Monday, February 18, 2008

The off-Broadway "Unspecified Country"

A few case-studies

A few days ago, after seeing "Killing the Boss" by Catherine Filloux at Cherry Lane Theatre (an honest and moving play), I had a revelation: many of the new plays that address foreign issues, written by American dramatists, tend to be set in "unspecified countries". Or the foreign character is from the same - actually not at all the same - "unspecified country".
Of course that implies a country torn by wars and economical problems, dictatorships and other hardships. And the people from those countries are - in most of the cases - the usual stereotypical representations with some touching variations.

In Julia Cho's "The Piano Teacher" we hear about a husband whose dark past and terrible stories are shared with innocent American kids, disturbing them, making them commit crimes (if they were already inclined to violence). In Rhinne Groff's "Inky", it's the young live-in immigrant maid from some Eastern European country, who sleeps with the middle-class husband of the nice middle-class wife, although our girl was supposed/paid to focus on taking care of their well-behaved kids. And of course, her English is very poor. In the imaginative "The Internationalist", Ann Washburn invented a whole language for her "unspecified country" and I must say that she created an original play with parodic accents, making a good use of the stereotypes.

At the other end of the American plays-with-foreigners, we have Sarah Ruhl's "The clean house", where things get more specific with the Brazilian maid telling jokes in Portuguese, adding complexity and spices to this beautiful and poetic play. In J.T. Rodgers's "The Overwhelming" things get overwhelmingly specific. The exploration of the context of the genocide in Rwanda unfolds in a precise manner, with a witty use of the language.
And tonight I saw a truly powerful play: BETRAYED by George Packer, directed by Pippin Parker, at Culture Project. Close to a docudrama, the play is based on an well-researched essay Packer wrote in 2007 for the New Yorker and one can feel that the characters in his play are made of flesh and blood and born out of outrage and care for those Iraqi interpretors working in the Green Zone of a turbulent Baghdad, seen as traitors by their own people and treated with indifference by the American military. Except for one American official, their boss Bill Prescott, an idealist who understands and helps them, risking a nervous breakdown, and ending up outside the system. The relationships are nuanced by Packer with such a tender attention to details and cultural specific differences, that he manages to effortlessly get the audiences immersed in the lives of those people."Betrayed" is really a play worth seeing, go today!

Dramatic Living and Dramatic Writing

One might conclude that's more effective and "fair-trade" to be specific and do intensive research on those countries your characters are from, it gives depth and complexity to the play. Others might argue that the "unspecified country" provides a writer with an easy but meaningful shortcut to universality. Well, maybe. However, at this point, I can't help but insert a plea for the underrepresented writers for whom English is a second language. Broadway and off-Broadway need more plays written by dramatists who lived in those unspecified countries most of their life (and maybe still live there).

Yes, I am subjective in this matter as I am one of those playwrights - shall I specify the country? - who discovered freedom of speech when they were already adults. I wish I could still think of universality, but it stubbornly refuses to seduce me lately. Probably because the history, geography, geometry and architecture of everyday life are too powerful and specific presences. All I want is to have my voice heard here and now, in this life, in this time, in this blog, in this New York. Because what you learn in "those countries" is that tomorrow might not happen for you, so say what you gotta say today.



Anonymous said...

Hi Savi,

I'm your student Matt, from the Reconfiguring the Classics class.

Your blog is cool!

Just found it on your website.


Saviana said...

Thanks Matt,

yeah, check it out from time to time!

(it's not an assignment :)


Hye said...