Wednesday, December 20, 2017
Let me start with a spoiler. (It’s okay. Keep reading.) I listened to this on audio, and I loved it.
Oh, and you should listen too. I’m a writer-type, so I love to read pretty prose on paper or even eBook, if I must. This memoir has vibrant word play—to some degree—but Noah is a performer first: an expert storyteller, great with voices. It’s the delivery that captivates. He gives different voices to each character, and my friends keep telling me which one they loved best. My favorite? His mom. She’s the star of this book.
But before we get to that, let’s look at South Africa—the other star.
There’s a way to do book reviews, and there’s a way not to do them; I think I’m about to do it the way you’re shouldn’t do them. Which is to say that I’m compelled to muse personally . . .
This book felt like coming home. I savored it. It’s always annoying when people like me lay claim to something based on minimal experience—like you’ll have that friend who ate Korean food once and suddenly becomes the expert on Asian cuisine. So, I cautiously confess my deep love of South Africa, and my own ties with it. I “lived” there for some months (in 1997 and 1998) during the post-Apartheid/Nelson Mandela flurry of adjustment, chaos, tourism, expatriate frenzy, et al. A number of life-altering events happened to me there, or as a result of that trip—including the eventual publication of my first book.
But my experience was entirely that of a white girl. I lived with Afrikaners, who generously showed people their world. And South Africa, at least back then but probably still today, was a wild landscape of cultural diversity. It’s hard to say who the “main” people are, as there are quite a few major groups. Among the peoples are the whites (Afrikaners of Dutch-descent and those of English-descent), the black people (Xhosa, Zula, and a bunch of others), and the “Coloreds” (mixed folks, like Trevor Noah who has a Xhosa mom and a Swiss dad). It’s hard for Americans to wrap their tongue around that latter terminology. Coloreds? Really? Really. And they have eleven official languages. (Noah quotes Nelson Mandela who said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Noah, impressively multilingual, draws this thematically out in his tales.) Add to this mix one of the most horrific examples of systemic racism (if not the worst), Apartheid—which was only dismantled in 1991—and one finds an unruly but vital world. But know this: it’s also one of the most beautiful places on earth, utterly ripe for stories about humanity and universality.
So Trevor Noah, a colored guy from South Africa who now hosts “The Daily Show” in the U.S. (replacing Jon Stewart!), brought me, in a smallish way, “home.” But from another point of view. He is colored. (I don’t like saying it either.) This book is subtitled “Stories from a South African Childhood,” and that’s exactly what it is. Beginning with that time his mom threw him out of a moving mini-van (I let my kids listen to this), we’re taken through his early adventures—schooling, first love, Soweto life, his pets (“[b]lack people’s dogs don’t play fetch; you don’t throw anything to a black person’s dog unless it’s food”), a wicked stepfather. We do not get to America, nor do we spend any significant time on celebrity. The book is all that I love about comedy, in that it’s humorous but poignant at the same time—not at all immune to tragedy. (He writes, “People love to say, ‘Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ What they don’t say is, ‘And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.’ That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing.”) I should say that it’s not side-splitting funny; rather, it’s good storytelling. We’re more in literary than we are in comedic terrain.
We’re made to think: “The name Hitler does not offend a black South African because Hitler is not the worst thing a black South African can imagine. Every country thinks their history is the most important, and that’s especially true in the West. But if black South Africans could go back in time and kill one person, Cecil Rhodes would come up before Hitler. If people in the Congo could go back in time and kill one person, Belgium’s King Leopold would come way before Hitler. If Native Americans could go back in time and kill one person, it would probably be Christopher Columbus or Andrew Jackson.” Food for thought.
And we laugh too: “Nearly one million people lived in Soweto. Ninety-nine point nine percent of them were black—and then there was me. I was famous in my neighborhood just because of the color of my skin. I was so unique people would give directions using me as a landmark. ‘The house on Makhalima Street. At the corner you’ll see a light-skinned boy. Take a right there.’”
But I said that his mom is the star. She is. She’s black and she’s a woman. She’s sometimes a single mom, and sometimes a rebel—as it was criminal for white and black people to have sex, let alone children. But she is always his mom. She’s calm, religious, and smart. She also lives covertly in white areas in Johannesburg during Apartheid, calls out Thief! while pursuing her own child in busy areas, and gets shot in the head by her ex. I think readers/listeners will find that they have a tremendous amount of respect for her.
I recommend this one! It is an insider’s view.
Thursday, November 16, 2017
That's a direct reference to Moses, who--in delivering the Ten Commandments to the Israelites--mentioned the need to discuss "the elephant in the room." You can find it in the Bible: Hezekiah 4:2.
New Laws from President Trump (following the REVERSAL ON THE BAN OF ELEPHANT TROPHIES)! So says Trump!
1. Abortion is against the law, but you are now allowed to bind a girl's feet and/or starve her until she reaches a desirable weight; that desirable weight is to be determined by a committee that I'll put together after snack/recess.
2. Sexual harassment of a minor will now be considered a rite of passage.
3. Universal healthcare is out, but free boob jobs will be offered to any girl who can prove she bleeds, if you know what I mean.
