The Grand Illusion: 53% Of

Cartoon by Jordan Sparks from 2011. CC-BY-NC-SA license.

I have the unfortunate birthday of January 20th, so every four years I have the displeasure of listening to some anointed savior holding a Bible, swearing to execute the Office of President. Since the 80s I’ve come to the conclusion that every president has indeed executed that hallowed office, leaving me to wonder how it has not stayed dead. Each resurrection brings a different form and a different personality but like some real-life version of Doctor Who, the president remains The President. And just as with The Doctor, fanboys love to argue which incarnation is the best or the worst.

So it was no surprise to me that, after months of my warning people they were making yet another absurd error, America got the president they wanted and deserved on January 20th 2017. Typically fanboys immediately began to argue that it was the Absolute Worst Thing Ever just as certainly as others argued it was the Best Thing Ever. Meanwhile I proceeded to work overtime while trying to pay bills and still publish a magazine dedicated to verifiable, factual news and thoughtful descriptions of the products of human imagination, knowing the two were completely separate things.

For most Americans, that period is shrouded in a veil of prejudicial red and blue memories but among my liberal friends their righteous anger occasionally gave way to actual, thoughtful introspection as they tried to answer “How did this happen?” The Party line was that it was because people not in their personal cliques were unenlightened sexist pigs afraid of a powerful woman in office and voted against their potential version of The President. But when the ballots were counted, it turned out that in fact more “White women” voted for The Enemy instead of The Great Glass Ceiling Smasher. 53% of them, in fact. How could they DARE? Didn’t all “White” women understand? There had to be a reason!

Photo: Giao Nguyen. Courtesy of Sound Theatre.

I put “White” in quotes advisedly. One of the things “White” folks rarely seem to grasp is that “White” has zero to do with your skin tone. “White” means that somewhere along the line either one or one’s family decided to accelerate the process of “The Great Forgetting.” That process commands one not merely to dissolve in the melting pot of America, but also to annihilate one’s identity, heritage, history: to become blank as paper. You’re not English anymore, you’re “White.” You won’t go to that awful Catholic church anymore and fast on Wednesday and Friday, you’re “White.” You won’t speak with that awful German accent anymore, you’re “White.” You won’t cross yourself backwards anymore like those crazy Orthodox people, you’re “White.” You can have surgery on that weird aquiline nose, you schlub. You don’t have to be one of them poor, underclass __________ (fill in ethnic slur here) anymore. No, no. You’re White now! And you can stay White as long as you don’t hang out with those awful brown people, especially them Negroes and their jungle music, jungle dances, and ebonics. In return we’ll give you an honorary day where your heritage can be neatly contained and monitored. St. Patrick’s Day for you Irish. Columbus Day for you Italians. Hanukkah is close enough to Christmas so we’ll let you Jews celebrate that. All you have to do is forget. Forget where you came from. Forget your suffering and the suffering of others. Be one of us. Be White. We’ll make you rich!

It is no wonder then that “White” women tend to believe in their homogeneity and are shocked, shocked when it turns out heterogeneity is the rule.

I am pretty certain I understand the target Steph Del Rosso aims at with her play, 53% Of. Her understanding and ear for dialogue leads me to think she is skilled enough for that target. However, I am not certain that Ms. Del Rosso hits it. Or even if it does enough damage.

The play is structured in four scenes, three all women, one all men. Given the broadness of the first scene in Bethlehem, my impression is that the play is a satire. Here is an array of five rather pretentious women trying to arrange for the anointed one to come to their school and send their kids into ecstatic rapture. The second scene is comprised of their five husbands, sitting in a man cave watching the inauguration and gossiping about women and, after the initial paroxysms of “FUCKYEAHAMERICARAHRAHRAH” have passed, essentially obvlivious to the Great Event. Then the next scene shows five different women who are clearly the #NotMyPresident crowd at a deeply serious meeting that will undoubtedly change the world, wearing their pussy hats and examining their feelings — oh so much feelings!

Photo: Giao Nguyen. Courtesy of Sound Theatre.

