Ideas America won't entertain: Why a London theatre season on Afghanistan couldn't happen in the US
Monday 13 April 2009
During rehearsals for my new play Blood and Gifts, for the Tricycle Theatre's The Great Game: Afghanistan I've been irritated by a question I didn't have the answer to. Back home in New York City, when a colleague asks me what I'm working on, I tell them I'm contributing to a 12-play cycle of works set against seminal events in Afghan history. I tell them the cycle will be performed by a cast of 20 and run in rep over three nights, augmented by a film festival and lecture series. And they look at me slack-jawed. Then every single one of them asks some variation of the question that's been vexing me: "Why can't we do something like that here?" They ask because they know as well as I that presenting work like this in New York is a pipedream. But why is this the case? With all of our theatrical talent and ambition, why is it, as one playwright put it to me, "My man, it'll be a cold day in hell before we get to mount something like that."
Like any New York playwright, my first knee-jerk response was to blame The New York Times. Its theatre critics are by and large phobic of anything political, so this must be the reason a festival like this is a non-starter in New York. Except that there are more than a few London critics with the same mindset, and here I am rehearsing away. Then I decided it's because of our all-consuming obsession with pop culture. But the amount of ink being spilled in the London newspapers lately about Michael Jackson's comeback would make our tabloids blush. So then what is it? The other day, I found my answer.
Alone in the Tricycle's lobby, I picked up the company's brochure for our project. I flipped it open and read this: The aim of this festival is to explore Afghan culture and history. The text went on to state that since both the US and UK seem poised to be intimately involved with this country in the coming decade, the Tricycle hoped that, through debate and discussion lessons from the past can be used to better inform action for the future.
Never in a million years would you read something like that in a New York theatre advertisement. Such text would be the kiss of death for ticket sales because it would immediately arouse suspicion, even hostility, in most theatergoers. Why? Because where I live theatre is for entertainment only. The idea that you would go to a show to both be entertained and learn something is anathema. This, I realise, is our true stumbling block. This collective chip on our shoulder that says to those who want to concomitantly entertain and educate: Who are you to try and teach me anything? Who are you to think you know more than me? I realise that this resistance comes from a core American trait. We are a "doing" culture. It's ingrained in us that once you finish school, you should go out in the world to make your way. From then on life is about doing; you are done with learning. And this mindset manifests itself nowhere as strongly as in my town. We're New Yorkers: we know all we need to know; don't presume to tell us otherwise!
But I can't help but presume. I've got an answer I can start working on the problem. Because I'm determined to stage this kind of relevant, timely work about our world that galvanises me as a playwright – both in London and back home. Certainly, I can't put words like "debate and discussion" and "lessons from the past" in a New York theatre program. But I may yet slip in under the radar, and 'm still working on how to crack this nut. But one thing's for sure: if I bring Blood and Gifts to a stage in New York. I just need to line up my pick for the starring role: it's going to star Michael Jackson.
J. T. Rogers' 'The Overwhelming' debuted at the National Theatre and toured the UK with Out of Joint. 'The Great Game': Afghanistan begins performances at the Tricycle Theatre on 17 April
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