“Gennesaret” and the Crux of Humanity

I’m to spoil the living hell out of Phoenix Alexander’s “Gennesaret,” which I just finished over at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. If you’re like me and haven’t read this story from March, you’re averse to spoilers, and if you aren’t triggered by violence to children, go read it first. Otherwise, I’m about to prattle on.

What’s enthralled me and simultaneously left me queasy about this story is the way in which it keeps re-framing its central questions, and what that does both to me as a reader and to the story itself as an exploration of humanity and the politics of humanity.

It starts simply enough. For a value of simple that involves a lizardlike variation on Homo sapiens. By simple I mean, we have Alissha and Ibliss taking two sides of a debate: do you suppress what makes you unique, or do you embrace it?

It’s a question immediately reframed and complicated by a local disaster which threatens the very lives of their people. Cultural expression here may or may not have a cost: Ibliss believes the only way to get aid for the situation is for everyone to look “civilized,” hiding or completely removing all the physical parts of themselves that don’t look like what those in power on the other side of the water consider human.

Alissha thinks the only way to gain the help of others, though, is to be all the things Ibliss thinks they fear. Culture and heritage are what makes them strong, and what’s worth saving, right?

This alone, this question of what counts as civilized, of what counts as human, of who decides and why they get to decide is already heady and painful (especially when Alissha and Ibliss’s child is caught in the middle).

On the surface the answer here seems hard but obvious, so when Alissha makes a run for freedom, it feels like: okay here is where we’re going. Except not. Because Alissha faces direct violence on the opposite shore even as she runs for safety, at which point: hell, am I supposed to be satisfied with a world where Ibliss was right?, where the only means of survival is to literally cut pieces of yourself off in order to pass for what the current power structure agrees is human?

And just when I’m feeling horrified and distraught and thinking how horrible Those People are for what they’ve done to Alissha and all the people she represents, that’s when the story reframes again. Just like Alissha, I don’t have the option to stop, which means I run full force into the climax of this piece, which isn’t a hail of gunfire.

Here is perhaps the greatest trick the story pulls. Because it traded on my reactions, on my hopes, on my desire to believe that humanity can be better and that people who think like me are that hope. I invested, and then:

Alissha finds a place for sanctuary, but it’s with folks who — while touting their sympathy at the horrors of all this, of the ways in which Alissha has been de-humanized — continue to do exactly that. It’s a horrible sort of twisted mirror, as the question of Alissha and her son’s status becomes more important than the humanity which that status fails to reflect, as their suffering becomes more important than their lives.

Because, while they convince themselves of how deeply they feel this Other’s pain, Alissha’s ‘saviors’ relish that pain’s value for the political changes they can work with it. A couple cry into each other over the tragedy they’ve witnessed, the heartless acts of their opponents, and fuck if I don’t feel exposed, if the very story doesn’t feel like it’s broken its chest open to expose its innards and force the reader to question everything.

I’m still sort of wobbly about how to reconcile it all, to be honest. Is my reading the story just another self-satisfied couple having a good cry while someone else dies? Hell, is all the worrying about I’m doing in the mechanisms of the story an action or an inaction?

I don’t think there’s meant to be an easy answer, of course, but the unease of that is surely a thing I can’t quite shake. Is it vapid to applaud that?

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Swagger vs Swish in Luke Cage S2

For the most part, I’m not the person to be diving into the cultural explorations at play in Luke Cage‘s second season. Issues of colorism, black exceptionalism, and cultural tensions within the black community are all woven into a strong second season, but they’re also explorations a white dude shouldn’t be judging the success of.

One of the other themes of the season is a recurring motif on what it is to “be a man,” a theme which interacts (intentionally or un-) with the show’s decision to reveal and introduce gay men in the cast. On that score? I have Feelings.

Spoilers for season two follow. Fairly significant ones. If you prefer to watch the season un-spoiled, you can always bookmark this and come back later. The internet remembers everything, but you’ll only get a fresh watch once.

Back to it, then.

