Joshua Harmon just couldn’t sit still any longer. He had had enough of the scare tactics of the 2016 presidential campaign, and he wanted to make sure that his voice was heard. So he wrote a play.
“This election feels kind of Greek, so I reached for Medea and got to work,” says Harmon, author of Bad Jews and Significant Other. The result of his efforts: Ivanka, an adaptation of the Greek tragedy featuring the eldest Trump daughter. “I’m not an activist and I’m not usually overtly political, but in my small way I wanted to have this act of civil disobedience.”
In Harmon’s humorous, satiric take on Medea, Ivanka Trump has had enough of her father and feels betrayed by her husband Jared, who has become a sort of mouthpiece for the presidential nominee. Her family threatens to banish her for speaking negatively about her father’s campaign, and Ivanka takes matters into her own hands, eventually killing her own children to save them from their fate as Trumps.
Ivanka will have readings at four theatres across the country on Nov. 7, a.k.a. Election Eve: Magic Theatre in San Francisco, Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., SpeakEasy Stage in Boston, and Actor’s Express in Atlanta.
Studio’s reading is a part of a larger series of free readings at D.C. theatres on Monday nights leading up to the election. Artistic director David Muse says the programming grew out of “a shared feeling of impotence and a desire to do something to use the theatre to comment on the moment we found ourselves in.”
The form of Harmon’s play particularly struck Muse, as he was directing Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, which uses a Shakespearean form to explore the private lives of the British Royal family, at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, when he read Harmon’s Ivanka. “If you try to invent those characters speaking everyday dialogue, it can feel contrived, but when you have the form, it lends them some tragic stature.”
Harmon’s Bad Jews was a success at all four theatres, and Muse notes that the Nov. 7 reading of Ivanka is already at capacity. Magic Theatre artistic director Loretta Greco is aiming for a big audience as well.
“We explored for a little while doing it on Civic Center Plaza, except that no one will be able to hear any of the words,” Greco says, adding that she hopes the play inspires the audience to political action. “I want to make sure that everybody shows up and everybody votes,” she says. “It reminds us of our right to civic agency and disobedience and our responsibility to show up and act out in whatever way suits us.”
American Theatre spoke with Harmon about why he wrote the play, his childhood love of Medea, and what religion has to do with it.
What inspired you to write this play?
I did a lot of teaching this summer, and I found myself talking to students about the difference between what’s a good idea for a play in general and what’s a good idea for a play that you could write. And the example I kept using is: I’m sure there’s a great play to be written about Donald Trump, but I’m not the person to do it. And I kept saying that, and finally, I was like, “Why not me?” I started to get increasingly scared of the rhetoric I was hearing and what was happening in the election, and I felt like, I don’t know what the outcome is going to be, but as of now, I still have the right to freedom of expression and I want to use that right while I have it.
What fascinated you about Ivanka Trump specifically?
To me, [Donald Trump] is a sociopath, and so when you’re writing about him, the questions you’re dealing with have to do with mental health, which was less compelling to me. I am a reality TV junkie. I’ve watched “The Apprentice,” and [Ivanka] always struck me as, by far, the most articulate, the most intelligent, the most confident in her family. Seeing her at the convention talking about time off for maternity leave and the causes that she holds dear, it just feels so far away from the things that her father says and believes. And it does feel hard to understand. It’s not hard to understand how Donald Trump can say the things he says, but it’s harder somehow to understand how intelligent people stand by and validate it. And there aren’t that many people doing it who we know and who we respect, but she is one of them.
When I first started reading it, I was like: Wait, has Ivanka ever said anything negative about her father?
She has not said anything negative, and if you look at her Twitter feed, all summer she’s been tweeting about what shoes you should buy and tips for quick and easy dinners to make. It’s almost as if her Twitter feed is existing in an alternate universe.
Where does your love of Medea come from?
My Nana took me to see Medea on Broadway when I was 10. She said, “If you read the play I will take you to see it.” It took me a month to read it. I think I read a page a day. I didn’t really understand what I was seeing at the time, but I knew that I was excited by it. Those plays that reach you at an early age, you’re in conversation with your whole life. And at this moment, it struck me as having tremendous political potential in a way that it hadn’t previously.
You also talk a lot about fathers and daughters in the play and how the notion of legacy is different for a daughter than it is for a son.
So much of Ivanka is taken straight from Medea. There’s all this incredible stuff about gender in Medea that has to do with how different it is for a woman than for a man, and I was just trying to figure out how to keep all of that but within the context of my own play. The last three presidents we’ve had have only had daughters; we haven’t had a first son in a long time.
You also mention religion a lot in the play, noting whenever a character is Jewish and talking about Trump’s Christian following.
That’s totally from Medea. There’s so much stuff in there about the gods, and the way it made sense to deal with it is the fact that Ivanka is a person who has converted to Orthodox Judaism and someone for whom religion is clearly a central part of her life. Any time they’re talking in my adaption about God, they were talking to the gods in the Greek version.
This play probably won’t have a reason to be produced a month from now. Why write a play with such a short shelf life?
I pray that it can’t get produced in a month! [Laughs] That is my hope and prayer. I started working on it at a moment this summer when I felt so overwhelmed by the daily news, which was so depressing. There was shooting after shooting and the terrorist attack in Nice and cops dead here and unarmed people killed here. You just start to feel so helpless in the face of that because you don’t know what you can do as an individual. I was tired of just sitting in that helpless state.
I wrote it in a week, and we did a reading of it at the end. It felt so good to sit in a room with a few people and say these things out loud in our country, where we have the freedom to get in rooms together and say what we want out loud. We all felt like if nothing ever comes of this, even just this day of speaking out in this room together felt like we had done more than we do when we just ingest the miserable news.
What would you do if Ivanka Trump or Donald Trump heard about it?
[Laughs] Um, my guess is that they have bigger fish to fry than four readings at theatres by a little playwright.
Are you going to see any of the readings?
I’m going to go down to D.C. and see it there, and then I’m going to wake up the next morning and go to the White House and sob in front of it, and get on a train and come home and vote.