T. Ryder Smith and his collaborator, Chris McElroen, didn’t include any trigger warnings with their current touring production of “Measure Back,” a play that aims “to examine the ubiquity of war.” This post isn’t meant to be a review. It’s just meant to be a public service. The production sponsored by Duke Performances included:
(1) Inviting a female audience member onstage and asking her whether she knew anyone who’d been raped.
(2) Putting a dog collar around a female character in a hijab and telling an audience member to hold the leash.
(3) The rape of a “foreign” female by an American soldier with a power drill.
(4) The main character/actor asking audience members what their father’s names were. When a Black woman answered “I don’t know,” the character/actor said, “That’s common among your race, isn’t it?”
These were only a handful of the confrontational situations audience members were forced into, without their knowledge or consent.
As for trigger warnings in general: the people who would avoid an event because of a trigger warning are the same people an artist would permanently alienate for violating their trust by not providing a trigger warning. The artist loses nothing.
This is my Dad, showing his granddaughter Laxmi how his cane works.
Holidays are holidays. Joy and love commingle with frustration and impatience. This is the way of intimacy. Nothing to worry about.
This week, I kept thinking about a passage from the eulogy my Dad wrote for my Mom. He took care of her for many years as her illness made her increasingly more debilitated. And now, I’m caring for Dad in a similar way…as Pam does, as we all do; as Dad takes care of me, as we all take care of each other, imperfectly, sometimes with more grace and sometimes with less. And it’s all okay.
“When we had done everything we could for her, and nothing seemed to work any more and a sense of futility set in, it began to dawn on me that the only thing left to do was the most important thing I could ever have done all our life together: to be present for her and with her. Not to change or cure her, but to let her be, and let myself and our children be, with her. After all our years of marriage and being a family, I began to realize that this is all love ever needed or needs: being present for one another. This was enormously liberating, and her gift of peace. I wish I had learned it sooner; I hope I will never forget it.”
—Donald E. Byrne Jr.
St. Paul the Apostle Parish
August 22, 2001
While traveling to research The Girl in the Road, I kept a notebook where I’d write down expenses, logistical details, and occasionally, pep talks to myself. I found this page while looking for something else. It’s pretty self-explanatory—at the time, the notion that I would actually write this book just felt laughable, and I was trying to write through my misgivings.
I thought this might be encouraging to anyone embarking on a project that feels overwhelming. Including all yall NaNoWriMo writers. What you’re working on might feel like the most absurd and awkward and awful piece of shit right now, but that is part of the process.
My Dad lives near me, so I get to see him as much as I want (without being a pest). The last time I went, I was really weepy. I arrived in the rain with Cuban sandwiches and diet Pepsis. We sat down to watch Star Trek: Next Generation—which we’d watched together all while I was in high school, and have since rediscovered on Netflix, and so are watching straight through from the beginning—but first I wanted to ask him some questions.
I told him how I’d just gotten my IUD, which was much more emotional than I’d anticipated. Though preventing conception is exactly what I want, and I can reverse it tomorrow if I want, it feels sobering to have an actual physical device in my womb now, blocking children. I asked him why he’d chosen to have children. That I’m so happy, that all of my dreams are coming true, but that none of that had ever been guaranteed, for me or for any of his five children, so why did he and Mom take the risk? What if we lived horribly unhappy lives? What did they want out of us?
He said simply that having children brought a certain richness to life, and that was the kind of richness he and Mom had wanted. And that I was choosing a different kind of richness. I’m mostly at peace with that, though I also tried to describe how the physical pain I was feeling was different from any other physical pain. That when the IUD went in, it hurt like hell, and even though it was only for a few seconds, it broke open a reservoir of emotion I didn’t know I had. That I’d felt very fragile on the drive home, and cried though I didn’t know why. That I could still feel it, glowing like an ember. He listened and said, Yes, I’ll never know that kind of pain.
We settled in to watch Star Trek. Re-watching it has reminded me of just how formative the series was for me as a teenager. Without being aware of it at the time, I was mapping the kind of life I wanted: a new adventure every day, and a band of friends to brave it with.
I went to an otherworldly masquerade last night. I’d been sick for days, and was going to do the Cancerian thing of begging off and going home to curl up on the couch, but my friends were quite insistent. So I put on my lambie hat and drove deep into the country and wandered up a long driveway in the darkness, to come upon a sparkling archway flanked by iron demons, past which there was a pageant of hundreds, milling from field to forest to farmhouse, and then later, down to a place where the earth had been plowed in circles and a bonfire bloomed in the middle. I traced the furrows around and around, every time finding old friends, new friends, people I hadn’t seen in ages, people I didn’t want to see, all transformed by costume and firelight. A mosaic of the last eight years.