It’s not illogical for a story concerned with the amorphous concepts of manhood or masculinity to feature queer characters. To be sure, excluding them is a base level fail. I’m not sure, though, that the writers room at Luke Cage managed anything particularly next level, either. They got as far as “what about gay dudes,” but didn’t / couldn’t conceive of even the barest mention of trans and nonbinary characters. I’m not even sure how much they really thought on the subject of gay cis men, either.

Credit this much: we discover more than one man on the show has explored homosexuality. In a world where queer inclusion is usually limited to The Gay One, plurality is a plus.

Alfre Woodard’s Mariah reveals that her late husband was a gay man. She traded being his beard for the chance to change her name and her own circumstances. Of course, that revelation comes as part and parcel of a gut punch Mariah delivers to her daughter on her true parentage. In that context, what might have been an insight into the various ways in which we hide and negotiate our identities turns into not only was he not your father, but he was (gasp) gaaaaay.

While that particular reveal was frustrating for its context, it’s a blip compared to the other gay subplot of the season, when Theo Rossi’s Hernan “Shades” Alvarez and Thomas Q. Jones’ Darius “Comanche” Jones spend an evening standing watch for enemies, literally back to back. Their conversation is itself coded, but it becomes clear that Hernan and Darius weren’t just close friends, but in fact had an intimate relationship during their time in prison.

I found the scene itself powerful. Hernan repeatedly attempts to brush aside the past, claiming it was just a thing that happened. A thing, it’s nice to note, he thinks is not to be ashamed of, but also a thing bounded by time and place. It’s the past. It’s over. Darius refuses to take the outs Hernan gives him, however. For him, what happened there wasn’t an exception, it was a truth. And, for Darius if not for Hernan, it’s not something he’ll forget or abandon.

The conceit of the scene means that neither actor can look at the other, and yet their faces carry so much emotion and subtext. Whatever else I have to say abou the season, that scene really is an amazing piece of work.

And then in the next episode, Hernan murders Darius.

I can only assume that moment is meant to be as powerful as the night in the barber shop, standing guard. As Shades, Hernan has spent a season and a half murdering people without remorse in pursuit of his loyalty to various mob leaders. The ultimate show of his love and loyalty for Mariah, now, is that he’s wiling to murder a man he’s loved like no other man in his life when he finds out Darius is reporting to the police.

You shouldn’t be surprised that it didn’t work like that for me.

It certainly doesn’t help that Hernan’s relationship with Darius is trotted back out more than once as the season concludes as a means of first enraging Hernan, and then, later, so that Hernan can compare the relationship to the Gay Until Graduation paradigm. Hernan only had those feelings for one man, and that man’s dead, so.

Let’s be clear: I think a lot of definitions when it comes to sexuality are unreasonably intractable. I don’t subscribe to the common wisdom, reflected in everything from pop culture to blood donation guidelines, that a single sexual encounter between two men Makes You Gay. I’m more than willing to concede that Hernan’s relationship with Darius is a thing he feels no need to recreate going forward.

What that leaves us with, however, is a season in which straight cis men learn to stand up for their morals, to take fatherly responsibility, to look for balance between rage and restraint, to compromise for the sake of their community. They fall from grace and rise to the occasion. When it comes to them, the show has a whole host of answers to its central question of “how to be a man.” The only gay men, however, are either dead or have renounced their identities. It’s a scenario suggesting that Luke Cage‘s answer to “how to be a man” when it comes to also being gay has a single answer: be buried.

On Well-Wishing: A Parable

Imagine for a moment that you’re a personal assistant, and further, that you share the same birthday as your boss.

You’re totally excited for your boss’s birthday. They’re a wonderful person. They pay you well. They even give you your joint birthday off.

But every year in the days and weeks leading up to your birthday, every call, every office visit, every delivery comes with someone saying “Tell your boss Happy Birthday!” There’s nothing wrong with it, though after a few years of it, you do feel a bit invisible.

So you decide, hey, it won’t hurt, so when people say “tell your boss Happy Birthday,” you good-naturedly respond. “Of course I will. It’s my birthday, too!”

Some people say happy birthday back to you.

