Deserving love

I recently rediscovered a quote from English writer Zadie Smith’s debut novel White Teeth, whose tone is kindred to the Singer’s reflections on love and what “good” people deserve.

Smith’s sprawling multicultural novel follows two families — British Archie and his Jamaican-born wife Clara, their daughter Irie, and the Bengali Iqbals, Samad, Alsana, and English-Indian twins Millat and Magid — from the end of World War II through the 1970s when Archie meets the much-younger Clara to the present where the second generation struggles to make sense of their inheritance. Smith smashes real historical events into multiple points of view, time periods, and throws in bits of social theory and intertextuality, all to illustrate the absurdity of a world driven by chance but inhabited by people who believe that they can control what happens in their lives.

In the novel, Irie loses her virginity to Millat, with whom she is in love, but is rebuffed by him. In anger, Irie sets out to sleep with his twin, and Smith describes the scene:

“It’s a funny thing about the modern world. You hear girls in the toilets of clubs saying, ‘Yeah, he fucked off and left me. He didn’t love me. He just couldn’t deal with love. He was too fucked up to know how to love me.’ Now, how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll—then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.”

Horrible things happen every day — Zadie Smith might as well be echoing the singer’s friend Beth, whose words of comfort when the singer loses her father say that no one deserves immunity from anything. Life just happens.

Smith’s description of the value attached to love also seems to capture the journey of the singer as an agent in her own happiness; the singer tells us that after dating a series of alcoholics who insisted that they weren’t her boyfriend, she met Henry, whose defining quality is that he is nice to her. The singer reveals anxiety about whether or not she “deserves” a guy so great — she notes that her family is almost offensively impressed at her catch and structurally, her “perfect” relationship with Henry leads us to the story of overhearing her mother imply she loves the singer’s more popular and successful sister better. The song paired with the story contains an image of a sleeping Henry not supporting his girlfriend, though she insists that “still hav[ing] you” makes up in part for the hurt her mother inflicted. Our music director Steve made the brilliant catch that in “I Still Have You,” the singer uses an image of sitting up in bed in a panic, which later happens to her dying father. Later, the singer also uses imagery of a hospital to describe her break up with Henry — she got clingy, and Henry had to “pull the plug.”

In these instances, We’re Gonna Die places our ability to inspire love and be lovable as an indication of the good things we deserve, a public marker than we are good people who don’t deserve a lonely, premature, scary death like the singer’s father experienced. The end of the piece undercuts that, however. We may find love, or we may not. We will die anyway. Zadie Smith, too, refuses to give us a tidy ending. White Teeth ends by describing several endgames, some happy, some clinical, some ambiguous. None necessarily true.

She concludes in words that echo the singer’s description of comfort: “But surely to tell these tall tales and others like them would be to speed the myth, the wicked lie, that thepast is always tense and the future, perfect … it’s not like that. It’s never been like that.”


Zadie Smith 

“shit happens a lot and it’s terrible and I’m sorry”

Local playwright and blog/columnist Emily Kaye Lazzaro wrote about a recent encounter with an overheard conversation that took her on a journey similar to the Singer’s in We’re Gonna Die. I loved her blog post about how the encounter unfolded, and it feels so of a piece with the work we’re doing in rehearsal. (I highly recommend reading her whole post, which I’ll excerpt below.)

Emily has publicly written several times about her three miscarriages, and her path towards welcoming her son into her family. In her piece “An Open Letter to the Couple Sitting Next to Me at the Ramen Place at 2:45pm on a Thursday” she recounts that while dining solo the other day, she overheard a couple at the next table trying to come to terms with the miscarriage they had clearly just suffered. It threw her back immediately into her own period of suffering:

I heard a few more things that started to confirm my suspicions. Then I heard the woman say, “I do still want to go away with you, though, before we can try again,” and I burst into tears. The tears were the kind that just flow out of your eyes like somebody turned a faucet on, with no accompanying sobs. I was very surprised by the crying! Just like, oop, we are crying now! I think I played off the nose blowing and face wiping by attributing it to the spicy ramen. […]

I guess I cried because I remembered having that conversation. A very sad thing about having a miscarriage is that it’s sort of like finding out you are going to Disney World, buying a plane ticket, reserving a hotel room, and packing your bag, only to discover that Disney World doesn’t exist, never existed. And you have to cancel your plane ticket. And you feel stupid for ever thinking that Disney World did exist.

