I lack the words, and my message is muddy, but I will try nevertheless.
This summer I took advantage of a two-week trial of Ancestry.com to discover my heritage, once and for all. I signed up for the most expansive record-keeping option available, full access to birth certificates and death certificates and marriage licenses from Ireland and employment rolls from every city in America dating back several decades. It's a cool site. I recommend it highly, very user-friendly.
I discovered a few things about my family, both on my dad's line and my mom's, some of which I didn't expect. I found that my mom's side settled in San Francisco after my great-great-grandfather ran away from Pennsylvania, desperate to escape life in coal country, to run cable cars in California. (That story courtesy of my great-aunt via my mother, but corroborated in records.)
I found that both sides have deeply German roots, though we've all been Americans pre-World War I (a relief beyond what I can tell you). I even found that records of my German heritage date back as far as 1500, assuming everything I found was accurate. And wow, those German Catholics were, ahem, prolific.
I found that all the Midwestern farmers were in northern states during the Civil War. Another relief. The Pittengers somehow drifted to the right side of history, by chance or by choice? I will never know.
I found French people from Alsace. I found Irish people of such common names that they disappeared into the fog of Irish counties, indistinguishable from the many other Twyfords who left Ireland during the potato famine.
I found a Civil War solider.
I found a REVOLUTIONARY soldier (fighting for Virginia). I could join the DAR. Emily Gilmore, here I come.
I found countless unnamed women, mothers, who had dozens of kids and who sustained their families in ways that probably aren't written down anywhere at all.
One of the most interesting things I noted, though, was that the Dutch side of my dad's line pre-dates America itself. They arrived in Haarlem (two A's) in the 1600s and eventually migrated inward. Pre-USA. THERE WAS NO USA YET.
I can only hope and pray that my ancestors were good people. I am almost certain that they harbored some of the biases and prejudices of their time and even those of our own. I am grateful to them for bonding together so that I could be here with you today, writing on Facebook, day in and day out, trying to scratch out some meaningful words. I'm sure they're looking down on me right now, wondering why I've wasted my childbearing hips by moving away from the farmland they so desperately tried to cobble together and returning to New York to work in the theater, no better than prostitution, they dare say. But I digress.
What I felt upon reading these results was this: for the first time, I understood how I got here. To America, that is. A lot of people I knew growing up had a strong sense of some Euro-cultural identity and I only knew that I was a mutt, from someplace, mostly German, probably Dutch. But now, I KNOW. I don't need to speculate anymore. The gaps that remain will probably never be filled, but an entire world has opened up to me - the world of the past.
And I realized that in the truest sense of the word, more than any other country-based identity, I am an American. Period. No part of me can claim I am anything but, given how far back my family's history in this country goes. For better or for worse, we are HERE and we HAVE BEEN. I confess to finding some odd, possibly misplaced, joy in that.
But I have been deeply troubled this past week.
Because despite this newfound sense of American identify, I find I am no more inclined to defend it as a cultural identity than I was before knowing how long my family has been in this country. I am not inclined at all to say what is American and what is not, and especially not WHO is American and who is not.
What is American?, I ask myself.
What could that possibly even mean?
I tend to think that Americans are those who wish to be.
I think the law would tend to agree. At least the law as it stands right now.
There is a scripture in the New Testament. Jesus is telling his disciples a parable, or a story, about workers in a vineyard. The landlord hires workers to work in the field throughout the course of a single day, and at the end of the day, regardless of when the men started working, he pays them all the exact same wage for their time. The early workers who were there since morning are pissed. And the landowner tells them, basically, "Don't I have the right to do what I want to do with my money? You agreed to this wage, same as them. How is that unfair? Are you just envious that I am generous?" And Jesus concludes by saying that the last will be first, and the first will be last.
So it is with America.
An American can be someone here for 300 years or 5 minutes. And I welcome them. I welcome them not because I own America in some way for having been here for 400 years, but precisely because I do NOT own it. I never have.
I have no claim to this land other than that I was born here. I cannot tell you whether you are or are not an American. I cannot define it. I don't know that it can be defined. All I can tell you is that I'm here.