These are not people. These are types. This is straight out of South Park or Saturday Night Live, with the typical American concentration on grotesque people doing grotesque things. I can accept this much. The whole technique of satire is to overshoot its mark. But 53% Of does not overshoot nearly enough. Like Saturday Night Live so frequently, the writing is far too satisfied with simply drawing grotesques image of recognizable persons (or types in this case) that the action goes begging. It’s not enough to invoke the types; they also have to be doing something that highlights that they are wrong. Here the author is far too demure. Ms. Del Posso wouldn’t dare suggest that these people are dead wrong, only that they exist. And that’s not enough. Most of the best satire is written by conservatives for a reason: they are far more likely to have fixed ideas of right and wrong, where liberals tend to be more flexible. But this is not material on which one can be flexible. As Northrop Frye once noted, in satire “irony is militant.” This play has a severe irony deficiency, and there is no army.

The fourth scene is exemplary. After three scenes of five characters each, suddenly we have a dialogue. This breaks the structure. It also changes the tone. After three scenes of alleged satire, this scene is a quiet scene of two women talking. That it is a dialogue between a Black woman and a White woman who have been friends for years makes it even more obviously different.

If I was unconvinced by the second scene (and I was), I am utterly unconvinced by this one. None of the other scenes reuse a character. This one does. It also gives that character a history and a new relationship. This seems like it is a strength, but it is not. It is an attempt to give a character depth. It is, in a word, psychology.

But psychology is the enemy of satire. Satire isn’t about people. It is about types and, in the European tradition, types of social behavior. Introducing psychology distracts at best, and invariably weakens. No one cares about the backstory of the King of Brobdingnag in Gulliver’s Travels. No one ruminates about the deep motivations of Maniac in Accidental Death of an Anarchist. No one is interested in the traumatic childhood of Corky in Waiting for Guffman. Similarly, no one cares about the deep character revelations in 53% Of. They are an unwanted decoration.

The dialogue is, I think, supposed to be a classic example of how completely clueless White women are when it comes to the struggles of others, especially other women. Certainly it repeats the author’s theme that the real problem White women have is that they make everything about themselves and are incapable of listening to others or looking beyond themselves to find an actual answer. That is certainly true of Scenes One and Three. It’s also true in this scene. But this scene is as far from the nominal politics of the other three scenes as those scenes are away from Marxist class analysis. Trying to tie it in with those scenes strikes me as an egregious mistake, both structurally and thematically.

I’m not sure I can put these problems on the shoulders of directors Teresa Thuman and Shermona Mitchell. Too, one could hardly ask for a more skilled or charismatic cast than Teal Sherer, Caitlin Frances, Karli Reinbold, Zandi Carlson, Mandy Nelson, and Ms. Mitchell herself in the final scene. I think they understand the material. But with a play this problematic, I wonder whether or not Ms. Thuman and Ms. Mitchell might force the interpretation more firmly than they do. This play needs help. Things play out far too realistically, far too “character-driven.” But this play cannot be about character; it has to be caricature. Either it’s a broad lampoon, or it’s a deep study of how America’s social isolation and enforced adolescence leads us to seek for political father figures. It can’t be both. The techniques cancel each other out.

There is probably a legitimate amount of real satire to be emphasized in 53% Of, even within the structural messiness of the script. But I have a hard time finding it in the Sound Theatre Company’s production. This show needs a much firmer hand, even at the risk of choking it. Even then, I’m not sure I’d be convinced. It’s not just that an argument needs to be made for the play itself. The play itself needs an argument.

While in our days of “representation” (whatever that means to whoever is tossing the word around) audiences may pat themselves on the back simply for seeing images of themselves, that isn’t enough. There are plenty of images of White women in drama from Aphra Behn to Paula Vogel. A responsible playwright needs to do more than just show people or even show them in a different light. A satirist needs to go even further. Playwrights of all stripes write about how people are trapped in a social machine. But for a satirist, the target is not the people. It is the machine.

Categories Theater

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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