Thursday, February 23, 2012

Pop Question - The New Theater?

I went to see Qui Nguyen’s The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G last night with a few friends and it made me think of Young Jean Lee, whose work, it seems to me, is also about a deeply felt inadequacy.

Nguyen does not speak Vietnamese and has never been to Vietnam. In the play, he grasps at straws, attempting to come to terms with his Vietnamese identity and his cousin’s horrific experience as a refugee. Growing up in Arkansas, it seems the only tools he had to understand Asia were kong fu films, 1940s noir and the anger/anguish of being “other” expressed in hip hop and ghetto rap.

Similarly, in Lear, Young Jean Lee uses the Sesame Street scene in which Big Bird explains the death of Mr. Hooper as a reference point to understanding the death of a parental figure. I felt the scene was trite and eyeball rolling, but when I later talked about it to a much younger friend, his eyes misted over and he exclaimed, “Oh! I know that episode!” I realized then that for a million people, Big Bird must have been their first introduction to death.  And what does this say about the state of the world? Or this new generation of writers, who reference Shaw brother flicks and television shows instead of Greek myths or classical literature?

At a recent rehearsal, an actress whom I was working with declared, “I don’t know anything about history. Dates just don’t stick in my mind!” I was rather horrified. To me, the whole point of being an artist (and you are an artist as an actor) is your understanding of where you are in the continuum. I believe what makes an artist great is a deeper insight than others of where they stand in time – the gift is a comprehension of what came before and being able to translate it through current events, to create something that is both new and old, that has the weight of time, of the accumulation of understanding through the ages.

But what if what came before – what if the references that you are working from – are a jumble of over-the-top films, belligerent music and sentimental television programs? What if history and time has been truncated to the last twenty years? Like all extremely smart artists, Nguyen and Lee are interested in huge knotty human questions. But in assaying these difficult subjects, they seem to have stumbled onto another one, which is the dumbing down of our culture.

I am called elitist or a snob by a lot of my friends. Well, it’s partly a joke since they all know that I didn’t graduate high school – I get a perverse pleasure in those job forms you fill out where you have to mark the last year you graduated and I write “10” in big bold numbers.  Take that, Establishment! I can pretty much safely say that I am self-educated and thus my references are not going to be the usual ones. I’ve hardly read any books that were written after the 1960s, for instance. I know myths and legends and fairytales, 19th century literature, the Romantic poets, American writing of the early 20th century. For a while, I used to haunt Tompkins Square Books, basically reading anything that said “classic” on it.  Which took me to some obscure corners – Huysmans, Andreyev, Alain-Fournier, anyone? Anyone?

And yes, those are all dead white guys. And I am not really sure how I feel about the dead white guy canon. On one hand, yeah, they are all dead, white and male. And I am not male or white or dead (yet). On the other hand, wow, they can really write! Prose that takes your breath away, that you want to recite aloud, that causes you to spontaneously weep. Mnemonic characters and scenes that stick in your subconscious and become part of your own life experience and how you forever view the world.

Which is what I suppose Sesame Street was to Young Jean Lee. And my friend the young director. So am I being snobby or elitist to think there is something wrong with this? Just because it’s a kid’s television program?

Which brings up a whole other question of what makes something memorable and affecting. What strikes a chord? And if it strikes that true, deep, collective chord, then does it matter how it’s written? Or whether the scene is of a man in a giant yellow bird suit or an Asian actor being under-dubbed in English?

I guess that’s one of the points in The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G and Lear. I can’t say I actually loved those plays, but they do feel like some kind of crystallization of a new generation whose prime influences are not dead white guys.  Instead, they mine pop culture for answers to the perennial questions of who you are and why you are here, coming up with a lot of colorful bluster and noise, but in the end, they lament it’s painfully inadequate and very empty. The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G? It’s really The Existential Crisis of Agent G.  Nausea for the New Age. But see, that’s a reference to another dead white guy.