I am watching a play about a young black male in the Jim Crow era. This man cares nothing about any other human being. He condescends to both his elders and his brethren and walks around town with a chip on his shoulder the size of a Paul Bunyan log. He makes himself a complete pain in the ass to everyone he meets. Then, in an unfortunate scuffle with two redneck policemen, both members of KKK, he is beaten to death and his body hung from a lamp post in the town square.
No one should be lynched by a couple of crackers who abuse their power. This is evil and raises my hackles. But on another emotional level, I really don’t care about this character’s fate. Just because bad things happen to bad people doesn’t make it cool. They are still bad things. It is a case not of good riddance to bad rubbish, rather of bad riddance to bad rubbish, and I am far less likely to care deeply, and even less likely to think much about it. I will simply shrug and curse the sorry state of the world that people still do such rotten things to each other. But I don’t need to go to the theater to prompt such outrage. Spending ten minutes on Facebook or Reddit or WikiNews would suffice.
Now, I’m a male writer so doubtless anything I say about Joy McCullough-Carranza’s Blood Water Paint will likely be dismissible on that basis alone. But if the shoe were on the other foot, and it were about a black male instead of a white female, I would say exactly the same thing.
I am supposed to consider the object lesson of Artemisia Gentileschi’s miserable existence as a woman in Baroque Italy. This is her story. She’s rarely offstage, and the story follows no other character, so everything hinges upon what I think about her psycho-social struggle. I am supposed to sympathize with her plight and then, probably, go off into the evening ranting about the injustice of the world.
Yet I find it completely impossible. Whatever drives Gentileschi’s creative spirit, however great an artist she may be, as a human being interacting with others she is an obnoxious prig. She is rotten to her rotten teacher. She is rotten to her rotten father. She is rotten to her child. She is convinced she is much better than any of them. That may be, but simply being a genius artist isn’t sufficient to convince me of her moral superiority. I demand such things proven by action, not by attitude.
The central dramatic event of the play is that Gentileschi kisses her teacher and then he rapes her. She screams this at her father, who then proceeds to tell her they should sue the bastard and demand restitution, which means going through hell all over again. Anyone who’s read Susan Vreeland’s novel The Passion of Artemisia knows what happens next. The court probes her virginity, disgraces her, and finally breaks her fingers while they torture her for truth. In the end her teacher is banished from Rome, Artemisia forcibly marries another artist and moves to Florence where she becomes one of the finest painters of the Italian Baroque. All of which is quite miserable.
But so what? The play says nothing about Italian society or about its larger machinations. Instead, one is expected simply to take for granted that it’s bad, bad, bad–much worse than any writer can possibly tell you. Thus the entire piece revolves around Artemisia’s journey, which ends exactly where it began with not so much as an inkling it could be any other way. She has learned nothing, and so neither has the audience. The sum total of her change in character is that she finally listens to her daughter and tells the youngster that Mommy is okay if you become a scientist instead of an artist like me. Even Artemisia’s father, as a character, shows much more change than she does–none of which matters, of course, because he’s a member of the patriarchy and stuff, and anyway his art is shit because Artemisia tells us so repeatedly and he’s a lech because Artemisia tells us so repeatedly and he’s only concerned about his reputation because Artemisia tells us so repeatedly and even the way he extends his hands to her at moments of vulnerability are bogus because Artemisia tells us so repeatedly.
It doesn’t help that Alex Highsmith plays Artemisia like a nerve rubbed raw. without even an iota of sensitivity, to her father, to her teacher, to her own daughter. She is, in short, a brute–and a neurotic one at that. But in fairness, I don’t think she has any options. The play is fundamentally limited by director Amy Poisson’s idea that everything in the play must hinge upon the sexual assault. I think there’s a better play to be found in studying the divergent archetypes represented by Judith and Susanna that slowly converge on Gentileschi, but that play isn’t on the boards. Everything here is very individual psychodrama and very un-socially alert. This fact becomes even more obvious when one puts Ms. McCullough-Carranza’s play alongside Howard Barker’s Scenes from an Execution, also inspired by the figure of Artemisia Gentileschi, which is about the role of women and the role of artists in Italian society and the political world at large, just as surely as this production of Blood Water Paint is not.
Blood Water Paint is clearly not written for me. I am not one of those people who goes to the theater simply to confirm his own view of the world and this production is a study in confirmation bias if ever was. I am compelled to think about plays as more than containers for glib messages. That, of course, is my privilege as a straight American male in the early 21st Century. But had the story of Artemisia Gentileschi been Scipio Moorhead’s or Edward Mitchell Bannister’s instead, my compulsion would be the same.