I’m going to begin with a personal story, one that has been eating at me for 13 years. It has frustrated, angered, and saddened me and has been given much too much power over me. It’s not as sordid as it sounds, but it’s intensely personal to me.
In the spring of 2001, I was finishing up my BA in Theatre by spending a semester in NYC, tooling around the city, having an internship at PS 122, and devouring as many plays, concerts, and museums as possible. It was one of the most defining experiences of my life.
I had also applied to the directing MFA program at Columbia University and was fortunate enough to have an audition, supervised by the great Anne Bogart. I had the great fortune to throw up into a trash can in front of her after cramming a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into my mouth. That's not the story, but it's a fun detail... There were around 20 of us that were called in to audition and we all went around the circle, telling people our backgrounds or what "defined our experiences," how we defined ourselves, and told a vision from our futures. When it came to me, I said that my ethnic background was Mexican-American (I wasn't using the term "Latino" at the time, mostly said "Chicano."), but said that I didn't want to be defined by that. I wanted my work to stand for itself. I said that my experience was defined by Disney and Jesus Christ Superstar. I said that a moment from my future was to be brushing my teeth and having my future son run in saying "Daddy, cartoons are on!" and my future self rushing out to join him.
A few other people gave their answers and then came Ricky. His name might not be Ricky, but I remember it being Ricky... Anyway, he begins by saying, "I'm Mexican-American, Chicano," and then he turned and gave me the dirtiest look I've ever, seriously ever have received and said, "And I do define myself by it." He gave a story about his grandmother working as a migrant worker and went on and on, getting choked up, and everyone in the room, nodding along with looks of understanding at him and looks of derision at me. I wanted to say, "Dude, my grandma was a migrant worker, too, but that wasn't my experience. That's what I meant." But I couldn't interrupt, I was totally blindsided, but it didn't stop there.
Later on that day we were divided up into groups of three and would each create a little vignette in three parts. When we watched Ricky's, he had two people, one walked over to the other and said, "Hi, I'm White." The other person said, "I'm White, but I don't call myself White." All throughout he looked at me with a look that said, "Gotcha, shithead." Ouch. I bubbled with anger and it completely threw off my groove. I couldn't confront him; I was too busy trying to be a good director, I couldn't waste my time trying to argue and defend my answers to an innocuous question about self-definition and my personal answer. Why was he personally attacking me in this process in front of all these strangers? I'll never know. But it's eaten at me for years because he defined himself one way and looked down on me for not defining myself the same way.
Now, let's get to what this has to do with playwriting. I don't usually write autobiographical plays. Yes, as Julia says in Books & Bridges, "There [are] elements" of life that find their way into the DNA of my plays, but I'm not revisiting specific moments of my life. I have written one autobiographical play, (interestingly enough during my semester in NYC) which was about a hellish week in Atlanta, Georgia in which my girlfriend dumped me. Yay. I wrote that play because 1. I needed to and 2. Because the playwright who was mentoring me demanded "write what you know." No one has ever read that play and no one will. It wasn't meant to be read or performed. And I haven't revisited another specific moment in my life to write a play about... until last night.
This 31 Plays in 31 Days challenge has been exhausting and somewhere in my day, Ricky and the episode at Columbia kept flashing in my mind. I didn't want to write a play about it. It was too upsetting and I didn't want to be exposed. Also, I have found that, in my experience, when people revisit their personal histories, they often revise their personal histories, too. They usually use the autobiographical play to win a fight they previously lost, to get the last laugh, or to, as experienced by Sam Beckett (Quantum Leap, not the playwright), "put right what once went wrong." And that always seemed wrong to me. One playwright said (I wish I could remember who), "Just because it happened to you, doesn't mean it's interesting."
I really didn't want to write about Ricky, but I did. I didn't have the time to fight it before my deadline of midnight to finish the play. I hated writing it. But I challenged myself. I wasn't going to give myself the best lines, the zingers, the witty lines that playwrights who write these autobiographical plays often do. I wasn't going to give myself an advantage. I wasn't going to assume that I would win the argument. I was going to give Ricky his due. I was going to speak from his experience (a made up one based on what I remember and sprinkled, ironically, with experience from my family's personal history), and would make his argument as strong as mine. I was going to see things through his eyes, but was also going to give myself my chance to express what I wished I had expressed at the time. There are a great deal of therapeutic, cathartic "fucks" that fly in my dialogue, but the play I created speaks to a few issues that I think are important to talk about.
One is the label of "Latino playwright." Do I want to be labeled as a "Latino Playwright?" Does it make people judge my work differently if I am labeled as a "Latino playwright?" If I want to be simply known as a "playwright," does that make me a bad Latino? Ricky would think so. I would think that it's akin to a woman wanting to be known as a "playwright" and not placed into the category of "woman playwright" as if "White, male" is implied by the word "playwright." Isn't that equality to not be labeled or categorized as "other?" If anything, can't I be an "American playwright?" It's bad enough to be "emerging," must I be labeled further?
This is something that I've been struggling with, and I think I've found the answer, or, rather, my answer. You can read it in the play "Walls." I never wanted this play to be read, but because I've vowed to put all of my plays written for the 31 Plays in 31 Days challenge on my website, it's out there.
After last night's, I've lost my mind. I'm emotionally spent. So, today's play is about a giraffe in a necktie and a warthog in a bowtie. It's on the website, too. It's called "Second Hand."
Enjoy them both.
And please, I beg you, my fellow theatre-makers, however you define yourselves, however you choose to label yourselves, be excellent to each other.