But then you get that person who snipes back, “I’m RSVP-ing to your boss’s party, not yours. What, am I supposed to go to a birthday party for you, too, at the same time?”

And you calmly tell them, “Well, no. You should go to the party for the person you’re celebrating.”

“Do you hate your boss?”

“No, they’re great.”

“But you need me to wish you a happy birthday, instead.”

“No. I don’t want to take away. I just figured, in addition, since we were in a celebrating mood–”

“Why does this have to be about you?”

“That’s not what I meant at all.”

“Tell. Your. Boss. Happy. Birthday.” And they hang up.

You mention this to your boss, who brushes it off. “Honestly, you should just assume that anyone wishing a happy birthday is wishing it to both of us.”

“Even when they say it’s just for you?”

“Totally. That’s what I do.”

“Do people tell you to wish me a happy birthday a lot?”

“Not really.”

After this, there are people who remember, who say “Happy Birthday to you both,” which is not only just as easy to say, it’s a little breath of fresh air in the flurry of the other people. But when people only wish your boss the happy birthday, you know, thanks to your boss, that it’s really for both of you.

Kind of. But not really.

What’s this little parable got to do with anything? Probably nothing.

In any event: Happy Holidays.

There’s Always (More Th)a(n One) Woman

I’m perpetually behind in my reading, so it’s only just now that I got around to listening to Aimee Ogden‘s “The Forty Gardens of Calliope Grey,” which went up on Cast of Wonders several months ago. Spoilers for anyone who’s similarly behind, but there’s no way to talk about the positive buttons this pushed for me without them. You’ve been warned.

The story premise is intimate and simple: small gardens have a tendency to find Calliope, sprouting suddenly in teapots and baking dishes, thriving in all manner of tiny spaces throughout her cozy apartment. Then one day, a garden goes missing. But even after Calliope retrieves it, the garden seems to want to leave her for the teenage girl downstairs. Cue angst.

As with most things, the wonderful bits happen here in the execution. Not least of all in the way Ogden deconstructs the notion of the Kick Ass Woman.

No, nobody enters into fisticuffs. I’m talking, instead, about the idea that there is only ever one Kick Ass Woman, where kick ass is a stand in for “really good at something.” We see it all the time: an ensemble of male characters of varying abilities and specialties, and the The Woman, who is better at her one thing than any other man (for which: hooray), but who also seems to be the only woman around who is competent at anything, much less her kick ass thing.

And should another woman show up, she will either be completely artless so as to show us our woman’s kick ass-ness, or she will be kick ass on exactly the same vector as our woman. In which case, what must inevitably ensue is a showdown to prove who’s really the kick ass one and who’s the pretender who will give it all up.

Because, of course, there can be only one. It’s yet another riff on the stale maiden-mother-crone paradigm no one who’s made it through high school English can avoid learning, and for which there is no real male parallel. This isn’t just a fictional trope, though. It’s a trope built on a persistent societal thread, that women are replaced by “the younger model.” That unlike men, women aren’t competing against their entire field, only against their fellow women for those limited spaces available to them.

And for a moment, as Calliope worries that the loss of one of her gardens will inevitably lead to the loss of more, to the loss of all, that if she shares the thing that makes her feel the most wonderful with another woman, she will lose it to her, I’ll sheepishly confess I worried the same thing. Like Calliope, I wasn’t sure where this was all headed. Like Calliope, I fell right back on that tired societal trope that told me if a new, younger woman was showing up with a similar skill, things could only end if one of them soundly trounced the other.

Ogden has other ideas. And she’s had those ideas from the beginning. The story’s resolution isn’t a twist so much as an object lesson in paying attention, in the reminder that worldbuilding isn’t just atmosphere, it’s integral to story. We know that gardens have been finding Calliope for years, that the number of gardens has been growing. There is literally nothing to suggest that one garden departing changes this fact. But because we’re ensnared in a binary, in societal notions that one woman can’t succeed unless another woman fails, we ignore logic and reason and facts.

The author doesn’t, though, and the result is an incredibly kind surprise as the story takes its final turns, and a reminder that, like surprise gardens, life isn’t nearly so restricted as we’re wont to believe.

