The Flashpaper: Theatre’s Thoughts on Right Now is a new, print-only journal that lets theatre artists respond to urgent current events in any genre they choose. In the first issue, available now at TheFlashpaper.com, a dozen contributors have replied to the prompt, “What will it be like when social distancing ends?” with everything from original plays and manifestos to photo essays and hand-drawn comics. The point is to give theatremakers a platform that doesn’t require a theatre, while delivering a physical object to audiences.
Crucially, The Flashpaper is also a revenue source for artists. All proceeds go to the contributors, the journal’s two self-employed staffers, and the nonprofit Indie Theater Fund. Issue 1 features work from Clare Barron, the National Asian American Theatre Company, and the Living Theatre, among others. It includes a foreword from David Henry Hwang and an afterword from Sarah Treem. It also features the following essay from Kelley Nicole Girod, who is both a playwright and the founder of the Obie-winning The Fire This Time Festival. Below, in an online-exclusive sample, Girod explores how social distancing, racial justice, family, and forgiveness have intersected in her life during quarantine.
—Mark Blankenship, editor of The Flashpaper
Alice was my first friend when I moved to the Upper East Side. I had lived in Spanish Harlem during my first five years in New York, and when I moved, I went from knowing everyone in my neighborhood to not even knowing the people in my building.
I met Alice at church, the early mass at 8 a.m. She served as an usher and asked my husband and me to bring up the communion gifts. She was in her late 70s, and in her pale, weathered face; brown-speckled white hands; and puff of faded blond hair, I could see the enduring spirit of a Midwestern girl raised to rise early, work hard, and pray harder.
When my husband and I switched to a later mass, we lost touch with Alice for a bit, but when I was four months pregnant with my first child, I saw her having an early breakfast in our local diner. She told me that once the baby came, she would be happy to help out.
And she did. Within a few weeks of my daughter’s birth, Alice was a fixture in our lives. My biggest fear about becoming a new mother had been finding someone I could trust to help with childcare, and now I had someone who was from my church and my neighborhood. This was the first of many times that Alice was a true angel in my life.
She once confided that she had always dreamed of having 10 children and many grandchildren. Instead, she never married and lived alone her entire life. I never had the courage to ask what happened in her past, but as we grew closer, it didn’t seem to matter. The fact was, she did have a grandchild now—my child. We paid her to look after the baby, and she used the money to buy dresses and toys for her “sugar plum.” When I won an Obie for my theatre festival, The Fire This Time, Alice bought me a cake and wine, and she insisted on being an unpaid babysitter so I could attend the ceremony.
Soon enough, my daughter and I saw Alice every day. I assumed we would remain an inseparable trio.
That was in 2015. Trump was elected the next year.
The first time I heard Alice say something racially insensitive was during the Republican primaries of that election cycle. “I like Ben Carson,” she declared. “He is against the Blacks.”
I said nothing. That’s what I’d learned growing up in the South, where I was often the only Black person in a sea of white faces. I’d been taught to stay silent when white people said something ignorant—especially white people as old as Alice. Maybe that’s all this was, I thought. Maybe Alice was simply mouthing what she’d heard when she was growing up.
Or maybe this was yet another example of white people feeling they could “be real” around me because I am fair-skinned and have an educated father with a successful medical practice. You know—“not a real n*gger,” as they would say.
Either way, I stayed quiet when Alice made her remark. In that moment, I don’t think I could have spoken anyway. I was too shocked by what I was hearing. I couldn’t reconcile the person I knew with the words that were coming out of her mouth.
But the words kept coming. After Trump secured the Republican nomination, he ramped up the racist rhetoric, and so did Alice. I heard complaints about “the Black girls in the store who think they can do anything now” and “the Black boy who could have said thank you” when she held the door open for him. I heard how much she hated Obama. I heard her disparage our pastor’s call for Americans to treat immigrants with more respect, and I heard her struggle with the church’s new LGBTQ ministry.
Alice’s comments kept me from sleeping. Should we fire her? Should we try to talk to her? What do you say to a woman approaching 80 who rejects so much of the world around her? Who grew up on strong cups of coffee and the work ethic of a Midwestern farm? Who genuinely loves you and your child? Whose only source of joy is taking care of your child, the one job she can still get up and do? Who came to your house in the middle of the night when your child had her first fever? Who knew you couldn’t walk when you were postpartum, so went out herself to get more formula? Who took her fragile, aging body into the snow? Who risked her own health to keep your child healthy?
My friends told me to confront her. They said it wasn’t enough to gently push back when Alice said jarring things. But every time I tried, my heart raced. My throat closed.
Then came a dinner at Alice’s house. Her oldest friends were there, and one of them commented on my daughter’s and my facial features, how beautiful we were. She asked what our ethnic background was. It felt like an excellent opportunity to affirm myself, my identity, and my stance in this world. It felt like the time to proclaim my work, my activism, and my Blackness. I took hold of that moment and ran with it. I decided that if Alice did not like something she heard, then she could decide not to stay on with us. But she stayed. And after that moment, she never said anything racially insensitive around me again.
I know she voted for Trump in 2016. She was up at 6 a.m., the first in line at the polls. I know she believed every lie that came out of his mouth. His election could have been the end for Alice and me, but I refused to cut myself off from people I loved who also supported the new president. Besides, I knew that Alice would soon need us just as much as we needed her. I don’t think she understood that by voting for Trump, she had voted against herself.
It’s 2020 now, election year again, and as I write this, we are two months into a new normal that makes whatever came before seem like a distant memory. We were used to seeing Alice every day, and now we haven’t seen her in weeks. The distance feels even greater than it would have in 2016, because Alice is even closer to our family now. She shared our joy when my husband and I had our second child. We stood beside her through a surgery that made it physically impossible for her to care for our children anymore. We saw her through a cancer diagnosis, and during social distancing, we are trying our best to support her through the chemotherapy that almost killed her, the financial problems that arose from her health issues, and the pandemic that keeps her from her daily church visits.
When I speak to Alice on the phone, I hear the disappointment in her voice, the anger, the fear. I hear the realization that all along, she was one of the vulnerable who could be sacrificed in the quest to “make America great again.” When her voice cracks at the end of our calls, I don’t rage, even though I sometimes want to. I don’t yell, “Well, this is the man you voted for!”, and I don’t try to convert her to new politics. I simply say, “I love you.” Alice’s biggest fear has always been dying alone, and for an elderly woman who’s currently on chemotherapy, waking up everyday in a social-distancing, self-isolating world is a living nightmare.
When social distancing ends, I will hug Alice for an hour. I will bring my children—who tell everyone they have three grandmothers, Granny, Maw-Maw, and Alice—to her apartment for our Thursday pizza nights. I will tell her to stop selling her prized antiques in order to pay her medical bills. I will look her in the eyes and assure her that we will find a way forward together.
When social distancing ends, I will be there for Alice, the white woman who helped raise my Black children. When social distancing ends, my activism will include anything that opposes the toxicity and divisiveness of our current administration. When social distancing ends, I will live the motto “Love Trumps Hate.” The country’s leader may have abandoned Alice, but I won’t do the same.
Kelley Nicole Girod is a playwright, and founder and executive director of the Obie-winning The Fire This Time Festival. She received a Launch New Play Commission from the Atlantic Theater in 2019 and is currently a Playwriting Fellow at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture.
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!