Four years ago today – rocking out with my friends. It was the closest I’ve ever had to that fabled, only-in-the-movies experience of “being in the band,” where you throw yourself into the music and the lights, and the headaches are many but worth it, and you spend far too many late nights and too much money in the bar, not because you’re trying to drown your sorrows but because you want to have as much time as you can with these delightful people who are somehow all here together.
I’ve spent the past few days incapacitated by rage and also regret that I did not punch somebody in the face.
It was just a few days after the happy memory from four years ago that we went to a nearby bar following tech rehearsal. My assistant and I were the last ones to arrive (par for the course for stage manager – first ones in, last ones out), but as we approached the table where we saw our colleagues, we could tell that something wasn’t right. The place was surprisingly packed for a Wednesday night, even in Hell’s Kitchen, and the energy was… charged. And not in a good way.
You know how difficult it can be to remember more than snippets of dreams? And how the parts you tend to be able to remember are whatever have the most narrative coherence? Because it’s a challenge to hang onto things that just don’t make any sense. So I can’t tell you many specifics of what we overheard being said. But it was enough to, in the moment, put together that we were in the middle of a bar packed full of Proud Boys.
Yes, those Proud Boys.
It wasn’t clear if this was their event itself or some sort of hangout following a meeting. Either way, we heard all varieties of offensive things, ranging from simply bizarre to simply hostile.
The feeling of violation was visceral. Intellectually you might know that “it can happen anywhere,” but it’s a hard slap to the face when it actually happens, especially if you’ve had the privilege of being relatively sheltered from the blows of the world. Or maybe there’s a special sting with the awareness of how harsh things can be elsewhere – “at least here, in this place of my own, I find safety.”
Eventually, they noticed us gawking at them. That’s when things threatened to get ugly. One man began aggressively getting in the face of the largest white man in our group, demanding that he answer if he was “a Republican, a Democrat, or an American.”
I can’t remember if that was the trigger. I can’t remember if it was another trigger. I can’t remember if the trigger was anything in particular or just a final straw landing on the camel’s back. This is something that I know about myself – I’m very precipitous, a stretch of even ground that’s almost too extensive to be able to see where the cliff drops off. Simply as a matter of personality rather than any sort of conscious decision, I don’t do warning shots. So all I know is that at some point, I saw red. And that was when I felt someone grabbing onto my elbow and pulling me outside.
My friends and I absconded to a nearby little hole-in-the-wall gay bar. (Has that refuge survived the pandemic, I wonder?) We got many drinks and shouted our outrage to each other. When I got home that night, I couldn’t sleep. I grabbed my iPod classic, put on clipping.’s Splendor & Misery, and went for a 3AM run in the (technically closed) park near my apartment. If anyone had had the foolish idea of messing with me, it wouldn’t have ended well, but that part of my night, at least, passed without incident.
A few days later, I put on my cowboy boots and returned to the bar to demand answers. The owners weren’t in, but the bartender, who was outraged on my behalf, took my information, and the owner called me later that day. He affirmed that that wasn’t what their establishment stood for and that such gatherings wouldn’t be tolerated in the future. A week after our incident at the bar (although unconnected to it, at least specifically), the Ghostlight Project gathered theatre practitioners to pledge to stand for and protect the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone – to create a light in the darkness.
What a fine, fine resolution that all was.
All I’ve been able to think about over the past days is that I should have just fucking punched someone in the fucking face.
It certainly would not have been a smart thing to do. Maybe if my friend hadn’t grabbed my elbow in time, I’d be in jail. Maybe if I’d pulled away from his grip, I’d be dead. But maybe the urgency and brutality of the then-nascent situation would have been put on full display sooner for those of us, myself included, for whom the objects in the mirror were not yet appearing so close. Maybe it would have made clear, for maybe even just one person, what was not welcome, what was not acceptable, rather than ceding ground and making space.
This isn’t a hero fantasy. This is looking back at something that already happened (and didn’t happen) and that can’t be changed. This is a what-if that’s full of shame.
All of this was shocking whiplash on a personal level from where my mind was mere days before.
“Running Crew: two Apes, one Puppeteer”
Picture the above in your mind’s eye. You’ll have to, because apparently I don’t have a photo of it. I spent the first couple days of the past week scouring my devices for pictures of my life from November through December of 2017 when I was working on Mabou Mines’ Glass Guignol, and the results were astonishingly sparse.
That’s not what I was expecting. Because when I heard about the passing of Lee Breuer of Mabou Mines, I was flooded with a cinematic collage of those months. Memories so vivid that photos and video from that time simply MUST exist. But no, all I could turn up was a post-show selfie with Hye Young Chyun (small-world miracle that that was – we’d first met on the other side of the world that past summer, when she guided me through my first week in Korea) and a tweet recounting how, at the closing night party, I couldn’t think of the term “spoken word” when trying to describe BAM’s Word Sound Power program and kept calling it “stand-up poetry.” Life had simply existed on such an elevated plane for those months that it all inscribed itself in my brain in surround-sound and technicolor that is durable enough for me to still hold in my hands.