4. No more required reading! Not ever! Forget it! Huck who?
Thursday, June 22, 2017
This rarely happens. Actually, it's never happened before. I teach creative writing, and I definitely encounter--with some regularity--impressive stuff. This time, however, the timing of this student piece with my own book life was, well, ironic. In a new sincerity way. (Wink. Wink. Alex Ozers filled me in on this New Sincerity business; apparently, the Age of Irony is over and emotional authenticity is the rage.)
As you know, I listened to David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest--all five million hours of it--this spring. And Alex, a big fan, simultaneously wrote this story in class. I think I suggested a very direct reference to DFW in the title when he edited it, something like "in honor of David Foster Wallace." In the vein of the late DFW . . .
Alex ignored this suggestion by his writing prof, like any good writer would. Alas, I thought I'd be the one to publish it online! It would be the appropriate ending to my own DFW rumination, icing on my blogging cake.
You're gonna love it.
A Long Short Story
About an Unwritten Play
About a Smug Contemporary Art Installation
About How Goddamn Hard it is to Love
by Alex Ozers
by Alex Ozers
I didn't have time to write this, so I'm just going to have to explain it. Is that okay? I don't want to seem unprofessional, but this meeting came out of nowhere. It's welcome of course. I’ve always wanted to be a playwright. I'm happy to be here. My cousin really came through for me, setting this up. He said he knew a money guy and hell if it doesn't seem like he does. You got the pin-stripe suit and that bald head. And this is some office. I mean, anyone who's ever conjured in their imagination what a producer looks like, you, sir, are it.
But okay, my play. It's about a painter and his girl friend. His friend who is a girl, I mean. Nothing romantic. She probably does something with art too, but I haven't figured it out yet. She is dating a conceptual artist, though. That may or may not count as participating in a field of art, like as a muse, you know? I don't know if it's sexist or feminist to think of a woman participating in art as a muse. Does it diminish or empower the person who occupies that role? Do you have an opinion? You don’t? It doesn't matter. Also, she’s really more like the main character. I think.
Also, Emma dresses like an idiot. That’s her name, Emma. The costume designer should dress the actor like an idiot. A fashion idiot. So like, imagine a girl with a really nice purse and matching shoes, but still she kind of looks like a homeless sailor. That's Emma. The painter's name is Swiss. Yes! Like the cheese. And the two of them are friends. There's also Emma's conceptual artist boyfriend, but he doesn't show up until later, so why don't I just describe him when we get there, okay? His name will be Johnny. I mean, his name is Johnny, currently, but he won't show up until later. You know what I mean.
So open on Emma and Swiss walking down a city street. Or, I mean, curtains up on Emma and Swiss. I think that’s the terminology.
Oh, I should say what Swiss looks like, how he should be cast and costumed. I feel like you might be getting impatient with me. Is that a cigar? They let you smoke in your office? Really? Well, sir, you are the real deal. That’s power. It really completes your look as a guy with the cash, money man, ha ha. So, Swiss. I see him wearing eyeglasses that make him look judgmental. Maybe half-frames of some sort. Either tortoise shell or a really vibrant acrylic. Orange would be nice. Let's say orange acrylic. And then a regular button-down shirt, but with a nice tie with orange diagonal stripes to match his glasses. I like that. But now his pants, they're covered in smears and blobs and splashes of paint, lots of different colors. Some of those should be orange to match his glasses and tie. I already told you he's a painter. That's why he has pants covered in paint, but the reason he's wearing them for a night on the town is that he's the kind of guy who wants strangers to know that he's a painter. Ego, you know? Also, Swiss wears deodorant, but not antiperspirant. The play takes place on a warm night, so he should smell kind of vinegary, but covered up with something floral and sporty. Can you do smells in a play? I guess maybe not. Maybe we can just style him so that he looks a little sweaty. We could use some aerosol cooking spray in the armpits of his shirt for visible sweat stains. That could work. But I don't know if it's my job to come up with that kind of stuff, costumes, as the writer. You know? Theater is a big machine, and you gotta let everyone do their own jobs or you'll end up stepping on toes.
I really appreciate you hearing me out, by the way. My cousin said you were the real deal, and I want to go big with this play. This desk, is it teak? Isn’t teak an incense smell, though? Maybe you don’t build things with teak. You just smell it like sandalwood. I don’t know. Anyway.
So, Emma and Swiss are walking down the street in a big city. Any city that might have an art scene, but I’m seeing classic brownstones. Are brownstones just a New York thing? It doesn't matter. They just came from a nice dinner at a nice restaurant. Well, a hip restaurant. Really more of a concept bar. The concept is that it was a bar built to look like a break room. I think that would be funny.
“You're drunk,” Emma says.
Swiss replies, “No, you are!” And maybe he does a funny dance or something, because he definitely is a little drunk.
“Are we alcoholics?”
“You know,” Swiss says, “I was sober for the first twenty-one years of my life. And those years were awful. I wasn't making any good art, or having any sophisticated thoughts.”
“You probably weren't getting laid either,” Emma says.
Swiss looks at Emma. He squints and grimaces, his eyes and mouth both stretched wide. Is it weird that we use two different words for that? Grimace and squint. It's basically the same shape if you think about it, just one word's for mouths and the other for eyes. Anyway, Swiss lets Emma's comment go and then says, “Sobriety is overrated.”
“We're going to be late, and it's your fault.”
