Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: May, 2021

Rep Stage radio play Ghost/Writer is some mind-blowing writing

Playwright Dane Figueroa Edidi mixes romance and vengeance and packs volumes of truth into stunning poetic dialog.

I approached this radio version of Dane Figueroa Edidi’s Ghost/Writer with keen anticipation. I saw s staged reading of a previous version of the play during the 2019 Womxn On Fire Festival at Keegan Theatre. It was then titled Writer’s Block and costarred Edidi and Michael Kevin Darnall. In exultation afterward I did something I rarely do: I rave-tweeted about it: “Totally blew my mind. Catch it if you can.” Naturally when I heard that Rep Stage was planning a full production of the play, revised and now called Ghost/Writer, I knew I must see it.

Then came the great shuttering, and that full staging was put on hold.

The cast of ‘Ghost/Writer’: Steve Polites and Dane Figueroa Edidi.

Pandemic necessity having been the mother of extraordinary innovation in theater, I should not have been surprised that the genius who wrote this play for the stage would reconceive it as a radio play. But what blew my mind all over again, as this time I could really listen to it closely, was the language of it—language that alchemized profound insights about racial injustice and sensuality into some of the most stunning poetic dialog I’ve ever heard.

Here for instance is Patrick, a white man, recalling his deceased Black girlfriend, Sara:

Her voice was music
That kind of rushing brass
Like a trumpet
It shook me

She was freedom
The way wind is unconcerned with the constraints of gravity

I know the definition of gravity
She taught me that definition
She taught me love

But this country
This world has a way of tearing good things from a man
Making him choose between safety and forever

The play is filled with ka-whump moments like that, passages that stir an explosion of recognition instilled by a writer who can pack volumes of truth into a single line.

The play shifts place and time dramatically in ways that would take considerable stagecraft to achieve. As a radio play, though, the beautifully written narration Edidi has given her characters, combined with evocative sound effects (by Tosin Olufolabi), serve to invite us into worlds and otherworlds and fly us through time. We are left in our mind’s eye to set the scenes and take in the story.

And what a story it is.

The play starts in Tulsa in 1920, prior to the race massacre there known as Black Wall Street. Already the Klan has been killing Black people. One of the victims was Sara, the young Black girlriend of a Irish immigrant’s son named Patrick. To avenge her murder, Patrick killed the Klansman who committed it. Now he’s a fugitive, and he seeks the help of a legendary cis Black woman named Ruby (“a Healer, an herbalist, a vigilante…ready to enact justice when justice needs a fresh set of hands”).

PATRICK: They killed more Black boys / I know they coming for me
RUBY: It’s funny how white folk can make even the most tragic things that happen to Black people about them

Into this fraught sociopathology of anti-Black race hate, Edidi introduces an intricate and improbably intimate relationship story between the wise Ruby and the rube-like Patrick. Their tense and sometimes tender exchanges are a pleasure all their own. There are often testy moments between them, as when she accuses him of cowardice for wanting to flee and he concedes she’s right:

PATRICK: I’m sorry
RUBY: You stay sorry
PATRICK: Please forgive me
RUBY: I don’t owe you shit
PATRICK: I know
(Pause)
RUBY: Wanna know what I done for my people / For every one of them white supremacist you killed I done killed twenty

Yet later, to convey their passion, there’s this lush audible stage direction:

He looks at her
And she at him
And they kiss
A Kiss of necessity
A kiss planted there just so they can make sure they remember who they are
A Kiss that would remind them there is no way to turn back

Act One establishes two engrossing themes that are in tension, both of them embodied in two fascinating characters and a page-turner of a plot: the sensuality of romance and the justice of vengeance. Act Two, which has a gobsmacking ending that I’ll not reveal, binds those themes together into an indelible parable.

It is 2019 in Baltimore, and we’re in a condo owned by a rich author and playwright named Charles. He is another white man with a problem—he’s got writer’s block—and he has turned for assistance to Rebecca (“A Black Trans woman, a secretly infamous ghost writer”). The symetry with Act One becomes more and more engaging as we learn Charles’s story of his high school sweetheart, Angelique, who appears in a flashback. She broke up with him because he wanted her to abort their pregnancy and she refused, and something horrible happened to her afterward. Rebecca coaxes Charles to disclose what that was. She says it’s necessary to get closure on his writer’s block. But she has something else in mind. Something along the lines of reparative justice.

Edidi plays Ruby, Rebecca, and Angelique, and brings to each role an inflection, emotional truth, and pride that she had to have known was in the words because she put them there. It is absolutely fascinating to hear her as if writing in the moment out loud. Patrick (with a lovely Irish lilt in his voice) and WASPy Charles are both played by Steve Polites, who navigates two complex character arcs with a range of honesty and duplicity that is extraordinary.

Danielle A. Drakes has directed this audio production with great care and flair. The result is immersive attention to authorial excellence that visual stage arts often compete for but that here the mind has all its own.

Because there are many narrative shifts of time and place in Ghost/Writer, and because of the doubling and tripling in the cast (which is intrinsic to the play), it can sometimes seem a challenge to follow all that’s going on. For that reason I recommend listening with the captioning on. That way, even if one gets momentarily lost, one can not only hear but witness the sheer brilliance of the writing.

Ghost/Writer is an aural and moral experience not to be missed.