What came to mind for me first weren’t performances or even rehearsals.
We’d just opened the show. The whole lot of us were in a nearby bar, with lighting that was that dim yellow-red tone of banked fire. Music was playing, and we were dancing. And at one point, I felt myself outside of myself, seeing that I was dancing with Lee Breuer in a bar in the East Village after the show we’d done together, and it was an explosive blast of crystal clarity: dreams are possible. Legends are human. It’s all real and within reach. I’d grown up as a country bumpkin who couldn’t have named a single work of theater that wasn’t a pre-1970 Broadway musical (unless it was by Andrew Lloyd Webber or Arsenic and Old Lace) and who once got asked by a peer why I was wearing my nightgown to a choir event — reader, it was not my nightgown — because I dressed like a farmer (and not the hipster kind). And somehow, this was my life.
Also: the cinematic sequences that were my nightly walk from daytime rehearsals with Mallory Catlett for the Prototype Festival’s production of The Echo Drift to run evening performances at Mabou Mines. Going south along 3rd Avenue on foot, passing what seemed like satellite-visible Christmas decorations at Rolf’s and the crowds that they drew. Snow falling gently as the gaslights on the old brownstones that surrounded Gramercy Park glowed in the darkness. Cutting through Stuyvesant Square Park to get over to 1st Avenue.
Dreams aren’t merely possible. Dreams are happening.
Which isn’t to say that working with Lee didn’t have its challenges. Of course it did — we were doing theatre, after all. (Another memory, clear as day: Sharon in the house of the theater, saying no, Lee, the production can’t just be Act One, we need to do a full show…) But it was such a treasure to have been allowed into that artistic family, one that I was able to recognize at the time: the production had been in the works for nearly a decade, with me brought in mere months prior. (The production was originally planned for the spring, but the contractors working on Mabou Mines’ new building did not have anything like a completed building at that point, which itself was months after the construction was supposed to have been completed. That delay led to my bizarre summer of the serial killer – but that’s a different story.) It was so clear from the very beginning of my involvement how deep the history ran for both this specific project and, even more, for so many of the rest of the people working on this. This was truly a family. And I was welcomed.
It brought me the privilege of meeting so many incredible people (in no particular order): Jay Ansill (I know you’re at the door, I’M ON MY WAY), Alfred Schatz, Lucrecia Briceno, Gavin Price, Eric Marciano, Brooke Van Hensenbergen, Basil Twist, Hanne Tierney, Thomas Keith, Jeremy Pape, Janet Clancy, Dana Greenfield, Peter Fogel, Marie Incontrera, Tiappa Klimovtisky (oh how terribly I butchered the spelling of his name when taking notes at my first production meeting!), Greg Mehrten, Maude Mitchelle, John Kruth, Jessica Weinstein, Jessica Smith, Thomas Kavanaugh, Yasmeen Jawhar, Sharon Fogel, Monika Wunderer Jouvert, and Andy Sowers. One who has since gone before us, Meganne George. In lightly funny way, Kyoung Park, with whom I actually still have not worked but who was the first person I met in person about this project. Two apes who deserve a special shout-out: Sam Gibbs and Anthony Leung. And the person whom I’d worked with three years prior on a fairly random university class project, Eamonn Farrell.
(In another ham-handed gesture from the writer’s room, said university project was for a piece by radical composer and bandleader Fred Ho, whom we’d hoped would attend our performance but who sadly passed away while we were in rehearsal… and whose successor was Marie Incontrera, whom I’d meet as a band member for Glass Guignol.)
This creation is possible.
All of this is now sitting with me in stark juxtaposition to more recent events. But it doesn’t feel irrelevant. If anything, it feels more important: there must be a dream and there must be belief that the dream is possible. We must be realistic about “who we really are,” but we also must be hopeful and determined about who we want to become. To hold onto that hope is not just a privilege – it would be naïve not to acknowledge that some people have to constantly operate in the face of all sorts of evidence against such hope – but also a responsibility.
It’s stupendously self-centered of me to turn the events of the past few days into my personal memoir, but I know that I need to acknowledge these feelings if I want to have any hope of exorcising them and moving past them into action.
After all of this talking from me, I feel that I must express my gratitude to those who share their voices on various platforms and from whom I’ve benefited greatly. (And I assert that exposing oneself to a diversity of voices, even ones with which one is not in complete agreement, is NOT a call to expose oneself to toxicity.) I’m not an expert and I don’t have any sort of comprehensive must-read list, just a selection that I’ve accumulated over the years, in no particular order. On Facebook, there’s @SonOfBaldwinFB. On Twitter, there’s @Imani_Barbarin, @BreeNewsome, @ClintSmithIII, @MatthewACherry, @AdamSerwer, @MsPackyetti, @DarkLiterata, @IjeomaOluo, and @abfrancois. On Instagram, @rachel.cargle. In my inbox, the newsletter from antiracismdaily.com.