That Word. I Think It Both Does and Does Not Mean What You Think It Means

Doing or saying or thinking a racist thing does not make you a cross-burning, hood-wearing, swastika-sporting Racist. I think that’s important to articulate because, much the same way people seem to get confused by marriage the secular set of rights vs marriage the religious institution, the resonance of the same word applied to different circumstances makes it difficult to parse on an emotional level. It’s vital that people are able to identify racism in themselves without feeling that any such identification makes them some villainous terror.

However, and just as important to articulate, is that doing or saying or thinking a racist thing is also not entirely divorced from cross burning and hood wearing and swastika sporting. It’s not a straight line, certainly, but on one level that’s how systemic abuse works. It makes “tiny things” easy to hand wave off. It requires people to “have a sense of humor” about said tiny things. And, in isolation, perhaps that off-color joke or that tension in our shoulders or the way we whisper certain colors or tell someone they don’t act like one or more stereotype are small.

Except they aren’t in isolation, and it doesn’t matter how small something is if there’s enough of it. It doesn’t even matter how little of it comes at a time if it never stops coming. A handful of sand each day is meaningless, if we sweep it up and throw it away.

But if we leave it, if we groan at the people who ask us to clean up after ourselves, if we argue it’s not our fault the dust bin is already overflowing, if we say ‘it’s just a little sand what’s the big deal?’ Then it’s not just a handful of sand each day. It’s a handful of sand every day, and soon enough, there’s a great big beautiful sandbox for the people who like playing in the dirt to take advantage of, and guess who’s buried underneath?

Your New Boyfriend Is an Asshole, and You Know It: a Fable

Here’s the thing: your friends warned you when you started dating this new guy that he was bad news. They told you stories about the stuff he’d done to mutual friends. They told you the kinds of things he was saying about them. But he promised he was going to take care of you and give you nice things and how important you were to him. So you told your friends they just didn’t understand. He had a different sense of humor. He was a little blunt, sure, but they were blowing everything out of proportion.

You continued to believe it when he went to court to force the Sanchez family to tear down the pool they always let you use so he could build that eyesore of a fence between you. When he blew off taking Gran to her heart transplant surgical consult because his friend Josh needed to have a corn removed. RSVP’d “no” with a Bible verse to both Lance and Henry’s wedding *and* little Hannah Goldman’s bat mitzvah.

You told Fatima she was totally over-reacting when he made that comment about wanting her to take a few laps around the block before coming in so she wouldn’t stink up the place. And while you and he were the only ones who knew where Celia and her son moved, there’s no way he told her abusive ex how to find her — even if her ex is an investor in the firm.

Yes, out of town clients got wasted when they came over, but it’s not *his* fault they retaliated against the Johnsons’ noise complaint by vandalizing their house.

No, you aren’t your new boyfriend. And he may be sweet as all get out when you’re alone. But at this point, it’s time to stop pretending you don’t understand why the Johnsons turned their noses up at your basket of apology muffins. Why the Sanchez family won’t answer the door even though their cars are in the drive. Why Lance and Henry returned your wedding gift and they and the Goldmans and Celia and Fatima aren’t returning your calls. You know why, just like you know why Gran gets a “tone” when you use unpaid time off to take her to the doctor.

Apparently It Isn’t Woolf They’re Actually Afraid Of

I’m still reeling a bit about a recent decision by the estate of Edward Albee re: a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:

According to sources, the estate of the late playwright, Edward Albee, demanded that a theatre company in Oregon, The Complete Works Project, who was producing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, fire the black actor playing the role of “Nick” and be replaced by a white actor or they would rescind the rights to the show.

I don’t know which wrongheaded defense to tackle first, not least of all because of the conflation of multiple arguments. So how about I break the arguments apart first, since my answers to some of them are different than my answers to others:

1) The Rights of the Albee Estate

I’m seeing defenses of this which cast this argument as one about the legal rights of the Albee estate. They assert the rights attached to production of the work, assert the law, and so completely miss the point that it’s no longer a point, but rather a round blunt object.

No one, including the theatre which complained about the decision, claims the Albee estate isn’t invested with the legal power to exert its rights.