I'm here, and you are here, and we are America, and that is all that I know.
So I don't take kindly to this un-American business, this "let's take our country back" business. As Jon Stewart so wisely pointed out months ago, "This country isn't yours. You don't own it. It never was. There is no real America."
All I can tell you is that even when I don't agree with you, fellow American, even when I want to scream in your face and tell you how much your ideas suck, I still respect the fact that you share a country with me. I will not deny you that. I have no right.
And sometimes I'm sorry that I can't see eye to eye with you, America. But I've never thought this country derived strength from being some kind of unilateral monolith. We who have maintained this identity consciously will just have to keep going at it until we come to solutions and come to new ones and keep fighting and growing and changing and moving.
So keep on arguing, America, but remember that you are ALL America.
Because we all said so.
I'll let Norah Jones play me out.
"'Twas Halloween and the ghosts were out,
And everywhere they'd go, they shout,
And though I covered my eyes I knew,
They'd go away.
But fear's the only thing I saw,
And three days later 'twas clear to all,
That nothing is as scary as election day.
But the day after is darker,
And darker and darker it goes,
Who knows, maybe the plans will change,
Who knows, maybe he's not deranged.
The news men know what they know, but they,
Know even less than what they say,
And I don't know who I can trust,
For they come what may.
'cause we believed in our candidate,
But even more it's the one we hate,
I needed someone I could shake,
On election day.
But the day after is darker,
And deeper and deeper we go,
Who knows, maybe it's all a dream,
Who knows if I'll wake up and scream.
I love the things that you've given me,
I cherish you my dear country,
But sometimes I don't understand,
The way we play.
I love the things that you've given me,
And most of all that I am free,
To have a song that I can sing,
On election day."
- My Dear Country, Norah Jones, 2007
Official Company and Production Site
My first trip to Boston this weekend led me to the imaginary beasts’ production of Daniil Karms’s Betty Bam!, a 70-minute experience at the Plaza Black Box in the Boston Center for the Arts. The show is currently running until May 2.
Do I recommend it? Absolutely. I am, however, left with a lingering question, which only hit me as the play came to a close and ultimately would not dissuade me from recommending it to a prospective audience member. Read on!
An excellent dramaturgical note by Matthew McMahan is essential reading before experiencing Betty Bam!, particularly if Russian avant-garde theater isn’t your usual bag. To sum up, the original Elizaveta Bam by Daniil Kharms is a collaborative spectacle created by “Radix," a group that conducted radical theatrical experiments in an increasingly Soviet Russia in 1927. This young group, Kharms in particular, used words, circus tricks, sounds and textures to sidestep the “mechanized life” of the conventional and mundane – a fitting rebellion just a short time before the tyrant Stalin came to power.
The work of anti-Soviet artists has been marginalized and largely forgotten by today’s audiences; such was the efficiency of this restrictive, repressive regime. Despite increasing censorship, these passionate artists fought their corrupt government through art – a point which provides necessary context to this often-puzzling work of theater.
The world of Betty Bam! resembles a basement blown out by explosives, featuring a series of ever-shifting doors and cabinets with which the actors can gleefully play. Spiral target symbols appear on every surface, hinting at the deadly mark on Betty Bam’s back. A black and white set of squares labeled RADIX (a tribute to the creators) frames the floor like an inverted chess board. A single electric bulb hangs from the ceiling, casting harsh shadows across space. The stage is set for a game of cat and mouse.
I don’t want to reveal too much - a piece with so many quirks, treats and surprises is best experienced live. Five haunting young women, dressed exactly alike, all embody the mysterious Betty Bam, who is accused of an unknown crime (possibly a murder) and thus hunted by two bumbling yet dangerous inspectors.
The physical comedy is well-staged, as is a neat piece of puppetry. At times, the movement could have been crisper and cleaner, though the sheer force and energy it clearly takes to perform this acrobatic piece excuses a few imperfections.