“Shut up, no we aren't,” Swiss says. He's probably the drunker of the two.
He should say shut up playfully by the way. The two of them, the characters are friendly enough to feign aggression or say mean-sounding things without it being taken the wrong way, like how pet owners will sometimes call their dog or cat a stupid little idiot, but with a baby-talk inflection and it's totally clear that they only feel affection for their pet. That's how you should interpret the barbs between Swiss and Emma, or, rather, how the director should instruct the actors to say the lines, whatever. Do you have any pets? You seem like you'd either have a really well-groomed Persian cat or a herd of rottweilers with spiked collars. No pets? None? Well, that’s surprising. Anyway.
Did I say they're just friends? Emma and Swiss were out to dinner together, but not in a romantic way. Johnny is the guy Emma is dating. That comes up later. So Emma and Swiss were at dinner and drinks at The Break Room, and they're running late for the event they're going to, which is Johnny's art show opening. I don't know if we need to convey that they're just friends for the audience, though. Because the audience will come into the play blind, you know, and they won't know anything about Johnny or his art show this early in the production from their seats in the audience. I don't want the audience to assume they're a couple just because they're playfully walking down the street in the opening scene. Hell, even me explaining this is changing how you'll understand the play and you might not experience the narrative tension in the same way that an audience might. Shit. Look, I know how this needs to unfold for the audience, but I don't know how it needs to unfold for you, the money guy, so that you'll fund the production. Maybe forget that I said anything about Johnny or Emma’s relationships? Strike it from the record like they do in court when an attorney says something he's not supposed to say and the jury has to try to separate the information they weren't supposed to hear from how they form their judgments. Can you do that for me? Can anyone really do that? I don’t know. It always seemed pretty shaky to me, but if it's good enough for the law, then it should be okay here too.
But we were talking about the restaurant, The Break Room, it's part of a series of concept bars and restaurants in the city where Emma and Swiss live. There's also a southern-fusion restaurant where they use old hubcaps instead of plates, and there's a petting zoo out back with little pygmy goats. You ever see these things? About two feet tall, darling little things. Love to head butt. Probably sounds like a health code violation, but, let me tell you, once miniature livestock gets involved, there’s not a health inspector on this planet that won’t look the other way, too cute. And there’s The Parking Garage, which is literally a parking garage, except it's very formal dining with full place settings and sterling silver flatware and a string quartet and multiple courses from various food trucks. In a parking garage. The city we’re talking about, the setting for this play, is just full of these places that are sort of ironically literal. I don't know how exactly to feature them all in the play yet, but they definitely exist in the world in which this play takes place. We can figure that out later, I guess. The Break Room, where Emma and Swiss were drinking is the best, though. They only offer canned and bottled drinks and you have to buy them out of a vending machine. So like, tons of beer, but also that brand of champagne that comes in cans, and little plastic bottles of wine. The food also comes out of a vending machine, but it's just normal snacks. I guess The Break Room is really just a bar then and not so much of a restaurant. The lighting should be grids of those long cages of fluorescents. There should be comically outdated issues of old magazines on every table. Every thirty minutes a guy who calls himself The Manager walks through to check I.D.'s, since that is the law, but he also says stuff like, “Five more minutes and I need you back out there on the sales floor, okay?” or, “You're over your time, buddy. I'm gonna have to dock your hours.” He kind of pretends to chase you out since normally you wouldn't stay all night in a break room, but they wouldn't really kick you out.
You know, we opened on Emma and Swiss walking down the street, but since I have all these ideas for The Break Room, I think maybe the play should start there, and that might be a better way to introduce the characters. Are you with me? And I want Swiss to make a joke about his name right at the beginning but in a way that the audience gets to see it. The play can open on them closing out their tab, and Swiss will give his credit card to the bartender and he or she will give him a funny look. He'll say, Yes, like the cheese, referring to his name, and the audience will get a hearty laugh out of it. That’s a good way to start. So let's say the play actually begins in The Break Room. Anyway, that's the kind of place Emma and Swiss hang out.
“I'm going to tattle. I'm going to say to Johnny that it's all your fault!” Emma says.
So this is back on the street, by the way.
“Break up with him already.” Swiss says. He doesn't think Emma and Johnny are a good match. Again, he's not nurturing a secret crush on her or anything. It's mostly just that he doesn't like the kind of art that Johnny makes.
Actually though, Emma and Johnny probably aren't a great match romantically, not on the night that this play takes place anyway. Earlier in the day the two of them argued and he stormed out, but Emma is still obliged to go to his art show opening tonight. On this particular night in the play, I mean. That's why she and Swiss got drunk. I think I want that fight between Emma and Johnny to be conveyed to the audience on a part of the stage that can be used for flashbacks. Does that make sense? So, I guess it would be a two-tiered stage, and anything that happens on the top level is understood by the audience to be happening outside of the timeline of the main stage's narrative. I don’t know. Whatever we need to do to make sure the audience knows that Emma and Johnny fought earlier in the day.
“I can't break up with him at his opening,” Emma says.
“Is it even going to be any good?”
“It's going to be great,” Emma says, but very reluctantly.
