By SARAH STONE, faculty member in the Department of Writing, Consciousness, and Creative Inquiry, and author of "The True Sources of the Nile"
A king in tears, about to kill his daughter in order to appease a goddess and call up favorable winds for war, moves offstage to make way for girls in tiny dresses singing rock ballads about “Syrian flutes and Lydian lutes” and groaning with desire for Achilles. A young woman in a Louisiana housing project watches her minimal hopes for the future evaporate, on her way to a strongly foreshadowed bloody ending. Along the way, she tries to change and then understand her fate, engaging in banter, wooing, and pleading with lovers and neighbors. In these conversations, characters frequently announce to the audience their upcoming actions or the shadings of their emotions.
Seeing these two plays, Colin Teavan’s "Iph" and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s "In the Red and Brown Water," in quick succession in one weekend made me think about the different ways writers handle hugely dramatic--potentially melodramatic--material. Very often, it’s by interrupting the tragic in some way, undercutting it, requiring us to feel or see from a variety of angles all at once.
"Iph," a collaboration between Brava Theater and African-American Shakespeare Company, is a contemporary reworking of Euripides' "Iphigenia at Aulis," which plays with unsettling changes in tone. The central characters wail, scream, fight, weep, and protest their fates. The minor characters watch from the edges, giggling, judging, or singing, sometimes taking center stage to bring the parodic into the tragic, leaving us at a loss to know how to respond. Unlike a traditional chorus, they can’t provide a clear perspective on the central characters’ predicaments and self-delusions; they’re too caught up in their own desires. We are not allowed to settle into Greek tragedy mode, whatever feelings or ideas we expect to have in watching Agamemnon sacrifice Iphigenia, or Clytemnestra threaten her husband’s life.
This way of undercutting our expectations is a brave, risky strategy. The production notes in the program give a sense of the process of collaboration between two different companies, as when Hetal Patel, the managing director of Brava, writes, “We have learned to deal with each other’s different aesthetics and come together to form a production that is true to both organizations. This collaboration has been complex, challenging, but most of all tremendously rewarding. We are extremely proud, that even with two organizations with numerous stubborn folks on both ends, we have been able to put ourselves aside for the greater good of the project.” The collaboration produces a theatrical collage, both unnerving and memorable, in a process that changes everyone involved, along with the audience’s expectations.
In the Red and Brown Water, the first play in McCraney’s Brother/Sister Plays trilogy, plays freely with Yoruban mythology and uses a meta-structure of characters reciting their own stage directions aloud, giving the audience distance on the play’s tragic material. “He smiles,” says engaging/tricky Elegba, and turns a huge grin on fellow actors and audience. His announcement alerts us to watch for his grin, distances us from the action just enough to help us bear the pain of the characters’ situations, lets us in on the joke, and makes us complicit. No one ever just smiles in McCraney’s world – the characters perform for each other as much as they do for the audience. They make us aware that they know they perform each action for a purpose, that they know we know they know it, and by including us in all these layers of awareness, they earn our admiration/forgiveness, no matter what they’re doing.
In an odd way, this distancing actually creates room for us to feel the tragedy. The play invites us to see exactly how the characters manipulate us and each other: we become partners in what’s happening on stage. We know the characters better as we’re invited into their consciousness of their own inner lives and actions. The production is then free to be as stylized and mythic as it wishes. Craney’s meta-device with the stage directions functions in the same way as the comic characters in a Shakespearean tragedy, who often comment ironically on their own or each other’s actions. These devices make the world of the play human and immediate, getting under our guard, leaving us open to the great loss at the end of the play. Poets, fiction writers, or those working in narrative nonfiction can learn from these playwrights, getting outside our own usual stock of devices and meta-devices, and wrestling those we borrow from the theater into new shapes.