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Fuel, Hurt, n Holler the Trouble on a Red Bike

Playwrights’ Corner
A woman sits on a red bike in an empty studio. The bike is held stationary by a piece of wood on the back wheel, and the woman plays a trumpet.
Andrea Peterson in rehearsal for RED BIKE at Pygmalion Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo by Robert Holman.
This here used to be/Where we smoked love/Made fists/drank til it hurt/And prided ourselves on a strange kind of freedom"
— from FUEL

Debt. Its looming face hovers over the lives of those of us in the precariat. Although some records indicate that the greater economy in the United States is on an upswing, there’s scant little trickle-down in the myth of trickle-down economics, and yet, the myth persists. Ever since it was introduced in U.S. culture in July 1981 as tax reduction legislation during the Reagan years, the theory and its implementation has undergone radical micro-shifts in perception. From grudging embrace to wary judgment to something closer to negation. One could say it’s common, proven knowledge that trickle-down economics doesn’t work, but here we are again looking at it in the eye in the form of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

In the last two years, ever since the launch of the seemingly endless U.S. Presidential campaigns on both parties’ sides  – (I acknowledge we are a country of more than two parties, but if you follow the money, it’s clear the illusion of a multi-party system is just that) – there’s been what I like to call a  renewed “class consciousness raising” in the rhetoric and punditry of U.S. politics. The working poor were “suddenly” a viable voting bloc to whom cynically persuasive promises were aimed, and yes, as another myth, of sorts, goes, many of the working poor in this nation did get out to vote. Speak anger to anger; speak disenfranchisement to disenfranchisement and you’re likely to stir up some genuine feeling in your audience, and if that feeling translates to the voting booth, well then, what power have we all? Or do we?

There’s no reason to these times/No reason at all/‘Cept knowin we gotta keep on/By the grace of somethin we don’t recognize."
— from HURT SONG

For most of my writing life, I have lived in debt’s shadow. Using one credit card to pay another, stretching out the dollars on any given gig to hopefully make another gig happen, and sometimes, just closing my eyes and praying something will come through, knowing full well that bills need get paid and there’s no fund or nest egg to catch me if I fall. I know too that this life I have chosen has been mine to choose and that I am in a country that regards a life and profession in the arts, still, as a kind of amusing “hobby,” until or unless one is “vetted” by globalized Mctheater “success,” which is an anomaly and hardly the norm. All to say, I know from precariat, to use the slightly New York-ish phrasing.

For many years, my plays have been produced mainly outside of New York City. Right now, for instance, I am in simultaneous rehearsals in Salt Lake City and Philadelphia for the NNPN rolling world premiere of Red Bike at the first two theaters that will produce it, thus far, on its rolling journey – PYGmalion Theatre Company and Simpatico Theatre, respectively. What you see when you travel to the rest of the country, in big and small cities and towns, and make work there, which is different than when you’re simply being a tourist, is how poverty and homelessness and transience cut across all lines of race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, generation, cognitive or physical ability and yes, class. This may not seem a novel revelation. We know this. We live this. Some of us are in it. Some of us are close. And some of us are in the growing precariat class that was supposed to be just a “phase” in our national economic structure yet has become a reality.

Full-time jobs became part-time jobs. Temp jobs became on-call jobs. Entry-level service jobs at supermarkets, retail stores, and food courts, the kinds of jobs that could help get a college student through the cost and incurring debt of their education, are being replaced with automated tellers and self-serve kiosks. It’s transition time, but it’s also reality check time, because the precariat class is here to stay. We can play any intellectual games we like about how new jobs will surface and how a leisure class will be eventually supported fiscally by the government (which, hello, is us) with a universal basic income, but many of our cities and towns are in such a state of flux and growing economic disparity that what we will have, for real, in this country will be nothing short of either a true citizens’ revolt or mass abandonment.

Now, you may think, as you’re reading this, well, there was a kind of revolt. It was the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and its result. Or you may think there was this other somewhat antithetical revolt called “Occupy Wall Street” way, way back in 2008. And of course, the vital passion and power of the Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and #NeverAgain movements and so on. But earlier in this essay I mentioned, in a parenthetical statement, to “follow the money,” because that will lead you to the root of the problem(s) where many of these intersecting actions and people’s movements converge and are sometimes at odds.

Who has the money? Who legislates it? Who apportions it? Who wants in on it? And who has the final say?

