I’m a regular attendee at a local theatre. This is something I do primarily because I enjoy it, and secondarily because I like the idea of living in a town that has multiple decent theatre companies.
During the pandemic, attendance at live theatre has of course ceased. And so, in order to maintain audience engagement, the theatre that I regularly attend has produced a series of what I can only call webcasts. They’re typically in the form of an interview, sometimes a group discussion. And because this theatre makes a reasonable pretense of trying to pay attention to current events, these conversations have included, on occasion, a focus on Black interests.
Being a good liberal, I dutifully make myself listen to these webcasts. Perhaps I might learn something, I tell myself. Perhaps, having grown up in the commodious bosom of the liberal upper middle class I can sacrifice an hour or two away from binge-watching The Crown and actually try to pay attention to, to learn from, the perspectives of persons whose lives are constrained and glorified in ways I can only hope to imagine. Perhaps I can get my head into the space where even a city that has been resolutely Democratic — and the “right” kind of Democratic, not these cracker-ass white supremacist Jasper motherfuckers from the old Confederacy — for three generations, a city where the police chief is Black, and a local boy — and still this city can be the kind of place where Stephon Clarke was murdered in his own grandmother’s backyard and his murderer walked away unpunished simply because he happened to wear a uniform.
So I listen to these webcasts. And most of the time I am bored. Not because the hostess isn’t good — she is. She’s funny, and smart, and I would love to have her over for dinner and listen to her talk for real. But on YouTube? With the up-and-coming stars with the Valley accent who can’t remember the starring roles they auditioned for last week? Dear God, there is only so much I can bear. The only thing worth remembering (so far) was the older lion who gave an off-the-cuff lecture on characterization, on method, on inhabiting the motivations of a specific person, of why they are saying this thing, at this time, in this place. That was good. That I needed to hear. That was a reminder, if ever I needed one, of why any play featuring his performance is absolutely worth paying good money for.
Contrast that with the two Buddy Holly wannabes nattering at each other for a fucking hour about fuck-all, at the end of which one of them tells the simplest of stories. A story of renovating a theatre in the midst of the pandemic, because hell, as long as we have no audience why shouldn’t we tear out the wiring and build it back up for real. And when they go through the rafters of their building, a building that is by repute the oldest in that town — but who knows, because it’s a town that is proudly committed to the future, a town that has few California State Historical markers but plenty of Superfund sites — what do they find?
An honest-to-God pre-Revolution silver kopeck.
Who was kid, the yid, the whoever, who set that kopeck down on the redwood beam of the attic of the Grange Hall in 1910 or whenever, and left it for some future storyteller to find? What burden was he letting slip, what promise was he setting free? Therein lies a tale. You could spin a whole play, perhaps a trilogy even, on that one incident. Have it be the piece of money that Lyuba Ranvesky gives to the transient; have it figure prominently in Chaim’s belting, hell even have it take the place of a Morgan dollar in a dramatization of the Ballad of Weaverville. But use it. Make that prop sing.
All this nattering between talking heads about conversations previously had, of the need to talk off-the-record, of shows ya’ll been binge-watching (even though, for the record, the shows have been the exact fucking same-ass shit as what I’ve been watching*), who the fuck cares? I don’t give two hoots about your analysis, and I surely don’t care about what shows you done did that I didn’t see. I guess I’m glad that this is therapeutic or whatever, but tell me a story I can hook my imagination to, a story that will speak to me. Tell me a story about a silver kopeck set on the rafter of the Grange hall a century ago. Tell me a story about Black Sacramento; tell me about St. Andrew’s Church, about how a congregation led by a Japanese minister that became majority Black then became Tongan; tell me about Stephon Clark. Don’t tell me about you; you are too real. I need to hear about history, about literature, tales told twice and hammered into new shapes for new purposes. The real is conversation; it’s literature I need.
*Queen’s Gambit, Bridgerton.