The problem with Johnny's work, Swiss thinks, is that it's that kind of thing that's about playing tedious self-reflexive games with the audience and Swiss just doesn't think that that's that interesting. Johnny's work is the kind of thing that does a lot of figurative winking at anyone else who might be in the know. There should be a moment in the play where Swiss explains this, but then looks directly at the audience and says, “Honestly, does anybody really think that that sort of hall-of-mirrors self-consciousness is interesting in creative work anymore?” That would be a good gag for him to have. Do you like that? Too much?
Emma should speak directly to the audience too. After she tells Swiss that Johnny's show is going to be great, she'll nod to the audience and admit, “Yeah, it's going to be awful.”
It can be an aside, a fourth-wall break. They do that in Shakespeare, you know? I like that. What do you think? It doesn't matter, you're just the money guy, right? Ha ha. Is that water over there, in the pitcher? Can I help myself? I'm parched. Parched from my pitch. Can I get you anything? Wow, this looks like crystal. Technically, is this a pitcher or a carafe? It doesn’t matter. Damn near the fanciest glass of water I've ever had, though. How are we on time? We said like thirty minutes, right? We’re fine. Yeah, we’re doing okay.
I'm not totally sure how to depict city walking like this, on a stage. You only have so much space, you know, but there are a few events that need to happen on stage while they're walking. At one point, Emma and Swiss stroll past a hot dog cart. They're still tipsy. The slang they use for that, by the way, is tasty. If you’ve had one too many drinks, Emma and Swiss would say that you’re feelin’ tasty. Emma is doing oddball things while she walks like tapping the tops of parking meters, like duck duck goose. But at the hot dog cart there's a Midwestern couple buying hot dogs. They’re both wearing sweaters, the couple, with the team logo of a Midwestern sports team, let's say. I think the lady in this couple is about fifty. They’re both about fifty That’s probably not important. Anyway, Swiss and Emma smell the hot dogs, and, even though hot dogs usually smell pretty good, they both scrunch up their faces in silent judgment. Emma's judgement is because she just generally has a too cool for school attitude and hot dogs are probably not very cool. Swiss' scrunch-faced silent judgment, however, is about art.
“Remember that art fiasco when he just grilled hot dogs in the gallery and handed out beers?” Swiss asks. The he that Swiss is referring to is Johnny. Not sure if that was clear. Swiss wouldn't have specifically named Johnny in the dialogue because he and Emma have the shared experience of having both been at that show with the hot dogs and beer, so I don’t know why his character would specify that if he’s just talking to Emma, you know? Dialogue for plays is kind of hard that way, because it's so important for it to sound natural, but, in terms of storytelling, you don't have a direct access to the audience to fill in the blanks the way you would, say, with a narrator, you know? Anyway, as long as it's clear that they're talking about a previous art opening that they both attended that featured Emma's boyfriend, Johnny.
“Yes I remember,” Emma says. “And that fiasco was a performance.”
“Don't. Do not. You don't really believe that? We were in the same art history class, and he just ripped that idea off some avant-garde Korean artist. And it was already bullshit when the other guy did it! Hot dogs in a gallery, my god!” This isn't really playful aggression between the two of them anymore. Swiss actually gets mad about this kind of thing, and he's mad now. Also, just as a side note, the artist that Johnny's performance is based on is real, like outside the play, in our world, except he’s actually an Argentinian-born Thai artist. For his version, the real version, he prepared pad Thai in the gallery.
“You didn't read his statement then,” Emma says. “His performance was an attempt to recreate the Korean guy's work but in an American context.”
Johnny chose hot dogs because it's a quintessentially American dish, so it does sort of refer back to the Thai artist's choice of food. This was all clear in Johnny's artist statement, actually, but because artist statements are frequently just jargon-filled pissing contests, Swiss didn't read it. This is another moment when Emma would knowingly glance toward the audience. She has Swiss all riled up and ready to snap, so she'd look out and nod and make sure the audience was paying attention.
“The food was never meant to be the art, Swiss. The plagiarism was,” Emma says. Ding ding. Are there foley artists in plays? This would be a great moment for a boxing bell to ring.
“Goddammit! You don't really believe that!” Swiss yells. But not too much. Even though he's actually angry at this part, he's still walking around in public, you know? He's the kind of guy that starts at a yelling-volume, but halfway through the sentence drops to just a whisper that still has some fire in it.
“I don't not believe it,” Emma says. “It was very deliberately self-conscious.”
They're quiet for a moment, still walking. Swiss is trying to cool down, but Emma is collecting her thoughts because she still wants to have this conversation. She kind of knows that Johnny is full of shit most of the time, and, honestly, she's probably full of shit to be defending his work, but it's still kind of an interesting thing to argue about. And they're a little drunk. They only really just left the restaurant like five minutes ago, in terms of time on stage in the play.
“It was all about talking directly to the audience without trying to communicate through the artifice of a crafted work,” Emma says. I think that bit of dialogue speaks for itself.
“That kind of thing is barely interesting in an essay, Emma. And nobody wants to look at it. Or experience it,” Swiss says. He massages his forehead to show his frustration.
“Okay. It was shit. But the pursuit was still interesting, don't you think?” Emma asks.
“No. It wasn't. I want art that does something for these.” Swiss taps on the glass of his eyeglasses, but he's referring to his eyes, obviously. Swiss likes art that you’re supposed to look at more than art that you’re supposed to think about. Does that make sense?
