“What was it like,” my student asked me from her neat Zoom square, “getting onstage at the end of Fairview?”
Her question gave me a fleeting twinge of remorse, as well as pause. I moved from New York a year prior, right before the pandemic hit, and I missed live theatre every day. I knew there was no way to describe the impact of standing onstage while the character Keisha spoke to people of color in the audience, my eyes trying to blink the bright lights away. I knew if I tried to convey this experience to students, I would fail. I thought to myself: Why even teach a play like Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, when that climatic, didactic moment can’t possibly translate from the page? And then a more depressing thought came: When those of us who love the theatre are bereft of live productions for whatever reason, what remains?
I knew, intellectually, that live theatre existed outside of New York, and that once the pandemic ended I’d be able to attend some productions again, but the loss I felt was still palpable. For me, engaging with a play like Fairview seemed inextricable from the experience of discomfort I felt sitting among other people at Soho Rep. Engaging with Annie Baker’s The Flick meant being willing to stay with the actors for three hours and 15 minutes at Barrow Street Theatre: suffering through Sam’s slow sweeping up of popcorn, the sloth-like, mundane lives of the characters, their seemingly banal conversations. It meant trying not to acknowledge the disgruntled audience member trapped in the middle of a row, muttering but unable to leave.
I believed that Branden Jacobs-Jenkins An Octoroon, the best play I’ve ever seen, would never translate outside of Theater for a New Audience; I knew I was in the presence of genius when bloody cotton balls blew all over the audience. I still remember that blood-stained cotton at my feet, the whoosh of air pushing me back in my seat, the flames and smoke and heat that filled the theatre in the climactic scene. In all of these scripts, most of the moments I described above are mere stage directions—words our eyes can scan in less than a second.
As any theatre lover knows, the thrill of seeing a play live is difficult to match. Still, I want to assign my students contemporary plays, because they are the plays that changed me. Contemporary playwrights like Drury, Baker, and Jacobs-Jenkins know what drama is capable of in our current moment, and they make full use of the genre. I know that teaching these playwrights is as important, if not more important, than teaching Shakespeare. But I can take my students to a Shakespeare production, or show them a good film adaptation or captured stage performance, almost any day, anywhere.
Thankfully, over the past two years my students have taught me that there is something about reading contemporary plays that unlocks possibilities that seeing them produced can never offer: from wider accessibility to wilder imagination, or even just the luxury of lingering over certain lines and language. In a Washington Post profile, Jacobs-Jenkins said his dream audience member would “turn to the audience member next to them and say, ‘What just happened to me?’ and begin to talk.” But how often does that actually happen in the theatre? In teaching these plays, I am lucky enough to have students to read Jacobs-Jenkins with and have the kinds of conversations he calls for. I now imagine myself as a different kind of audience member, staying with figurative language, punctuation, and line breaks in scripts as opposed to staying in my seat. And it was my students who taught me how to do so.
I now teach An Octoroon in the adaptation unit of my class, alongside Toni Morrison’s Desdemona and Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor. Admittedly, whenever a student brings up Minnie and Dido’s final exchange in An Octoroon, I hear and see Pascale Armand and Maechi Aharanwa performing it. After they watch the play’s titular character, Zoe, flee to poison herself, Dido starts crying and says, “I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing better…to be happy. I don’t like feeling the way I do. This life—I didn’t ask for it.”
Minnie responds, “Didn’t nobody ask for they lives, girl.”
To which Dido says, softly, “I know. I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do with that.”
This exchange is particular to Minnie and Dido’s experience as enslaved women. Still, I repeat these words to myself like a mantra every time things feel unbearable. Nobody asked for their lives, I think. Then, I breathe and move forward. In the play, Minnie and Dido help make life bearable for each other. Outside of the play, their words help make life bearable for me. And anyone can encounter these words by reading An Octoroon.
I now appreciate that students see all kinds of things I missed when watching the plays in real time. I guide them toward this kind of engagement through close-reading assignments, asking them to treat even the stage directions in contemporary plays with reverence. One student offered an extended meditation on “yards” in Fences, for example, thinking through the yard as the play’s setting but also as a unit of measurement, reflecting how the Maxson family struggles to measure up amidst white supremacy in the play. Another student close read the Actor’s claim in American Moor, that he will champion his dreams “right on into the veil of years,” as a reference to how he hides his true thoughts and feelings behind the veil of the kind of persona that people like the Director want him to perform. Yet another student pointed out that, in An Octoroon, Br’er Rabbit observes the plot without influencing it, reflecting Minnie and Dido’s attempts to exist within a narrative they never asked for and have little control over.
My students continue to help make contemporary plays new for me in ways no production ever could—and they’ve only ever read them. Being able to linger over the language of contemporary plays, in particular, is an all-important luxury, because authors like Jacobs-Jenkins, Baker, and Drury don’t have the same production history, the same legacy of other people’s interpretation of the script, the same foothold in the canon, as the so-called classics do. Reading their plays puts those of us who love theatre in the director’s chair, in a way, and allows for different kinds of discoveries. This imaginative process has its own kind of magic.
After my student asked me about getting onstage at the end of Fairview, we continued to discuss the lines in Keisha’s final monologue. I now know that, whether read or produced, Fairview centers people of color in a revolutionary way: They speak and are spoken to instead of straining to identify from the margins. Reading Fairview closely taught my students and I how hard it is for Black artists in the contemporary theatre to break out of white narratives, to climb mountains that are all their own. Drury’s script contains these lessons in and of itself—and, most important, reading Drury’s script made my students of color feel seen and held. These lessons are why I teach plays, why I love plays, and why all of us fight to keep theatre alive.
I most recently taught A Raisin in The Sun. During class discussion I remembered that I read it for the first time when I lived in New York—because, even though it was playing there, I couldn’t get my hands on discount tickets. I was on the Q64 bus heading to Queens College when I read Mama’s speech about loving someone: “When do you think is the time to love somebody the most?,” she asks Beneatha, as well as the audience. “When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning—because that ain’t the time at all.”
When I listened to students talk about these lines alongside the stage directions about the weary furniture and the unmade beds, I thought about sitting in that hard orange bus seat and trying not to cry. I realized that none of our discussions about the play would have been possible if I hadn’t picked up that script years ago, now worn from multiple reads. I would never have encountered Lorraine Hansberry’s offering if I didn’t have the chance to read it. It’s an offering that, to this day, makes an argument for all that theatre has to offer—however we come to it.
Alicia Andrzejewski (she/her) is assistant professor of English at William & Mary.
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