Monday, January 12, 2009

Blacktop Sky at Black Rep

Last night, at the Black Rep, four actors performed a public reading of Christina Anderson's new play, Blacktop Sky. It was the first reading I had ever attended, and I was relieved that the experience did nothing to undermine the thrill of theater; it is not, in short, like seeing a magician practice his tricks. It was humbling to be reminded that most plays are born on the page, nursed in readings, ushered through childhood in rehearsal, and unveiled in something like maturity on opening night. Blacktop Sky, like its protagonist, Ida, is somewhere in its adolescence still--dreamy and passionate, but unresolved. It is full of feeling and purpose but uncertain of its direction.

Ida longs to escape the projects where she lives but her boyfriend, Wynn, ten years her senior, offers her only a bourgeois vision of freedom. She is intrigued by Klass, a young homeless man who sets up his stuff in the projects' courtyard and, like the pigeons whom he is said to resemble in his over-sized coat, occasionally rises above the grasping shadows of his orphan, urban life. Ida and Klass share a comfort with silence and a hope in transcendence that threaten Wynn. The complicated affection among these three--the idea of a "love triangle" seems too comic for relationships as tentative and inarticulate as these--is the orbiting action of the play; there is not much else.

Indeed, the universe of the projects is a sort of vacuum. The only other characters we meet are themselves characters in anecdotes, whispered or disputed, until the cops, who are hardly characters at all, show up at the end to deal with Klass. This means that Ida, Wynn, and Klass make the story their own, but it also means that the terms--the limits and the pressures--of their lives are unclear. What is it like to live in the projects? Why does Ida want so desperately to get out, and why do Wynn's assurances that he can help her escape feel so specious? (Are the projects different from Siddartha Gautama's palace, or Mick Kelly's Georgia town?) What does Klass offer Ida that Wynn doesn't? How is Klass a threat to Wynn? How is Klass-or-Wynn even a choice, and what is it a choice between? Why doesn't it feel like a terrible choosing by play's end? What has all this meant, not symbolically, but actually? What has it done to Ida? What could it mean? I hope that Ms. Anderson continues to develop Ida further, not by thrusting a more detailed back-story on her but by letting her speak for herself: we need her, as an insider and an outsider--an exile, in other words--to judge the projects. We need her to show us why Klass is so compelling. We need her to hold our gaze; and then we need her to tell us where, and how, to look.

(Christina Anderson's new play, Inked Baby, will receive its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons in March.)


anthropoid said...

I'm glad you recognized this as a reading, but I think the questions you have posed (What is it like to live in the projects? Why does Ida want so desperately to get out, and why do Wynn's assurances that he can help her escape feel so specious? etc...) are up to the audience to think about and resolve. This is not the kind of play that will spoonfeed you answers.

Also curious why you didn't bring some of these things up at the talk back?

John Rogers said...

Hi there, anthropoid--
Thanks for visiting and commenting. I'll answer your last question first: the reason I didn't bring up these questions at the talk-back is that I didn't know I had them at the time. I knew only that I felt some strong reservations about the play; these reservations became questions after a couple of days of thinking.

Second, I think you're right. Christina Anderson is not going to spoonfeed me "answers." But as it is, too much is left to our uninformed imaginations; we can believe whatever we can make up. Specificity creates friction. There is no drama without assertion. Even plays set in undefined places and clouded by obscure dialogue make assertions--even as simple, possibly, as "the place doesn't matter; language occludes understanding anyway."

Ms. Anderson's play does not say this. The dialogue she writes and the emotions she creates are naturalistic, so the audience is led to expect a certain depiction of human behavior based on (more or less) rational principles. Even when someone behaves irrationally, we have to understand why. Ida's choice, and it's a doozy, is between a moderately successful and clearly devoted (albeit occasionally violent) electrical engineer, and a homeless, unemployed (albeit occasionally poetic) bum. That this should be a choice at all is irrational; it doesn't make sense. That's fine. But who is Ida, and what is her world like, that this seemingly easy choice is a struggle? What does she consider rejecting in Wynn that she ends up accepting? What does she mean to herself?

The one problem with "Blacktop Sky" is that the terms of its dialectic are unclear: What is freedom? What is confinement? What is life for? What are we worth? These are not questions for us to resolve; they're for Ida. The process of her figuring out is the drama.

I'm happy to be "proven" wrong about everything. If there's evidence or insight in the text or performance that I missed, I'm open to reconsideration. All I can say is that, to me, the play lacked a definitive position--or, more appropriately, a definitive dialogue between positions.