A Woman's Worth, A Man's World
Reeling, in all kinds of ways, from last night's episode of Mad Men. Peggy's demand of her worth; Joan's negotiation of hers; Don's flagrant dismissal of the former and chivalrous honor of the latter; my continued inexplicable annoyance with Megan (after all, she's only pursuing her dream in the exact manner I would have given the circumstances; save giving a clearer, more forthright explanation of the out-of-town rehearsal/performance schedule to said handsome, confused by what to do with me outside of the bedroom, and ultimately obliging hubby); and the callous, casual, and unbearably truthful observation that Black women are used to being bossed around (by the way, the current Black woman on the show, Dawn, is bellowed at, but doesn't actually appear in this episode).
While the offers made last night and the brilliantly interwoven scenes between Don's pitch and Joan's deal with the jaguar strike a Godfather cord, the positions Peggy, Joan, and Megan find themselves in also remind me of this equally brilliant scene between Jenny (Carrie Mulligan) and the Headmistress (Emma Thompson) in An Education, which takes place in the 1960s in suburban London. In particular, this line: "It's not enough to educate us anymore; you've got to tell us why you're doing it." It's not enough to give us a job or use us as your most valued asset or give us the chance to live our dream, you've got to respect us, honor us, and pay us our worth.
As I drink my Woman's Energy tea, to balance my hormones and make it through this day, I appreciate this meditation on the often uneasy, always bold, and sometimes dirty predicament of the challenging and evolving role of women in the 60s. Even more so, because I am struck and daunted by the recent assessment of my own current worth: a single, thirty-something, well-traveled, overly educated, black woman with no children, who chose to become an artist. Lovely on paper, but what gall.
Putting all of this into perspective and under a microscope is what happened this past Thursday. About an hour after I learned that I had been accepted (after being made an alternate only the week before) as part of the Young Leaders of Color Program at the upcoming TCG Conference in Boston, I also heard from the Head of Drama Department at UDC that everything is up in the air for the Fall. They are proud of my recent achievements, love my pedagogy and repoire with the students and want me back. However, UDC is struggling with funding as many institutions are and must wait for budget approval before passing out contracts to anyone.
This is a frustrating and disappointing position. It has thrown my entire sense of being off balance. What gall, again. How can anyone, let alone a woman...a Black woman--in this current economy, in this struggle for women's parity, in a world so wrought and marred with war, poverty, bigotry, and an ever expounding list of ism's and phobia's that we can hardly see straight for the sight of God--claim a sense of balance?
One Drop: Purity and Contamination
“They look like big, good, strong hands, don’t they? I always thought that’s what they were.”
In this scene of The Neverending Story, the winds of the Nothing have swept through the Land of Fantasia. The Rock Biter laments his inability to keep his friends safe. I was six when this movie was released in 1984. I don’t know remember how old I was when I actually watched it on television for the first time with my family, but I will never forget how struck I was by the Rock Biter’s sorrow and dismay. He, in this state of being, touched me more deeply and profoundly than even Atreyu’s gut wrenching loss of Artax to the Sadness of the Swamps. Oh, how I love this movie!
In the course of my life, I too have under and over-estimated the physical strength of my hands. I have also taken them for granted. While I don’t get manicures, I do lotion and massage them between crafting lines of dialogue and fits of monologue. Interestingly, on my recent trip to Texas, I spent a great deal of time thinking about my hands. I was doing yard work to escape the homophobic rant of my mother’s home healthcare nurse. It was one of those pick your battle situations (and my mother was doing her level best to enlighten this woman). Instead of joining where I knew I could do no good, I chose the harsh, glaring Texas sun and good hard labor. I cut about half an acre of grass with the push mower, though I could have easily used the riding lawn mower. I tilled a 4 foot by 6 foot patch of earth with a handheld cultivator, though I could have easily used the electric one. I did all this by hand to buy time away from this woman’s rant.
