Thursday, May 26, 2011

Legacy and Posterity

Why does a boy carve his name on a tree
Or the firstborn inherit the throne?
What is a sculptor aspiring to be
When he spends half his life carving stone?

In The People in the Picture, an aging Jewish grandmother, leaning ever further into dementia, tries to tell the story of her youth and life as a member of a traveling Yiddish theater troupe to her young grandchild. That the story be told is exceptionally important to Raisel - she is a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the people who perished in that time were only able to leave precious few relics as evidence they even existed - not knowing at that time whether any would survive to tell their story. She has a truly heartbreaking moment, as she sings to the young ghost of her lover that, while she cannot remember what happened that morning or where her coat is, she remembers quite clearly how much she loved him.  Raisel's memory is failing, and she must pass on the story to her young granddaughter before it is too late.

There is a very real sense, I think in many of us, that we must leave something of ourselves behind - a feeling that no doubt grows stronger the more we feel the pull of approaching death. The simple answer for me is to create - whether that means having a family and building a legacy there, or in the artistic sense, or creating a product, a company, something that can change the landscape of the world, even slightly. But even then we ask, How will we be remembered? Will we be remembered? And what story will be told? I think that's why some of us become writers - so we have a chance to tell the story ourselves before someone else comes along and gets it all wrong.  See also: photo albums with captions.

Another play I saw recently addressed this very issue - what happens when people come along after the fact and try to tell your life for you:  Lynn Nottage's By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, which turned out to be the perfect sort of play for a person obsessed with labels and self-identity. Its titular character is a young black aspiring actress in Hollywood in 1933 - proud, outspoken, intelligent and desperate to break into the business even as she knows that most of the roles available to her race are servants and stereotypes. Vera scoffs at the overdone artificial and desperate behavior of her friend and employer, actress Gloria Mitchell, as well as at the pretensions of her fairer-skinned roommate, currently "passing" as Brazilian, and declares her own intention not to be held back by societal prejudices and stereotypes, to make a name for herself as a person and an actress. The role for which she is currently lobbying, while still a servant role, is much larger and more emotionally pivotal than are usually written at that time (and for some time to come).

The dramatic irony comes in two shapes: first, when she overhears the director saying he wants "real Negroes" for the roles, real people who have suffered, she finds herself, without even blinking, slipping into stereotypical vernacular and mannerisms in order to win the role - creating her own minstrel show on the spot; second, in Act Two, which takes place both forty and seventy years later, we learn that while this non-stereotypical role did indeed make her a star, most of the rest of her career in Hollywood consisted of Hayes Code-era roles - all stereotypes and servants - as her personal life suffered from two troubled marriages and substance abuse.

Now we come to the Shell Game. In Act One we think we know where we all, following the intrepid Vera Stark to certain stardom. But when Act Two begins, seventy years down the line with academics dissecting her career and personal life, a new lens refocuses the story, as we hear them misconstrue (and occasionally correctly construe) her motivations and actions at that time and through the rest of her life. She is forced from the role of a character into a symbol for their use - a process just as dehumanizing as any stereotyped roles she played. No longer allowed to be a real person with a messy life, Vera's every minor choice or mistake becomes part of the agenda'd narrative the modern-day characters attempt to construct.

The truly juicy bits come when we see the modern-day characters get it wrong, because we of course are in the know - we get the true story - but we're struck by the tragedy that this means her true story never does get told, that her true legacy doesn't last.

Lynn Nottage is not the first playwright to tackle this phenomenon - Tom Stoppard's Arcadia and Richard Greenberg's The Violet Hour also explore the misinterpretation, many years down the line, of previous events, while allowing the audience in on the real story, as we watch both unfold simultaneously.  The characters in all three of these plays are indeed remembered beyond their deaths, but rarely how they would wish to be remembered - their lives are turned into stories, with assigned motives, and only sometimes is their true character understood.

Raisel is lucky - her granddaughter is a careful listener, assuring her Bubbe before she passes that she knows all the stories, all the routines, and the names of everyone who mattered.  Raisel will live on, not in the posterity of a history book, but in the legacy she leaves to young Jenny.

Something in song or in story
Something in blood, something of glory
Something that won't fade away in a year
-all lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, The Glorious Ones, "I Was Here"

Final play-going verdict: By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is absolutely worth catching, thought-provoking and full of top-notch performances (and I promised I didn't give away all the secrets). The People in the Picture has an incredibly weak first act, faulty in structure, in compellingness, in general viscera.  But its second act is worth it if you stay past intermission - moving (yeah, even the middle-aged straight man next to me was sniffling pretty actively by the end) and interesting, and that's where the good songs in the show are hiding.

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