What’s your America?
On Nov. 6, after two years and billions of political ad dollars, American voters were given two possible answers to that question: Romney or Obama. On the same day, out of the spotlight, in Baltimore, Md., the six-week rollout of CENTERSTAGE’s My America project—filmed monologues from 50 playwrights attempting to answer that same question—concluded, with its fruits posted at www.myamerica.centerstage.org. This gallery of opinion may not be an antidote to a country split across the middle, but it does give online audiences a peek into the theatrical blue notes of a country that is more diverse and fascinating than the 24-hour news cycle may indicate.
Here, for example, is what you get by clicking on Neil LaBute’s “Current Events”: A youngish white woman (Gia Crovatin) is texting on her BlackBerry. She looks up to the camera. “What is My America?” The question surprises her. Then she latches onto the slings and arrows of fortune she feels have been directed her way: the boring nine-hour job, housemates who don’t appreciate her, a hostile and strange world, and the conviction that she is entitled to—but unsure that she’s going to get—the lifestyle that her parents enjoyed. She might be the classic undecided voter—the very voter candidates across the aisle have been shamelessly courting for years.
Click Kia Corthron’s “Nate’s America,” on the other hand, to find a monologue by a man (Brian Tyree Henry) whom neither candidate cares that much about—an ex-convict just released from a drug felony sentence, holed up in a library, reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment—and legally unable to vote. “They had to find an enemy,” he reasons, “someone they could put in jail…who were they going to take the vote away from? From Harvard or the hood?”
These two monologues, directed and recorded by independent filmmaker Hal Hartley, represent the tip of a 50-monologue smorgasbord. Over the course of five hours (or in shorter four-minute takes), web surfers can meet an aging professor, a beleaguered high school principal, a washed-out washwoman, a hipster, a veteran of Afghanistan, a Latino hardware store owner, a gay groom, Barack Obama himself, and many others. They all face the same question.
By funding the My America project, CENTERSTAGE seems to be making a case: After two billion dollars spent on a massive election to find out “who we will be” for the next four years, Americans might be better off turning to our creative writers to find out who we are in the first place.
The My America project was conceived about a year ago by artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, who arrived in Baltimore from his hometown of London to take the helm of Maryland’s state theatre. Sitting in his office looking out onto Baltimore’s Calvert Street, across from the Sun and two blocks down from the Baltimore City Correctional Center, the energized actor/director/playwright explains a bit about where the idea came from.
“I was landing in a new country,” he says, “and all my kids and my wife were in a new land, and I was thinking, ‘Who do I trust to talk about, not just the broad strokes of the country, but the cracks between the notes?’” His idea began with 10 writers, then jumped to 50 across the nation—a palette that includes Broadway veterans, Off-Broadway stalwarts, spoken-word artists and local playwrights from his new hometown (Rich Espey, James Magruder). Then he approached indie hotshot Hartley.
“We asked him, ‘Would you think about doing this for next to nothing?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I love it.’” CENTERSTAGE then propositioned a gallery of professional actors: For a small honorarium, would they also participate in the project? Playwrights wrote the monologues in March and April. Actors came to New York and Los Angeles for the shooting. Each got about 45 minutes under Hartley’s direction.
The first installments of My America hit the web following a Sept. 28 gala reception, where playwrights and actors, as well as journalists, mingled with CENTERSTAGE staff and supporters—including the donors who ponied up more than $50,000 to make the project possible. One thing has pleasantly surprised Kwei-Armah since the project went online. “Viewers are spending an average of 12 minutes, a lovely amount of time, on the site at each visit,” he reports. “That’s two or three monologues, and more than I’d hoped.”
Even the non-theatre-savvy, Kwei-Armah posits, may be influenced by the project to turn to theatre. “The election will be over,” he says, “so they won’t be learning about America through news feeds. And not through spin. This is the heartbeat of 50 of America’s thinkers—not just writers, but thinkers.” Kwei-Armah hopes the monologues will also provide an archival representation of a historical moment. “These monologues are really about survival. What narratives are people creating to motivate ourselves to survive? In about four or five years, people can look back and realize that four months before an election, this is what 50 writers were writing about America.”
