Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Art of Losing, A Play: Excerpt

Writer's Note: This is an excerpt from The Art of Losing, a two-act play focusing on a family of brothers and their female cousin and several friends, including two “interracial” couples. During the play these relationships are both celebrated and challenged—and challenged not only by the demands of the individual personalities and philosophies involved but also by a terrible act of police violence and an urban bombing with an international source. (The play was partly inspired by the Amadou Diallo killing and the World Trade Center attack, but it is a fictional drama.) Who are we and how do we face unexpected experiences? Do we learn and can we change? Is there an art to losing?

The Art of Losing: Cast of Characters

Patrick – professor of literature; African-American, late 30s

Margaret – Patrick’s friend and cousin, smart, pretty, strong, an assistant editor; African-American, late 30s

Adam – brilliant graduate student, agile charming; of Euro-American descent, late 20s

Raimi – Patrick’s brother, a street vendor of art, fragrances, cloth; West African, late 20s

Risku – Patrick’s brother, a businessman; West African, late 30s

Anthony and Sarah– professors; an interracial couple, black male, white female, late 30s

Maxwell and Patricia – business executives, friends of Anthony and Sarah; an interracial couple, white male, black female, mid-30s

Robert – blonde boy, about 3

Michelle – pretty brown girl, about 4

Leonard Thurman – famous writer; African-American, late 30s

Act 2, Scene 4

(A few hours later. Patrick’s apartment. Patrick, Margaret, Risku, Anthony, Sarah, Robert, Maxwell, and Patricia are there. Robert is asleep in another room.)

Margaret – Oh Sarah, those kinds of African violets only need to be infrequently watered, and then only from the bottom. If water touches the leaves it damages them.

Sarah – I didn’t know that. They didn’t say that at the plant store and of course I threw away that little card the plant came with soon after unwrapping it.

Margaret – They make nice blooms. (quietly) Raimi had given me a couple.

Sarah – I never saw it bloom. I’ll have to get another one now that I know.

Maxwell – Should we turn on the television again to hear more of the news, to see if there have been any other developments?

Patricia – I feel bad about all those people. It’s a tragedy.

(Background music: Abbey Lincoln’s “The World is Falling Down”)

Patrick – We just had the television on thirty minutes ago. Most of what we’ve seen was a repeat of what we’ve been seeing all day. (Dryly) Planes crashing into buildings, smoke, running, screams, emotion.

Margaret – The buildings falling so quickly was unusual. Maybe the engineering was bad, or there was a lot of fuel dispersed and the heat melted the beams.

Sarah – I think tomorrow we’ll call and see what we can do. Donate blood or something.

Patrick – (After watching Patricia then looking at Sarah) You heard what they said about the chemicals that might be in the air. I wouldn’t go anywhere near it.

Maxwell – It is good to do something.

Patricia – The few people I talked to who had someone in those buildings sounded totally wrecked and the ones who aren’t sure where their loved ones are…

Anthony – (getting off the phone) The dean wants to know if someone can put up Leonard Thurman for a couple of days. He was staying in a hotel near the twin towers and he can’t get anywhere near there now. Could you put him up?

Patrick – I’m not in the mood to entertain visiting literary royalty.

Anthony – He’s not like that. He’s really easy to deal with.

Patrick – Let him stay with you.

Anthony – He’d have to sleep on the sofa, and we’ve got a child.

Patrick – Oh, okay, if you can’t find anyone else, he can stay here.

Anthony – Great.

Patrick – If you can’t find anyone else. (smiles) Why don’t you make one or two more phone calls just to see if you can?

Anthony - The dean called most of the people in our department. Most either don’t have the space or don’t want to expose their private lives. (They laugh)

Patrick – Okay, he can stay. Is he going to come over tonight?

Anthony – As soon as I call his cell phone, he’ll probably be on his way.

Patrick – (to Margaret) We’ll have company.