We are gods, I say/But we forgot where we came from."
— from RED BIKE

In the last two years I have worked in, among other cities, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Orlando, Detroit, Kenosha, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Albuquerque, Providence, Baltimore, Tampa, Dallas, Independence, Kansas City, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Stanton, Syracuse, San Francisco, Indianapolis, Denver, New York City, New Brunswick, Birmingham, Ashland, Sacramento, Sarasota with extended stops along the way in Montreal, London, Poole, and San Jose, to name a few. By no means am I asking you to count my frequent flier miles. Rather I ask you to consider the actual “work” that it takes to make a living as a member of the precariat, and too how what one sees and doesn’t see, to paraphrase Sarah Sentilles’ in Draw Your Weapons (2017), factors into how one makes pieces of theater.

In nearly every city in which I have worked, but especially in the “smaller” ones, the same phenomenon is witnessed: exponential real estate growth, alongside what used to be called “gentrification,” and simultaneously, increased levels of unemployment. For a while, back in the late 1990s, the real estate boom hit a kind of ceiling. Luxury lofts and condos were being built seemingly everywhere. Behind this boom was, in part, the anticipation by real estate developers that many U.S. citizens would leave their small towns and semi-suburbs and move back to city centers to seek out different lifestyles, and job opportunities, etc. The agricultural industry was on the wane, and tech was on the rise, and still is. Factories were shutting down and people either stayed or got out. In the early 2000s, the luxury lofts lost their appeal, or better said, were too expensive to afford. Empty high-rises or re-purposed buildings, usually of the glass and steel architectural variety, lined city block after block. The promise of a “boom” was just that. And yet, turn the calendar to 2017 and 2018 and the luxury condos attached to retail centers are going up again at an alarming rate, changing the demographic, affordability, and sustainability of many of our neighborhoods.

What I see in most of the cities and towns in which I have worked, depending on the ease of access, namely, public transport (its availability, lack, or dysfunction) is unbearable levels of neglect accompanied by a distinct sense of unease. Exacerbated by the deeply polarized political and spiritual state of our dis-union? You bet.

Now, you may ask, what do I mean by “neglect” or “abandonment?”

To answer this in the most succinct way, I would say “who is being cared for and who isn’t in our society?”

We live in a culture of increasing disregard and casual, even callous, abandonment. I think about my fellow citizens along the Gulf, for instance, devastated daily by coastal erosion, losing their livelihoods and their way of life, and how their stories are no longer “news.” Thirteen years since Hurricane Katrina hit some of our poorest citizens, many are still looking for a viable home. Many who were forced to leave cannot go back. In our farming communities, the small farmer has long since been “replaced” or bought out” by large agra corps. Some of our industrial towns are “coming back.” But others remain shuttered and in states of disrepair. It’s easy, I suppose, to think “well, this is just the way it is, and no high-falutin’ hopin’ is gonna effect any sort of change.”

For a moment Just for a moment. I would ask you to think back to 2008. For some of you, this may seem a quite a long time ago. For others, as if it were yesterday. When the stock market crashed – or should I say, when many of our most powerful banks played havoc with money entrusted to their care – our country was poised, as it was also in 2001 when the choice was made by our government to invade Iraq, to face itself. Truly.

To stop, look, and look again.

And maybe begin a process of reckoning.

But instead, in 2008, something unbelievable occurred. You know the story. We bailed them out. As easily and swiftly as turning a corner on a busy day. And really, not much else was said about it in any significant manner. Life just went on. Because who cares who got screwed? Who cares about all our fellow citizens that lost their homes, their savings, in some cases, their everything?

Dignity is an old-fashioned word, some say. But perhaps it’s time to allow it to enter our daily lexicon once again. Are some citizens less deserving of dignity than others? Are those seated in first-class any “better” than those in coach? Or is it easier to set our sights on building houses on the moon and Mars and give up on this earth “experiment” altogether before the climate change we humans engendered by the rapaciousness of our carbon footprint and use of fossil fuels does us all in completely?

You may say “this is doomsday talk. Enough of the end days. That analogy doesn’t wash. It’s just fear-mongering. Of course, we observe dignity with one another.”

I would argue that while maybe the end-days scenario tips it over the edge just a bit, it’s difficult to apprehend the marked observance of human dignity when fellow humans are brutalizing one another in the name of war, religion, lawful authority, and more daily. Again, we may choose to look or not. We may stand like Levinas’ I and look at our Other in the face and simply walk away, or we may hold our gaze until we recognize that the Other is us.

darkness comes like a sleeping tiger/When it does, you gotta take all, all that it gives."
— from HOLLER RIVER

A colleague of mine asks me what I am working on these days, as we sip the cheapest coffee brew on the over-priced menu at one of the many, ubiquitous coffee shops dotting the crowded streets of the East Village. The colleague knows about Red Bike, because I’ve been pushing it up the theater hill, so to speak, for the past year from New York City to London, Kansas City to Orlando, and from Orlando to Flint.