If so, a look at My America four years hence will reveal a moody, fascinating, divided, apprehensive, yet optimistic band of playwrights. Characters rant, and reflect, and occasionally give up. At the root of their struggles is a quest for survival, sometimes psychic or personal, sometimes literal, in the throes of an ideological whirlwind.
In Christopher Durang’s “America,” we listen to an older man (Jack Gilpin) who is responding to the toxicity of the era. At the CENTERSTAGE premiere, Durang said that the situation his monologue depicted was autobiographical. “I realized over the last few years that there are times when I really don’t feel comfortable in my own country,” Durang elaborates. “What I was not expecting [when Obama was elected in 2008] was the fact that, because of the 24-hour media, I suddenly had so much information about how much people hate the president. And I may have liked the liberal media, but I feel I’m getting riled up and it’s not doing any good. So I’ve stopped listening to those shows—now I listen to classical music.”
In “The Author’s America,” playwright Lydia R. Diamond uses her monologue to explore her own mixed response to the president. Her self-referential character (Tracie Thoms) speaks of the president in language that almost seems drawn from relationship therapy. “I was surprised by how much of what I felt was somehow tied to Obama’s presidency,” she says. “I hadn’t really articulated my sense of self as an American as regards to his election.” Interviewed in the final weeks of the election, when debate performances were driving polls wildly up and down, Diamond the writer notes how intently Americans seem to be looking for answers about themselves in their presidential candidates: “I think there’s a willful national naïveté about how much a president is capable of.”
Speaking from Chicago, playwright and screenwriter LaBute reflects on his monologues in the wake of the presidential debates. He notes that the national election conversation, however shallow, points to a deep uncertainty that has inspired a lot of his writing. His two pieces, “Current Events” and “Tour de France” (the latter featuring Bobby Cannavale), occupy that vague territory where many Americans latch on to pet peeves and prejudices to navigate larger questions. “A lot of [“Current Events”] is about this character complaining about the place she finds herself in…wanting more, being okay with what we have, but being worried about the future. I kind of like that gray ground.”
In playwright Marcus Gardley’s “I Am a Man,” actor Marc Damon Johnson portrays, among other things, a somewhat bewildered Obama, unsure of what’s expected of him—a remarkably prescient impression that jibes with the president’s widely panned performance in the initial debate of the 2012 election. Gardley hopes that people surfing these mini-works will discover that theatre writers confront the same problems as their fellow citizens. “This is really about what playwrights today are passionate about,” he reckons. “People think that theatre is elitist, that it’s for older people and intellectuals. This kind of work really touches everybody. It reminds us that this is really a golden age of playwriting.”
For the average Internet surfer, the size of the project could be intimidating: 50 monologues, by playwrights from Dan Dietz (“Space Mountain”), D.J. Mendel (“Christmas”) and Melanie Marnich (“AKA”) to Rajiv Joseph (“Roosevelt Island”) and Naomi Iizuka (“Still”). The variety of actors is also imposing. From beginning to end, a complete perusal would take five hours. The My America website permits surfers to explore monologues thematically, geographically or by individual playwrights. How, in the age of the brief attention span, would a playwright propose approaching this collection?
Lee Blessing (“Unknown”) suggests that potential browsers just take two or three entries at a time and absorb the diversity: “The variety of things here is what makes it worth it.” LaBute suggests that it’s essentially like reading a short-story collection. “Watch it in single pieces or larger amounts,” he says. “You see a huge reservoir of writers caught in Hal Hartley’s simple takes, letting people speak for themselves.”
Baltimore playwright and dramaturg James Maguder (“Joan and Bootsie”) feels that the My America experience has turned vague and abstract questions into something personal and particular. In his monologue, an older woman (Kristine Nielson) complains about Americans who can’t spend two hours without eating. “When I read my piece I realize that the older and crankier I get, this actually is my America. It’s not everyone’s. But I’d like to think of it collectively as a cosmic American jukebox—something like that.”
In Lynn Nottage’s monologue “Kill the N****R,” actress Maechi Aharanwa plays a woman who has joined the (futile) fight to rescue convict Jimmy Bates from death row in Utah. At moments like this, she wishes she could approach her America with a little more detachment. “I want to be the person who can read the paper every day and not take it personally,” Nottage’s character says, wistfully.
In 50 short takes, none of the playwrights seems to have achieved that level of serenity. That may be the secret to the project’s success.
John Barry writes frequently for this magazine.