Ghost/Writer is available on-demand until May 23, 2021. A single ticket is $15; a household ticket is $25. To purchase tickets, visit repstage.org. If you need assistance with your order, send an email to boxoffice@howardcc.edu or call 443-518-1500.

CAST
Dane Figueroa Edidi
Steve Polites

ARTISTIC TEAM
Playwright: Dane Figueroa Edidi
Director: Danielle A. Drakes
Sound Design: Tosin Olufolabi
Sound Engineer: Austin Sapp
Dramaturg: Otis Ramsey-Zoe

Stage Manager: Ricky Ramón
Assistant Stage Manager: Tiffany Ko

Mike Daisey mansplains

The master monologuist takes an unblinking look at Scott Rudin, Andrew Cuomo, and himself.

Men behaving badly is a masterplot in life and art as old as time, and Mike Daisey has given it a doozy of a twist. Not ten minutes into his one-night-only monologue Scott and Andy and All the Boys, he poses a jaw-dropping question: “Why not just get rid of men?” For the moment he means it, in all earnestness. “How do we get rid of the men?”

Then with Swiftian wit he pivots to a comic scenario about putting down all men as one would euthanize a dog. Realizing that goofy plan wouldn’t work globally, he invokes a Marvel supervillain named Thanos, renowned for wiping out half of all life with a finger snap. But Thanos does so at random, which for the gendercidal purpose is no use. Getting rid of men, Daisey concedes, would be kind of impractical.

Mike Daisey in ‘Scott and Andy and All the Boys,’ May 7, 2021, at the Kraine Theater in New York City. DC Metro Theater Arts screengrab.

As he says this there is in his voice and face what seems a trace of disappointment.

I was tuning in on YouTube, so I do not know how Daisey’s riff on offing men landed with the folks watching in person at the Kraine Theater in New York. I heard scattered, startled laughter and what seemed stunned silence. I can only surmise that fans familiar with Daisey’s inimitably expressive range as a monologuist sensed here the brink of dead-seriousness and hilarity to which he often brings his rapt audiences. It’s disconcerting and unsettling, but in a good way. It’s how he discombobulates us out of our preconceptions.

Still: a man talking with personal passion about hating patriarchy so much he imagines getting rid of it by getting rid of all men. That’s got to be a hot button topic one is not likely to hear in a locker room much less an off-Broadway black box.

The publicity hook for this 80-minute show is two boldface names—the theater and film producer Scott Rudin and the New York State governor Mario Cuomo—whose histories of male-pattern bullying and abuse have recently become widely known. Daisey engrosses us with a damning dossier on each.

Scott Rudin—he of the eye for award-magnet art—has for decades hired a procession of young assistants into a hellscape work environment where he berates them and breaks them and hurls objects to hit and hurt them. In effect they were in training to be victims. Rudin’s reputation as an abuser was no secret in the biz; it was only when Vulture and Hollywood Reporter delivered the receipts—first-person testimony from those he abused—that he was publicly outed as, in Daisey’s words, “an asshole.” Yet industry reaction to the stories, Daisey says, was silence. “When does the American Theater reckon with Scott Rudin?” he asks, galled at the social complicity that enables men in power to throw their weight around.

Andrew Cuomo was for a brief time “America’s Governor,” calming a country with caring counsel as he filled the COVID-info void left by 45 (“a man who was a walking syphilis culture”). Cuomo was finally shining his own light in the shadow of his father, New York State governor Mario Cuomo. But then his reputation unraveled. He was caught sending COVID-infected people back into nursing homes and covering up how many were dying inside. He was exposed by testimony about an office culture where attractive young women hires were made to dress up daily in heels and where Cuomo touched and groped and otherwise sexually harassed them. To this day, Daisy notes, there has been no justice, no accountability, not even a formulaic lame apology such as Rudin’s. Andrew Cuomo is still in power.

“Shitty men are everywhere,” Daisey shares, hardly an original observation. But what Daisey does in this monologue is count himself among them. Genuinely and astonishingly. With a singular sincerity rarely seen.

He does this with a framing story about “a very gendered fight” he had with his girlfriend. It was about something homey and humdrum: sheets. She asked him one day when they were rushing out on a trip if the sheets on their guest bed needed to be washed and he said they were fine. They were not fine and he knew it; they were far from fine. But he said they were fine anyway. When she learned of the lie she was furious (justifiably so, he fully admits).

Daisey devotes a compelling chunk of this monologue to parsing that seemingly minuscule incident. What was he thinking? Why did he think he could get away with it? Why did he do it knowing it was wrong? “I’m still trying to figure out,” he says, “what I thought would happen.”

And in a breathtaking leap of logic he connects this ethical micro to all other shitty men’s ethical macro: knowing something is wrong and doing it anyway.

I want to understand what I was thinking when I said the sheets are fine. Why I thought that would work. I need to be awake enough to not do it again.

Amid all the laughs, there’s a lucid lesson here. With Scott and Andy and All the Boys, Mike Daisey singlehandedly redefines the concept of mansplaining. He strips the practice of its condescension and defensiveness and turns it into a conscientious and humble discipline of self-examination as a man.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes

Scott and Andy and All the Boys, created and performed by Mike Daisey, was livestreamed May 7, 2021, from the Kraine Theater in New York City produced by FRIGID New York.

Epigraph from the program for Mike Daisey’s Scott and Andy and All the Boys

SEE ALSO: Dispatches from Mike Daisey’s ‘A People’s History,’ Chapters 1 to 18 by John Stoltenberg