“Flint, eh?” my colleague remarks, “that must have been amazing.”

“Well, it was, actually, really great to hold a reading of the play at Flint Youth Theatre this year in the heart of a town that has been dealt such a savage blow economically and environmentally over the last twenty years. Because, in many ways, the kid in the play could be from Flint.”

“So, is the next play also about a child living in a small town in the U.S. in the here and now struggling with their position in the world, when forces outside their control tell them they haven’t got a chance?”

I wait a bit before I answer. I think about all the small towns and cities in which I have worked over the last year and half and everything and everyone I have met and seen. For a moment, my mind holds onto a memory of summer 2017 in London, as I was heading to rehearsal for the workshop of Red Bike with Chaskis Theatre. The Grenfell Tower fire had occurred just two days before. And the stink of corporate malfeasance truly filled the air. The working poor that lived in Grenfell Tower were doing so under blatantly hazardous conditions and somebody was making a profit from it by disregarding their fellow humanity and dignity.

My colleague must have sensed what I was thinking or perhaps I muttered something under my breath.

“Disgusting the way in which we sometimes treat each other in this world, isn’t it?’ they said.

A moment passed between us.

“The next play is four plays, maybe five.” I answered, picking up the cue from their prior question. “It’s called Fuel and it’s set maybe in the next town over from Red Bike, and it’s about damaging patriarchal structures, addiction, love, hate, and the capacity for tenderness and brutality to co-exist in a family and society. It’s about a gender non-forming person trying to find a measure of peace in a messed-up world.”

“Aren’t we all?” my friend smiles, and then adds “did you say five plays?”

“Yes, Hurt Song follows Fuel. That one will be about waste-pickers - transient folk that are trying to make a sense of home for themselves in country that treats them as disposable beings, and then there will be a play set in coal country focused on returning soldiers and civilian communities called Holler River. I think that one will have a sort of Shakespearean vibe. And then after that I have one in mind with the word ‘Trouble’ in the title.”

“Trouble, eh?”

“Yes, a sort of blues incantation about this question of the Other, circling back to Levinas’ philosophy, set in the aftermath of a hate crime. But they’re all one big map, diagnosing where we are in the here and now through a mythic lens. Fables of reconstruction against abandonment.” I answer.

“And then?”

“Maybe the five plays will become seven.”

Another moment passed between us.

“Acts of resistance?” 

our tears were like the dark spell of angels/Crying over their parent tongue."
— from TROUBLE IN KIND

I walk back to my sublet to face a stack of debt. It is a wintry spring day and I am dreaming of the sun. I turn on the evening news to hear stories from the Iraq War that has been going on for fifteen years and another from the one in Afghanistan that’s been ongoing for seventeen. A civilian from Iraq talks about the ghosts of the dead that he carries with him every day, and how he will be forever haunted by the mess we have made.

I stare out of the window. Another high-rise is going up. I think about the people that used to work in the shops and delis that once lined the street below before their livelihoods were demolished with efficient callousness to make way for the high-rise. I hope they have found work, even if it is part-time. We are all in the precariat, after all.

I head back to my desk and try to rustle up a little writing. I promised my colleague seven plays instead of five. So, I guess I better get cracking. What’s that saying? “The work doesn’t make itself. The work is the work.”

Making theater and staging resistance go hand in hand, but there is no magic toolkit to make it happen overnight. Resistance takes time. It is an ongoing struggle, and the task of theater requires extraordinary patience and a willingness to be in it for the long haul, because the struggles will change, but the necessary act of resisting society’s dictates and expectations about how it wishes to “use” theater will not. Once theater is made “of use” rather than being useful (and this distinction is deliberate), it relinquishes its position as a force with which it must be reckoned. To refer to Levinas again – we need hold our gaze to reckon with one another, and to do so, space and time are necessary.

Theater exists within the boundaries of space and time. Its actions cut across reverberations of sound and light, gravity and air. It resists sometimes by holding the gaze in aversion and at others in openness and play. But it is always, at its most urgent, resisting complacency. Otherwise, it is a sleeping theater rather than one that is awake.

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