“The gallery was full of good looking people in fancy clothes eating hot dogs on a Saturday night! That didn't do anything for those?” Emma points at Swiss' eyes. “You can't forget that the spectacle was part of the performance too.”
And here we'll use the upper stage again for a flashback, because we have got to see that hot dog thing, right? There'll probably need to be a second curtain just for that upper stage, because a scene like this might need a little setup and prep. The upper curtain opens on a guy in a white suit, hot dog in one hand and a mustard bottle in the other. He's wandering around offering people a squirt of the mustard, except the way he says it is, Does anyone need yellow? There's a pair of twins wearing matching green dresses, that short style from the 20's with the fringe at the bottom. Flappers? Two twins, I mean. One set of twins, so two people. I don't know how to word that. Just two identical girls. And the mustard guy. And however many other extras who are cast for the production can be in this scene too, all dolled up as art snobs who dress weird, dance weird, and talk weird. It's a sight to behold, unless you're part of that art world. Then it's just a regular Saturday night, I guess. The whole scene is very brief, though, because Emma and Swiss are still on the lower main stage, remember, just standing still, and they can't do that for too long before the audience gets impatient about getting jerked in and out of the events of story, probably. You have to be sensitive to that, to your audience.
“This way,” Emma says, and steers Swiss to turn a corner. I guess the stage will need to revolve in some way to accommodate for this kind of blocking, but that's up to you. You’re the one with the money. If we can afford it, I want it.
By the way, Swiss get's really angry about that kind of conceptual art stuff because he works really hard on his own paintings, which are very labor intensive. Swiss paints big. He insists on very large-scale work, it's almost a compulsion in a way. He thinks big works make him more commanding as an artist. Like Rothko. Swiss should probably have a monologue about Rothko. You know Rothko? His work, I mean. He’s dead, obviously. Giant abstract color things? The idea was that the way to experience a Rothko was to let it fill your entire field of vision. That’s why they had to be so big. Which honestly is kind of silly, because anything can fill your entire field of vision if you stand close enough. Right? Same thing with Swiss' work. He thinks there's power in size, but he entirely misses out on commanding his viewer to stand close enough to capture any intimacy with them. But, he paints big. He divides the canvases into grids and probably spends upwards of ten hours on every square foot, which is like a hundred hours total on a finished painting. And paintings don't sell very well, and a sale almost never pays a fair wage for the labor involved, especially for Swiss’ work, so it's no surprise that Swiss gets so upset about conceptual art that mostly only exists in people's heads.
“Johnny didn't do anything, though. In terms of authorship, he just bought hot dogs,” Swiss says. “It's a great prank, but it's not art. It's not even labor.”
“But isn't there something kind of intimate about it?” Emma stops. “It's like, I know you can be manipulated. And you know you can be manipulated. Like, in art terms. And you know that I know that you know. The whole thing with art is letting someone show you something you can't see on your own. Isn't it more real if we just admit it? Johnny's work is a way of saying that we all know what we're participating in, right?”
She's full of shit. She might only get away with this kind of thing because she's so pretty, but also weirdly humble-seeming about it. Emma is the kind of girl who appears more attractive by her own apparent ignorance of the effect that her physical attractiveness has on the people around her, while, in fact, being completely aware of what a straight up babe she is, such that, while her attractiveness is enhanced in the estimation of an onlooker who believes her to be ignorant of her own beauty, to someone, such as myself, who knows very well that, not only does she know her own beauty, but also that she feels guilty about all of it, that just magnifies it even further. We're going to have a hell of a time casting her, I imagine. Huh? You want to know why she feels guilty? Well, she was. Is, I mean. She, Emma, is a waitress. That doesn't really come up in the play, but it's the sort of background information that the actors will need to know if they want to fully inhabit the character. The guilt. The guilt is because she knows that most of the reason she cleans up with tips is because she's such a looker. She was, is, I mean. She, the character, is actually lousy at her job. Anyway.
“You're full of shit,” Swiss says. “All I know is that when I show my work, there are hundreds of hours of my labor being shown.”
“And your paintings are so pretty!”
“And, they're real. And the technique is real. And the time it takes is real.” Swiss would definitely be waving his arms by this point, like a maniac. “But fucking Johnny makes a trip to the grocery store for wieners and you're saying that's what's really real!”
You're giving me a look. Is this about what I was saying about Emma being pretty? Yes, it was very specific. Okay, fine. She's based on a real person. Should I have disclosed that? All the other characters are original. Or, fictional, rather. But you don't have to worry about her coming after us for using a likeness or her image or anything like that. Or her family. They're gone. All of them. Poof. Well, her dad went first. None of that's in the play though, and I don't think it informs the characters. Suffice it to say, they're all out of the picture. Can we move on?
So, Emma pushes Swiss too far. “I'm sorry! I swear!” she says. She grabs him by the shoulders and starts to hop. “Can I have a ride?”
Also, Swiss is a big enough guy that he sometimes does carry Emma on his back for laughs.
“No,” he says. Swiss is not amused, at all. Not one bit.
Emma gets kind of huffy.
“So, is it good with him?” Swiss asks.
“What do you mean?”
“What do you think I mean?” he asks. He pantomimes that vulgar hand gesture where you stick a pointed index finger into your opposite hand where your fingers are curled up like a tight little orifice. Swiss hums porno music.