She continues…

I’m sure you guys will be okay and everything and I’m glad I didn’t talk to you because I was very clearly making your experience about myself. But whatever. Now I’m obviously making it about myself by writing about it on the Internet. My point here is that this shit happens a lot and it’s terrible and I’m sorry. I’m sorry that it happened to you and that it happens to a lot of people all the time. I’m sorry Disney World doesn’t exist right now. But it might exist later, if you try again.

The Disney World metaphor has broken down.

I’m not even sure there’s anything to be learned from having a miscarriage or two or three. I want there to be something to be learned. But it’s probably just like any kind of loss. The thing to be learned is that it happens once and then it continues to happen for the rest of your godforsaken time on this planet and there’s nothing to be done. There is so much loss and so much suffering. But there is also spicy miso ramen.


The exceptionally quotidien nature of suffering — and the feeling that we must be special and so we do not deserve this pain — runs through both Emily’s post and We’re Gonna Die. Horrible things happen all the time.


Ordinary Dance

The production team had a fruitful conversation the other day about the possibilities for the play’s final movement section. We explored terminology, as well as atmosphere, emotion, and the qualities this section wanted to emphasize. One of the most interesting threads had to do with the nature of the movement itself — there isn’t anything traditionally dancerly or polished about it. There’s an awkwardness, an ordinariness at its heart.

The conversation put me in mind of Yvonne Rainer’s seminal work from the beginnings of postmodern / avant-garde dance: Trio A. Choreographed in 1966, this piece still has the power to unsettle viewers as it argues for the value of everyday motions and gestures within a dance event. Regarding a different, later project, Rainer famously penned her No Manifesto, which I think sheds some light on her aesthetic generally:

No to spectacle.
No to virtuosity.
No to transformations and magic and make-believe.
No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image.
No to the heroic.
No to the anti-heroic.
No to trash imagery.
No to involvement of performer or spectator.
No to style.
No to camp.
No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer.
No to eccentricity.
No to moving or being moved.

In essence, Rainer treats dance as (in her words) a “neutral object” — a collection of (often rigorous) motions that does not by its nature inherently carry meaning or emotion. Rather, it becomes a container for the event, the audience, and the experience in that moment.

Though the movements in Trio A can seem random, they are specific, codified, and repeatable. The piece can be performed forwards or backwards. To music or to silence. The experience of the viewer is one in which our own frame of mind — our concerns and preoccupations, our expectations and assumptions — becomes the material from which we make meaning.


A more modern take on ordinariness in dance can be seen in Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Poetics: a Ballet Brut (they’re not from Oklahoma). Following in the footsteps of artists like Rainer, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and other members of the New York avant garde, NToO used chance operations to create a physical score for this work. Chance Operations requires that a series of gestural, textual, spacial, or audio vocabularies are designed, then are implemented in random order. So, for example, in Poetics: A Ballet Brut, NToO divided the playing space into a grid pattern, and assigned each square to one side of a die. Similarly, a collection of ordinary physical movements (walking, opening a shopping bag, moving a chair, etc) were assigned to another die. Rolls of the dice determined the order of gestures and locations on the stage, and thus a “script” of choreography was created, memorized, rehearsed, and performed. The fascinating thing about it in performance is that as audience members we search for patterns, narrative, and meaning. We make it up when none is embedded. Here’s a sample of Poetics: a Ballet Brut:

Neither Rainer nor the members of Nature Theatre of Oklahoma “look like” dancers, as we’ve come to understand that ideal. They look like average people. They move like average people. And yet, this is dance. It’s very ordinariness is the essence of its message.

In the case of We’re Gonna Die, the non-specialness of the movement section pulls on some of these same ideas, rooting us in the ordinary, heartbreaking, awkward, funny, sweet, strange, totality of it, and preparing us for the moment when we all sing together, cheerfully, about the inevitability of our own demise.


Medical Ethics, Part 1

Now that we’ve had the chance to explore We’re Gonna Die in detail via tablework, we’re going to start using this blog space to address a few big picture themes and questions. First up: medical ethics. We’ll be engaging this topic in several parts.

The Singer in We’re Gonna Die tells a story of how her father enrolled in a medical trial for a new cancer treatment, the hope this enrollment sparked, and the devastation of not receiving the treatment in time.

There’s much to be explored in the realm of medical trials, but the purview of the Singer’s experience is limited to that of a family member, trying to care for a loved one in pain, and working to understand what seems to be an utterly perverse turn of events: a drug that can help that is being withheld because the parameters of the trial must be upheld.

