and challenges Brandi to say why that idea disgusts her.
KARA: l just wanna get totally fucked. Like totally fucked. Till l have no idea what’s going on. Till l’m just holes. l’m just holes. Getting fucked. When l’m fucking l wanna get fucked, sorry!
BRANDI: l need to apologize for Kara.
KARA: No you don’t.
BRANDI: I think it’s important… l think it’s important to understand the context of Kara’s sort of —
KARA: The context? l’m not saying anything new.
BRANDI: Kara is it okay if I?
KARA: l’m saying what I honestly like. Isn’t that your point?
BRANDI: lt sounds like abuse. It sounds like violence, not sex.
KARA: Because those things are sooooo different.
Playwright Padilla’s devotion to detail doesn’t extend to punctuation (some has been inserted here for legibility), but her ear for dialogue is ﬂawless. The skips and jumps of enthusiasm and disdain are perfectly captured in the young people’s language, as is their aching need for tenderness.
MOJDEH: l just want to feel what it’s like for someone to really really really want to touch me. (mini beat). And uh uh not because l’m um l’m um um um some girl? Or like exotic. Or uh like there, but because I’m – me. Speciﬁcally me. Really just … me ..?
The climax comes when Nikki is assaulted on the way to class and complains to the group that Brandi’s elegant moves proved useless against her attacker who was just bigger than she was: “His ﬁngers are easily twice the size of mine and he just starts laughing … I feel like a body that can be attacked any time. And you know what? I am I can be attacked at any time”. Disillusioned, the students quit the class en masse.
Left alone, Brandi has a breakdown which segues into a montage showing the sexual socialization of an entire generation in reverse chronology. lt starts with a raunchy frat party off-campus, then fades into awkward high school dances and middle school hops with balloons — but the most daring of the boys will nevertheless ﬂip up the girls’ skirts. Finally, we work back to the rape victim’s ninth birthday: a child actor enters and is presented with a birthday cake. Her future sorority sisters tell her to make a wish and blow out the candles. And she does—and that’s the ﬁnal blackout of How to Defend Yourself, for my money the highlight of the festival.
The director was Marti Lyons. The cast, all excellent, included Gabriela Ortega, Ariana Mahallati, Anna Crivelli, Abbey Leigh Huffstetler and Jonathan Moises Olivares.
Lily Padilla presents no easy answers in How to Defend Yourself: the #MeToo movement is certainly overdue, but the attitudes and expectations it aims to correct were a long time in the making.
After the Festival closed, How to Defend Yourself won the 2019 Yale Drama Series Prize of the David Charles Horn Foundation.