Let’s just clear this up before we move on. She's dead. The person Emma is based on. Her and her mom, in a car. Zip, bang, boom. A genuine tragedy. That's why there's no conflict of interest including any of her personality traits or likeness or whatever. No lawyers to come knocking on anyone's behalf. No, not her dad either. I already said he died before that, even earlier than the car accident. That's actually the real sad story in Emma's life. Not Emma, the girl Emma is based on. He killed himself, her dad. It was a whole weird thing. He did it to save her soul, or personality, I don’t totally know. I never fully understood when she was telling me the story because it was just such a bummer to listen to. Anyway.
“Gross! Don’t ask me that,” Emma says. This is the sex conversation again.
“I’ll carry you if you tell me,” he says.
“Do you really want to know?”
“Everything,” Swiss says, except he says it like Ev-er-ee-thing.
“Well, okay. That’s actually what we fought about today,” she says. “Do you remember when I was first texting with him? There was this flirty kind of thing about liking it rough, did I tell you that?”
“I don’t know, but sure.”
“Well so, today. He sat me down. It felt like it was going to be a very serious talk, but it was just this weird lecture about how I’m not really very rough. In bed. Can you believe that?”
“Well, are you?” Swiss asks. He bobs his eyebrows. Actually, he’s wearing glasses, and I want the audience to see him bob his eyebrows, so let’s say he takes his glasses off first, and then does the eyebrow thing.
“That’s what’s messed up, it was literally a lecture he was giving me. He said that accepting roughness is not the same as contributing to roughness. What the fuck does that mean?” Emma asks.
“Like, uh, biting? I don’t know. Just scratch him or something,” Swiss says.
“He used the word fellate,” Emma says.
“In what context?”
“As in,” Emma says, “When you fellate me.”
“When you fellate me what?!”
“When you fellate me, I don’t feel afraid. And I think I should,” Emma says. “Those are literally Johnny’s words. Like, what am I supposed to do with that?”
Do you think an audience will giggle at that? We’re coming up on what I think should be the end of the first act, and I want to make sure the audience has a reason to come back after intermission, which is when Johnny finally shows up. But I want to make sure there’s anticipation about what kind of character Johnny will be. Does that do it? Well, no, I understand that you’re just the money guy, but do you have an opinion? I think it’s funny. If you were in the audience, do you think you would be interested to see what Johnny is like based on that exchange? Well, fine. Nevermind then. I am getting to the point.
“Swiss. There, I told you. Now, let me have a ride!” Emma says, again.
Emma jumps onto Swiss' back and smiles to the audience. Then they’ll have to exit the stage because that’s the end of act one and the next act is in a different place. So, that's it. Curtains drop for intermission.
Is all of this making sense so far? The stuff they're talking about. I don't want it to be too abstract, since I know you guys don't like to throw money at anything that’s too abstract. They, the characters, have really clear opinions about art because they're familiar with it, and I'm not sure if overhearing their conversation is the same as understanding what they're talking about. Thoughts?
Okay! Okay! Fine. Nevermind. Act two, we’ll get right to it then.
Curtains open on the front of an art gallery. It should have a pretentious name, something like Kiki Boone Contemporary: Annex. Big vinyl letters on the windows. And we’ll know that it’s Johnny’s show because it’ll have his name and the title of the installation, The Bridge Between Us. The signage would probably show Johnny’s last name too, but I haven’t come up with that yet. Johnny should be one of those guys with two first names, like where his last name is also a first name, that’d match his character. But not like in a hillbilly way, like not Johnny-Bob or whatever. Maybe something like Johnny Sebastian. Anyway. Emma and Swiss enter from stage right, or left, I guess. It doesn’t matter as long as they approach the entrance to the gallery where there’s a long line.
“Uh, this is lame. Let me see if we can get in through the back entrance. The alley,” Emma says. She pulls her phone from her fancy purse and begins to type.
Swiss walks up to a random art guy in the long line. “So, what, it’s a good show?” Swiss asks.
“It’s something alright. Oh, here we go. Someone’s going in!” the art guy says and then pushes toward the entrance. This art guy character can probably be double-cast in that earlier scene on the second level stage and he wouldn’t even need to change costumes.
Actually, now that I think of it, all the extras in line could be from that scene too.
Swiss looks to the audience and shrugs.
“Johnny says we have to go through the front,” Emma says. She snaps her phone case shut. “Dick.”
“Well, let’s see,” Swiss says.
They both push to the front of the line and look in through the entrance door to the gallery.
“Oh, shit,” Swiss says.
“Jesus Christ,” Emma says.
Oh. I guess that’s the end of act two, actually. It has to be, because the next scene is inside the gallery, so there will have to be a whole additional change on the set. So there has to be two intermissions, and this one takes a while because there’s a lot of glass in the next scene. Does this all sound doable? I know it seems like it might be expensive, but it’s also grand. Very grand.
Is this your wife here, in the photo? How long have you been married? Well I don’t mean to get distracted. I’m not even distracted. I’m asking about your wife because that’s what you do when you’re schmoozing the guy who has all the money. I’m trying to get funded here and I just wanted to show you some charisma. But we can get on with it if time’s short.
Anyway. That was act two.