The question she and her family ask: how is it possible that the prospect of saving a life is less important than the rules of the trial?

The question the prompts for us: How do medical codes of ethics guide doctors and participants in these cases?

The journal Current Oncology sought to address this question, especially when it comes to the “informed consent” of trial participants.

Informed consent is arguably the most important ethical dimension of research on human subjects, and yet it is arguably the most difficult to truly achieve 10,11. Fully informed consent has three fundamental components 12:

  • Adequate disclosure of information
  • Full patient capacity to comprehend the information
  • Voluntariness or freedom of the patient to make a decision

For a [randomized clinical trial] to be justified, a state of clinical uncertainty about the relative merits of a trial’s arms—that is, the groups or methods being compared—must exist. This requirement alone is a difficult concept for most patients to grasp, and it is a sufficiently nuanced and sophisticated concept that even researchers exhibit inconsistency in grasping this very fundamental premise behind clinical research. A priori, a patient is entirely unable to know in advance whether participation in a study might be of personal benefit. The clinical investigator must be completely honest about presenting the experimental nature of the treatment being offered and must avoid propagating the widespread therapeutic misconception in which the patient believes that an offer of an opportunity to access a beneficial therapy is being extended.

Furthermore, clinical investigators cannot possibly predict every foreseeable complication of an experimental therapy, because previously unknown and unencountered complications can arise in the course of clinical research.

This next point seems incredibly important (boldface emphasis mine):

Full capacity is arguably impaired in most patients being confronted with the daunting task of trying to digest all the information concerning a complex trial and making a decision that may have an impact on their quality of life or very survival. Voluntariness may also be adversely affected by a myriad of forces. In the final analysis, the most important component in clinical decision-making and the consent process for many patients may simply be their trust in the clinical investigator.

Is the problem of impaired consent present for the Singer’s father? We can’t know for sure, but I’m interested in how consent connected to the idea of hope — perhaps, even, false hope.

Is false hope a necessary byproduct of participation in such a trial? And, like the other types of suffering explored in We’re Gonna Die, is this an inevitability of life itself?

More on Medical Ethics in part 2, coming soon.


Destroying the Audience

The mission of Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company — which originally created and produced WE’RE GONNA DIE — is “to produce the work of Young Jean Lee,” and the mission of the work of Young Jean Lee is to destroy the audience.


Young Jean Lee in WE’RE GONNA DIE

Described as “the most adventurous downtown [New York] playwright,” Lee roots her playwriting process in fear, starting with the story she thinks she is least allowed to tell or the one that scares her the most. She says:

“When starting a play, I ask myself, ‘What’s the last show in the world I would ever want to make?’ Then I force myself to make it. I do this because going out of my comfort zone compels me to challenge my assumptions and find value in unexpected places. Our goal is to find ways to get past our audience’s defenses against uncomfortable subjects and open people up to confronting difficult questions by keeping them disoriented and laughing. My work is about struggling to achieve something in the face of failure, incompetence and not-knowing. The discomfort and discovery involved in watching this struggle reflects the truth of my experience.”

Because of this fluid aesthetic, a Young Jean Lee play looks different once piece to the next. She’s tackled the Korean-American experience in SONGS OF THE DRAGONS FLYING TO HEAVEN (Lee herself is Korean-American); she’s written King Lear totally out of King Lear in LEAR; explored black identity politics in THE SHIPMENT by merging vignettes that are uncomfortably close to a minstrel show into an absurd drawing room comedy; turned the trappings of female submissiveness into empowerment by stripping performers of clothes (and dialogue) via dance in an UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW; and went inside the pysches of straight white men in a play appropriately titled STRAIGHT WHITE MEN.

Lee created WE’RE GONNA DIE, a theatrical memento mori wrapped in self-conscious cabaret and pop music, to overturn the universal human desire to be special. Her goal was to create a piece that any ordinary person could perform, and to back up her point, Lee herself took the stage in the original production. The idea of WGD is not to affirm the talent and special performance abilities of a singular star but to create a connection among the audience by creating space for honesty and vulnerability. The stories in WGD could happen to anyone. Assuming we’re special protects us from tragedy — or so we think. Lee turns this assumption on its head.

Not being special is both a comfort and, in the world of WGD, a death sentence. Yet everybody dies, and this fact connects us to every other human being on the planet. So we truly aren’t alone.