At some point, right about when my hands began throbbing from being clenched in fists for so long, I began contemplating all the great work accomplished with one’s hands. I thought of the American Indians who lived by and one with the land. The pioneers and homesteaders who braved lands and took root. The slaves who worked this land and built the nation on cotton, sugar, and tobacco crops. The immigrants and freeman who laid the tracks of steel and connected us from sea to shining sea. The men and women who raise cattle, sheep, goats and grow corn, wheat, and barley. The day laborers who build houses and sky scrapers, who landscape parks and gardens and who repair roads and bridges. In this moment of contemplation, I looked down at hands and remembered my Mama’s prophecy dream for me. The prophecy told her that I would be working with my hands and that it wouldn’t be rough. Excuse me, and I mean no disrespect to the Prophecy, but I assert that “rough” is a relative term, and humbly, I’m learning to grow a thick skin. Growing up, Mama always told me that my long slender hands were piano hands. We have a piano in the house that I learned to play by ear. Even after I learned to read music notes, having taken up the trumpet-only after my sister took up the baritone, I would cheat sometimes and just play by ear.
Later that evening, exhausted, covered in dirt, ready to shower and sleep, my Mama’s dog escape from his pen! The great escape, I like to call it! He took off like a fury from hell and tore through the neighbor’s yard, the woods, and the back yard where the horses are kept. I went after him through three barbed wire fences and into the woods (where were you, Sondheim?). The whole ordeal was over in 15 or 20 minutes, but I was left with a nasty dog bite in the process. There was swelling, redness, blood, and pain. Immediately, I started thinking infection. The dog had recently had its rabies shots, but it had been years since I had had a Booster Shot.
It was agreed, after much reluctance, pomp and circumstance on my part, that I would go to the ER in the morning. Reason being, our house is situated 30 minutes away from town and were getting up at 4:00am for Papa’s dialysis anyway.
Now, this was my first my visit to the Dialysis Center. Papa goes three days a week for 4½ hour sessions. I was transfixed as I watched Papa’s blood leave his body, enter a tube that purifies his blood, and return to his body. Fascinated by the work of the hemodialysis machine, my mind filled with questions. However, before I could rattle them off, I had to drive myself to Urgent Care to get my Booster Shot. There, a jovial doctor spoke to me at length about what wasn’t happening with my bite and why I shouldn’t be worried. Then, a lovely nurse injected my arm with trace amounts of Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis (there’s a whooping cough epidemic in Texas); small amounts of contamination to keep me from getting sick.
When I got back, I learned about the dialysis machine. It has two systems:
· The extracorporealcircuit, which contains lots of tubing, a blood pump, a heparin or blood thinner pump, and the kidney or hemodialyzer. This part also monitors blood flow, blood pressure, air bubbles and keeps track of time.
· The dialysate delivery, which mixes and delivers the dialysis bath (sodium chloride, sodim bicarbonate or sodium acetate, calcium chloride, potassium chloride, magnesium chloride, and sometimes glucose) with purified water, and regulates for safety or purity.
On my second visit to the Dialysis Center, I was taken the “back room” and shown a machine that makes the purist water in the world. So pure, I’m told, that if I were stranded in the desert and had only this water to drink, I would die. Our bottled and tap water are filled with small amounts of contamination or nutrients that can keep us alive.
Thanks to Homeland Security, the “back room” is on lockdown with a coded key entry and high level security system. Unfortunately, there was little HS could have done to stop a disgruntle nurse who was convicted of killing five dialysis patients by injecting them with bleach and injuring five others. She’s been spared the death penalty, but was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole.
I’m fascinated by the science behind dialysis: these two great and complex machines do the work of two tiny, but mighty kidneys. I'm intrigued by the varying levels and degrees between purity and contamination: the one drop of blood it takes to go from Holy to Vile; the one person needed to believe in order to save Fantasia; and the one drop of bleach it takes to enter the bloodstream and kill. Deeply aware that our capacity for love and empathy can fill as quickly as our capacity for anger and indifference, I 'm disturbed and sadden by the actions of this woman. I''ll work to hash all of this out in my next, next new play, The Devil Rode Beside Her. I'm excited to see where this play will go and look forward to sharing it with you.