The last six months have been an avalanche of good news. One thing after another, too fast to internalize. And it’s not going to slow down: I have a reading of my new play next week, and then I go to New York, London, and Amsterdam to see friends and meet editors; and then I return to the dream world of Belize, back to my friends, back to the cave; then my novel comes out the day before opening night of my next play.
Growing with my anticipation of these days is a fear that I’m going to die before any of it happens.
I’m sure this is as natural a fear as it is irrational. I’m in no more danger of dying, from accident or otherwise, than I was six months ago. I’m a very healthy 32-year-old. But my mother died when she was 60, and so my subconscious is always calculating: “Okay, I have twenty-eight years left. Twenty-eight years to see Angkor Wat, the Limpopo River, the teahouses of Kyoto, Tehran, Rajasthan, Jerusalem, and my family’s home of County Wexford where my ancestors celebrated Samhain. Twenty-eight years to love as many people as I can. Twenty-eight years to tell as many stories as possible before time runs out.” And then of course, I think: “What if I don’t have twenty-eight years? What if I only have ten, or five, or one?”
Things can get out of hand.
Samhain is a festival for those who have passed on. If they’re more present to us at this time of year than others, I would tell them, if I have any say, Please, not yet. Not now. Not for a long, long time. I have so much to do.
Margaret Cho came to perform at my alma mater, Wellesley, when I was a senior. She was incredible. It was one of the times in my life I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe. She talked about her mother, whom she impersonated onstage, with a thick Korean accent. It’s a bit she uses often (see here for an example).
Afterwards, during a Q&A session, a student—also East Asian, if I remember correctly—challenged her about using an accent for comic effect.
Margaret said, “But this is what my mother sounds like. I’m not impersonating her. She takes over me; I actually leave the room.”
The student said, “But you’re still deliberately making a choice to channel her for comic effect.”
Margaret said, “But you’re the ones laughing.”
…Neither gave ground. It was a painful exchange, but one that keeps coming back to me as I write Tarantino. I’m white, my ancestors lived in the US for at least three generations back, and I speak with a Standard American accent, and so I benefit from all the privileges that those positions incur. But the play I’m writing is a satire featuring thirteen Olympians from countries all over the world. When we held auditions, we told everyone to go for broke, including in accents. It was fucking hilarious. But I have really mixed feelings about that. How do I write text that I know will be spoken in an accent, knowing it’ll likely have a comic effect?
The only useful “rule” I can think of, going forward, is to make my actors co-creators in their characters. I feel like this is necessary whenever a playwright is writing outside of her experience, especially when that realm of experience is demarcated by privilege. But if any fellow theatre artists have dealt with this issue, and artists of color in particular, I’d love to hear from you. Thank you.
Mini-jati: my dear friend Beckett, his amazing wife Erin, and their maid of honor, the lady Amelia (all in post-wedding fatigue) on Lake Michigan.
I’m reading a wonderful book right now, The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s an alternate history of the world after the Black Death wipes out the entire population of Europe in the 1300s, leaving the earth to the Chinese, Indian, (Native) American, and Muslim empires. The story is told through several characters who, over the course of their many reincarnations, realize that they’re members of a “jati,” or a core group of people who recognize each other and work together in every life. Then they reconvene in the bardo (the afterlife) and discuss their progress (or just reproach each other in amusing ways) before being reborn.
It’s rare that a book shapes the whole way I look at the world. But in the last few months, I’ve been traveling all over the U.S., visiting friends I haven’t seen in years, and having incredible hours-long retrospective conversations with all of them….and I’ve begun thinking of my friends as my jati. We’ve known each other for thirty-two years, twenty years, ten years, or five years; from Annville or Lebanon Catholic or Wellesley or NASA or MIT or DSI or NPR or Roth Lab or Clarion or Ethiopia; friends who have always been friends, friends who were once lovers, or may have been in a previous life, or will be in the next; or mothers or wives or brothers or sons. I tell them how much I’ve changed, and they smile, and gently remind me how much I haven’t.
And so there’s nothing else to do but keep climbing the mountain together, higher and higher up, and pause in pairs to look back at the view stretching farther and farther toward the horizon.
I’m so grateful for these companions. Let’s be gentle with each other, in heaven as on earth.