Actors Cameron Cronin and William Schuller are a neat duo and bring a smart energy to their initially unsympathetic characters. This likable cast generates a warmth to material that can seem stiff and rigid, for a piece that was once a defiant act of rebellion in a bygone era. The ensemble commands the text, even bypasses some of its inscrutability, with clownish antics that highlight the emotional journey of Betty and her aggressors as the chase ensues.
Though I wish I could give credit to these talented actresses individually, they were dressed completely alike, making it impossible to offer individual kudos. Suffice to say, these actresses have done their homework, emulating the silent film actresses of the 1920s with large eyes and expressive lips. As an ensemble, they move in tandem with total ease.
The question that hit me as the well-deserved bows were taking place: This is an important piece of theatrical history, unique and intellectual, daring and dangerous – but what does it have to offer us now?
That’s a question I’m not confident was answered tonight. This piece was executed efficiently and with great pizzazz, though I still question its relevance and timeliness to today’s America.
With the recent tragedy in Paris regarding Charlie Hebdo, I could see the case for a play that broke ground and fought the establishment by refusing to be silenced. However, this was not a connection I felt the production made to contemporary society, or indeed could even have made, given the clear absurdist necessities and lack of plot of the source material.
Betty Bam! is a play is worth seeing, if just for the sheer theatrical force that is the imaginary beasts’s vision. I would love to catch more of their work, particularly if the material is more than a well-executed history piece.
Mood, style and movement are the winners in Betty Bam! – a well-crafted snippet of theater that does not overstay its welcome and leaves you with an image of flickering silent film and the taste of coy rebellion.
It's 2015. Time to write.
I'm working on a full-length version of my ten-minute play THOU SHALT NOT, which I hope to workshop later this year. Sometimes you get a good feeling about a play... sometimes it means nothing ... but even the secondary characters are springing to life in the most positive way.
That's all I plan to say about that. Better to do than to chat endlessly.
I started this blog in April thinking I'd have time to update it each week. What a funny person I am.
FringeNYC was a seat-of-your-pants experience all the way, and my pants are long gone. There are few feelings more satisfying in this world than seeing your baby on its feet and performing for people. We've got two more shows on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, and it will be hard for me to say goodbye. What a beautiful assembly of people both in the show and in the audience.
All things must end, however, and we're beginning to look in a Third Floor direction. Brad Root and Sarah White are on board as the two bright-faced apartment owners who meet repeatedly in the hallway, and who will soon share a terrible secret. It's a kickass script and comes just in time for Halloween. I'm excited to continue doing good work that interests me. That's all I ever wanted from New York, and 2014 has been The Year.
I was very excited Saturday night to open my email and see the words "Congratulations! You are a participant in the 2014 Fringe Festival" flash across my Android phone. I had about five minutes to celebrate before my battery died, after which I celebrated sans electronics.
I started working on THE HVAC PLAYS back in July 2013. It was very hot, so hot that I was pushed from my apartment to a nearby cafe, during which I decided to write about other people who were in a similarly A/C-less situation in their own apartments. Eventually my parents took pity on me and gave me the most grownup birthday present I have ever received - an air conditioning unit. "The Heater Plays," the follow-up to "The A/C Plays," came in January, after our boiler broke (in the same building, no less) and we had no heat during the polar vortex, for a week.
I don't want to give away essentials of plot, but basically you meet three sets of people who are coping with the extreme temperatures in their own fashion, each living on a different floor of the same city apartment building. I fell in love with these characters and I hope other people will at this year's fringe.
I'll say it again -
The HVAC PLAYS ARE COMING TO FRINGE!!
It's going to be a worthy but expensive journey, so please - stay tuned in the coming weeks, because there will be an indiegogo campaign. I can't do this all on my own, no, I'm no superman.
In other news, a UK-based thriller called THIRD FLOOR will be directed by yours truly at The Tank in midtown Manhattan in October 2014!!!
There will be a fundraising campaign for this venture as well! I'm very excited to bring it to the stage in NYC for the first time and I hope y'all will come along for the ride.
Oh, and lest I forget,
I am now the literary manager for Turn to Flesh Productions! Submit your beautiful plays to me!
I'm happy that so many wonderful things are starting to happen - can't wait for NYC to see what this Midwestern kid has to offer.