Back in January, Ari Roth (Theater J's Artistic Director) posed a query about the How's and Why's of Play Commissions. A week or so before, my play, The Hampton Years, had just received it's first public reading. Here's what I wrote:
"I’ve been blessed to have received a number of commissions from a variety of sources: theatres, museums, a foundation honoring creative writers and an organization honoring local, regional and national theatre artists. I believe that commissions are essential. Not only for the livelihood, nourishment, and visibility of the playwright, but also for the awareness, vitality and sustainability of the theater institution and its community.
As has been discussed at length and deserves even further investigation, for an unknown or emerging playwright, it’s a rare and beautiful thing to have your play plucked from obscurity and produced. Self-production is an excellent, but exhausting exercise. The rewards vary, but ultimately it too is worth it. To be commissioned, however, is to be adopted by a particular theater. It is an opportunity to learn how a theater breathes, how its bones crack, where its joints ache, the flexibility and durability of its spine, how wide its wingspan … It is a chance to listen to the tempo of a theater’s heartbeat and to align yours either on the up or the down beat; to shoulder its burdens and concerns through your body; and to speak to its mission and vision through your voice.
Now, some adoptions don’t work out so well. The chemistry and biorhythms of the artists just don’t align. Perhaps a play is written that the theater doesn’t wish to produce, but the playwright loves and can take elsewhere. Perhaps a play is written and produced, but in a fashion that compromises the playwrights vision. The beauty is that the playwright can still take that play elsewhere. For me, the best commissions support, strengthen, honor, and challenge every single individual in the room. If all parties can remain decent and willing to listen to one another, if everyone can check their egos at the door and serve the play, then good things can happen. But none of this is easy. It takes work. It takes discipline, focus, attention to detail, openness, and trust.
Theater J gifted me the opportunity to write, The Hampton Years, a play that would not have existed had it not been for this commission. Before I even sat down to write, I had an artistic team at my side and an entire organization who wanted nothing more than to help me accomplish what I had to set out to do: to write a play. Six months and 170 pages later, they were still there, eager to read and respond to each and every word. When two weeks prior to the public reading, I discovered the need for two new characters to be played by one actor, I was met with a resounding, Yes! I believe Ari’s words were something to the effect of “go, write, dream, create a new role for an actor in the American Theater.” I have grown tremendously as writer. I see the enormous and lasting impact of this experience as I steady myself to rewrite one play and begin to write my newest play.
It is my sincere hope that Theater J continues these commissions. Their efforts are doing much to contribute not only to the DC Theatre community, to our actors, directors, dramaturgs, and playwrights; but also to that great entity, which is the American Theater at large."
Wars erase language, borders, foodways, religion, culture, bloodlines, and history. War also offers a time for great rumination. Some take hands to marble, brush to canvas, pen to paper, body to space, and voice to pulpit. The Persian Wars and legendary muscle flexing of the Athenians and Spartans gave us the great and brilliants minds of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates.
Since those tumultuous times of the 5th century, the world has seen a great many wars and heard the musings of a great many minds. Each offering a new way to absorb the glory and destruction that lay in the wake of these ritual, social, and political upheavals.
The current War on Women, the struggle against and to maintain women's civil and reproductive rights takes me to Giambologna's Rape of the Sabine Women. When I stood in front of this sculpture during the summer of 2001, I was overcome. I felt in awe of its beauty and gutted by its terror. I tried to create a new story. "No, the arch of her back and parting of her lips is out of ecstasy. The reach of her hand a desperate attempt to get closer to the gods where such love is experienced eternally."
Satisfied, I stepped back to take a photograph. But through the lens of my disposal camera, all that I had conjured quickly and completely disappeared. All I could see was a woman stripped of her dignity, whose body and soul were taken, tossed, and handled against her will.
I captured the image and later taped it to the first page of my journal. I still have it. It's a reminder of my struggle ... how to negotiate the beauty of that masterful sculpture and the terror of that moment in history ... a moment too often repeated in the name of conquering nations and heroes. Not that I need a reminder. The world offers enough of them every day.
This is why I'm so grateful to the theater and feel quite blessed to be a playwright. I write to answer big, challenging, scary, and awe inspiring questions about the world. My next play, Noms de Guerre, will address the War on Women; specifically, how women actively take part in it. But make no mistake, while beautiful--this meditation on women--there is no ecstasy in my query. These are terrifying times in which we live.
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!