The curtains come up for act three, and, here we go. It’s a whole new set! Now we’re inside the Kiki Boone Gallery. Hundreds of stemmed glasses line the floor of the gallery, each containing wine in various volumes. It doesn’t have to really be wine. It can just be water with food coloring as long as the audience thinks it’s wine. It’s probably a few drops of red and just one drop of blue to make the right color. What color would you call that? Mauve, ruby, crimson? Anyway. So the floor is covered in wine glasses. Between the front entrance and a doorway on the opposite wall, a narrow fourteen inch pathway between the glasses is open so that the floor is showing like a recessed balance beam. It’s the only walkway across the room. Several glasses in the pathway have already been kicked over and spilled and there’s a few shards from broken glasses. Two women are halfway across the path. The twins from earlier. In the flapper dresses. That would great for really amping up the tension here. We’d really be able to see their legs, and let’s say they’re a little tipsy, and the audience will just be terrified that they’ll slip or fall, because then it would just be stab-city into all those wine glasses. Lots of visual tension on stage at this point. You with me?
“We got this, we got this,” one of the tipsy flapper twins says, it doesn’t matter which.
“No no no no no. Be careful. We can make it,” the other one says. Their dresses should be green. Did I say that already? Green fringy flapper dresses will look great color-wise against all those wine glasses on the floor.
Okay, and the twins will make it across just fine, but it’ll be really tense for the audience. Then Johnny comes out. He’s decked out in black jeans, a black and white striped T-shirt, and pointy toed boots. So he’s on the opposite side of gallery, while Emma and Swiss are still by the entrance. The narrow little path of floor is between them flanked by the hundreds of wine glasses that would just about puncture all your organs if you slipped and fell into them.
Actually, now that I think of it, having the twins in flapper dresses walking across that will be really dangerous. And how long does a play run for? Let’s say you fund this play, and it runs four nights a week for three months. That’s a lot of performances, a lot of chances that one of the flapper twins might slip. Do we just have them sign waivers? Is that enough? Because we can’t cut the scene. The danger is what keeps the audience invested, you know? Maybe we could put them in harnesses with wire, so that if they did slip they wouldn’t actually fall into the glass. But if the audience can see the wires, that won’t work. I’m sure we can get the actresses to sign a waiver. Anyway.
“What the hell is this!” Emma yells. She points to all the glasses on the floor.
“It’s for you,” Johnny says. His first words in the play, we’re there, finally. He points to the glasses too.
Swiss also points to the glasses. “Are we supposed to drink all these?” Then he does jazz hands to set up his next line. “Is that like, the thing?”
“No!” Johnny shouts. “They’re not for touching!” He doesn’t need to be pointing at the glasses anymore. The actor can decide what he wants to do with his hands.
Swiss looks out to the audience. “Oh, I’m drinking,” he says. That should get a laugh. He selects the biggest, fullest glass that he can reach without risking a fall.
“Come across, Emma” Johnny says.
“You have to. That’s the whole point,” Johnny says.
Swiss takes a big gulp from his glass and offers Emma a sip. She declines.
“We don’t get it,” Swiss says. He motions to the floor, but with his hand that’s holding the glass, so he spills some of his wine. He frowns.
“It’s like a leap of faith kind of thing. More of a walk, I guess,” Johnny says. “The Bridge Between Us. See?”
“I’m not doing that!” Emma shouts. “There’s broken glass, Johnny.” Now she takes the glass from Swiss and allows herself a sip.
“You just have to walk. There’s plenty of room. I measured it. There’s a full fourteen inches between the glasses. That’s wide enough to easily walk across,” Johnny says. He pulls a twelve-inch ruler from his pocket and shows Emma that it fits lengthwise across the walkway with room to spare. “That’s the point, the danger is just in your head. Like in a relationship. Our relationship. Get it?”
Emma looks to the audience here. “Jesus Christ,” she says. So, this fourth-wall break is another indication directly to the audience that it’s time to sit up in their seats and pay attention.
This is where I want to insert a big monologue for Johnny, and it should be all about love, but using the installation piece as the metaphor. That’s why it’s so important that the flapper girls are in real danger. And that’s what I think this play is really supposed to be about. This monologue is what counts, except I haven’t totally written it yet. I’m still chewing on it, you know? But when it’s finished it’ll be good and long. But I know how it starts.
“Don’t you see what I’m saying? Walking across this room is easy, we do it all the time. Your stride width is barely more than fourteen inches. It’s not the walk you’re afraid of, it’s the fall,” he says. There should be lots of expressive hand gestures during this monologue, like in a Shakespeare kind of way. “But you wouldn't even think about falling if the glasses weren’t here. If I had just chalked off the path, you could skip across. That’s what our relationship is. That’s what all of love is. It’s the illusion of danger because the stakes are so high. I promise you it’s not dangerous if you just walk to me and don’t think about what might go wrong.”
I guess that’s the gist of the monologue, actually. Again, when I write the play it’ll be longer and grander. But okay, from here I think there are two different ways that the play could end. I’m leaning toward Emma seeing through Johnny and his monologue, and she’ll recognize him as a pretentious blowhard. That’s what the real Emma should have done. So let me pitch that option to you first.
“But this is dangerous! The glass is real, Johnny,” Emma says. “Do you see what fucking shoes I’m wearing?” Remember, she’s wearing those fancy high heels that match her purse.