Rather, people are following the standard trajectory of free speech: the Albee estate is fully entitled to make fucked up, racist decisions. And everyone else, likewise, is fully entitled to call out just how fucked up and racist those decisions are. You would think that anyone running the estate of a man whose work is rife with people calling each other to the mat might be able to recognize that pattern outside of a three act structure.

2) The Importance of Authorial Intent

As a writer, obviously I have a soft spot for authorial intent. When I write something, I’m attempting to evoke some range of emotions and thoughts in my audience.

However, I’m also well aware that what I want as a writer and what the audience of my work will take away from it aren’t the same thing. If it’s co-opted by a group whose ideology I find abhorrent, and if that co-opting happens in clear breach of my copyright, I have legal recourse to remove it from their use. I can’t, however, control what they think about my work, what they take away from it. The only art which isn’t a conversation is art which has no audience in the first place.

This is especially true in collaborative arts. Yes, the playwright is important. I’d go so far as to say they’re essential. They are not, however, the only aspect of their art. Again, unless a playwright is writing work which they never want to see performed, the nature of their work is to be adapted and interpreted through the lens of those other artists (actors, directors, designers) who attach themselves to it.

And unlike, say, film or television, live theatre is in constant intepretive flux. Hell, something as small as an actor’s mood on a given night can drastically shift a performance. Live theatre is at its core alive. That means it changes, it grows. If it doesn’t, it no longer serves a purpose.

Shakespeare wrote all of his work to be performed by exclusively male casts. He wouldn’t, at the time he wrote his plays, have even conceived of a performance where his female Ophelia was actually played by a woman. Nor would he, for that matter, have imagined the panoply of temporal and environmental backgrounds future theatres might use as the setting for his stories. Last I heard, however, no one’s spending much time grousing that Shakespeare’s intent has been bastardized by contemporary artists bringing new and different influences to bear.

Rather, the response by many is to praise Shakespeare for providing a template which continues to resonate and inspire, which ebbs and flows in a way that allows it to remain relevant, rather than proving itself a hidebound cultural dinosaur.

3) The Slippery Slope

Otherwise known as “Good God! Next you’ll say you want women playing men” and … probably?

Look. I am just the wrong audience for this kind of thing because I’m not seeing the problem here. Aside from my previous point re: Shakespeare, honestly, even if your show is explicitly “about” men, I still can’t think of a lot of instances where there isn’t something interesting an artist might bring to the work through variable gender casting, not least of all interrogating the notion of Man.

Also, let’s be honest, there are still painfully few acting roles for women with the same richness and variety as exist for men. Ditto actors of color and other marginalized identities. If it takes women in traditionally male roles and ethnic minorities in traditionally white roles for audiences and playwrights (or their estates) to stop making lazy, default cultural narrative choices about what constitutes a character of a given gender expression or a character of color or a character of disability or a character of a given sexuality or, or, or? Then I say re-cast the hell out of that shit.

4) “Historical Accuracy”

I’m sorry. I can’t even write that phrase without the scare quotes.

It took me a hot minute after entering “African-American professors 1962” in Google to have third party verification of what I shouldn’t have to prove to reasonably well-educated people: not only did African-American professors in the US exist in mixed race settings, but they’d been around for over a century already:

1849: Charles L. Reason is named professor of belles-lettres, Greek, Latin and French at New York Central College in McGrawville, New York. He appears to be the first African American to teach at a mixed race institution of higher education in the U.S.

That Albee couldn’t conceive of a scenario in the 1960s where such a character could exist without hopelessly straining credulity says a metric ton more about institutional erasure and the success of privileged narratives than it does about verifiable historical reality.

That those caring for Albee’s estate continue to be unable to imagine such a scenario in 2017, especially in a play where every other damn thing the characters say has two or three meanings and / or is elaborate fiction meant to stymie genuine interaction — where the primary actors go so far as to invent people who don’t actually exist but apparently it’s too difficult for the rights holder to imagine people who do — borders on intellectual failure of the sort that, come to think of it, deserves Albee-style disdain and mockery.