“Yeah, this isn’t good,” Swiss says. “I think it would be sharper if people were supposed to drink the wine.”
“Why?” Johnny asks. He tilts his head sideways to think like a dog tilting its head sideways to think.
“Well, sometimes people just show up to these art things to drink the free wine, right? It would kind of turn that upside down, in a way,” Swiss says.
“I’m listening,” Johnny says, head still cocked.
Swiss takes a deep breath and begins speaking slowly. “If drinking the wine was what opened the path to the main gallery,” he says. Swiss rotates his hands in that go on hand gesture, an attempt to help Johnny follow the thread.
“Oh.” Johnny nods. “That’s good.”
“And also, well. Nobody would get hurt,” Swiss says. He takes another sip. Well, his glass might be empty at this point. Sometime earlier in this scene Swiss picked up another glass, let’s say.
Emma looks back and forth between Swiss and Johnny. “Um, I thought this installation was about me?”
“But you don’t like it,” Johnny says. His voice is aggrieved. Also, his head doesn’t need to be tilted anymore.
“So you’re just going to change it?” Emma says. She takes Swiss’ glass and chugs it like a champ. Yeah, so Swiss definitely needed to have picked up a new glass at some point, because I really want the audience to see Emma downing a full glass of wine. If we go with this ending, I mean, which I think we should.
“Well, this does sound really groundbreaking,” Johnny says. “If we force the audience to drink all the wine to clear the path before they can get into the gallery, to the art, it really holds them accountable in a way. Like, it says, in a way, that we know that most of them are just here to get tasty. They don’t care about art. They just want a cheap thrill.”
“It forces anyone who comes to the gallery to think about how their expectations and demands of a creative work affect what’s able to get made,” Swiss says. Then he turns to face the audience. “Or something.”
Johnny turns to face the audience too. “That’s right.”
Then Emma storms off yelling about how she’s breaking up with Johnny, and the curtains go down. That’s the ending I want. What do you think? I know it’s kind of hostile to the audience, and I’m sure they’ll have paid a pretty steep ticket price to have their butts there in the seats, but that’s my vision. I think that’s the best possible version of this play. With the finished love monologue, longer and grander, of course.
You don’t like it?
Well, the other ending is just that she ends up in Johnny’s arms, basically. Johnny promises to make better art. They kiss, you know the drill. The curtains come down and the audience gets a happy ending. Ha ha. Do you really think that’s better? You want to hear it? Well, real quick then, let me walk you through it.
So back up to where Johnny just finished his love monologue, okay?
“But this is dangerous! The glass is real, Johnny,” Emma says.
“But you can make it,” Johnny says.
“It’s not worth it,” Emma says. She turns to leave.
“Wait,” Johnny yells. “I’m sorry. Stop.” He reaches behind the door, which is where he’s been standing the whole time, and brings out a big push broom.
Emma turns around to see. She stops and watches.
“I shouldn’t be making obstacles, Emma,” Johnny says. He begins sweeping the glasses away from the path, widening it. Glass is crashing and the wine is spilling, but he continues to open the walkway wider. “This installation isn’t art. And it isn’t love. This broom is what love is!”
Emma laughs because that’s a stupid line, but it’s also kind of sweet.
“No more obstacles, just brooms,” he says. Johnny finally makes it to Emma and they embrace.
“That really was dangerous, you know?” she says.
“It was clumsy. I was feeding my ego, but I really was trying to show people something human. Something to grasp at,” Johnny says.
“Well, it didn’t come across. Your work always gets caught up with these really tedious games. It’s smug. And this time someone could’ve been hurt. I don’t know, Johnny.”
“Maybe I should try something else. I guess, with this kind of work, it’s something I should exorcise,” he says.
And then Emma will turn to the audience and say, “Just to be clear, he just said exorcise, with an O, as in the The Exorcist, as in get rid of. He meant that he means to quit making the kind of smug, tedious art we’ve been talking about.”
Johnny also speaks to the audience. “Oh, right. Yeah. Exorcise, rather than its homonym, exercise with an E. If my pronunciation was unclear, I wouldn’t want all of you out there to think that I meant to double-down on the tedious games. With Emma in my arms, I’m committed to cleaning up my act and making art that’s a little more sincere and straightforward with the audience. I promise.”
They kiss, and the curtain comes down.
That’s the second ending, where love wins out. The only problem with that ending, and maybe you noticed, is that I don’t know what to do with Swiss in that scene.
I’m negotiable. I understand that you’re the man with the money and you want a return on your investment. You think the love-ending will sell more tickets?
Tourists? I didn’t even think about tourists. You’re saying that Midwesterners, say, and suburban couples are going to be more interested in heading into the city for a story where the boy gets the girl? How much more, like in dollars-terms? You’re kidding. Love stories sell that many more tickets?
How do musicals do? You’re kidding. I could write this as a musical. La dee da. Emma bemma temma. Maybe I should change her name, it rhymes for shit. I think I’m okay with that, with a musical. If you want to make me a playwright, I can make this a love story. And a musical. Let’s say that this was all a musical.
Alex Ozers is a visual artist working in Phoenix, AZ, but he thinks language is pretty cool too. He reads and writes tedious fiction in his downtime or whenever he can afford to blow off life's responsibilities.