Margaret – It’s fine with me—someone new might distract us.

Patrick – Literary people are never new in that way. They always remind me of someone else, of someone long dead.

Sarah – Patrick!

Patrick – I just mean that they’re like the reincarnation of some great writer, usually someone who influenced them a lot. Or else, they remind one of their own work—you think you’ve heard something before and then you recall an opinion piece they wrote six months ago or a book they got a lot of attention for that you merely read a concise review of. (quietly) Anyway, he can stay in Raimi’s room.

Sarah – I’ll wake Robert and straighten the bed. What time is it? (She sees a clock.)

Margaret – Benjamin Banneker made the first clock in the United States in the mid-eighteenth century. A mathematician and an African-American, he also helped design the nation’s capital, the architecture.

Patrick – He published a weather almanac too.

Anthony – I’ll call the dean, then Thurman. We can stay until he gets here.

Patrick – Yes, do that.

Patricia – You still call it Raimi’s room?

Patrick – I do, as that’s what it is. (pause) It’s kind of disgusting for me to hear you be upset about some dead white businessmen you don’t know when you weren’t as upset about the murder of my brother, whom you did know.

Patricia – I told you. They were the husbands and wives of some of the people I do business with.

Patrick – But they weren’t related to you, and you didn’t know them.

Patricia – So.

Patrick – Why are you so emotionally involved with this?

Patricia – This is a world-historical event.

Patrick – (laughs) Anything that happens to Americans are thought by Americans to be world-historical. The rest of the world experiences terrorism periodically. Bombs go off in London and Rome and Paris every year. People die for political reasons in Africa, India, and South America all the time. There’s nothing world-historical about this. This is an American event and it’s recent, that’s all.

Patricia – I’m sorry that I didn’t mourn your brother the way you thought I should.

Patrick – Did you mourn him at all?

Patrick – I didn’t know him well.

Patrick – You knew him well enough to know he should not have been killed.

Risku – Patrick, both Raimi and all those people who died in those buildings should be mourned.

Margaret – I agree.

Risku – Death is a terrible thing.

Patrick – (quietly but angrily) What I want to get at is why Patricia didn’t mourn Raimi, and I think she didn’t because she didn’t value him—he was a black man and she didn’t expect much from him.

Patricia – But I’m a black woman.

Patrick – Married to a white man.

Patricia – What does that have to do with anything?

Anthony – I don’t think that’s relevant.

Patrick – It is possible for people to take on the values of the larger society, to see only certain lives as important.

Sarah – I don’t think that Patrick thinks being married to someone who doesn’t look like you means that you’re more inclined to make errors in judgment.

Anthony – Of course not.

Patrick – (laughs) Why don’t you let me say what I mean? I mean exactly what I said. Patricia has the values of the larger society—they are white bourgeois heterosexual values, utterly conventional and predictable.

Patricia – (stunned) I am old-fashioned in some ways, and I do believe in ordinary decency and I wouldn’t intentionally insult a visitor to my home and I know that for you to describe me as you have, short of calling me stupid, is probably the most damning thing you could say. It may be, in fact, just another way of calling me stupid.

Maxwell – Let’s not all react.

Patrick – (laughs) Why not?

Maxwell – We’re friends and we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

Patrick – Max, we’re beyond that. Feelings have been hurt and on both sides.

Maxwell – That’s not funny.

Patrick – What’s funny is this unwillingness to hear the truth, to explore what’s true. You want to cover it up before we’ve even gotten a good look at it. (He puts on Ice-T’s “Straight Up Nigga”)

Anthony – Not everyone who worked in those towers were executives. There were people at all professional levels, people from different countries, with different skin colors.

Patrick – Those other people are not the ones Patricia is thinking about—and I’m interested in why. I think that this country still manages to get us to idealize Americans of European descent, white men. We see them as having greater complexity, greater possibilities, greater worth than others.

Patricia – Do you think we should still be angry at white men for what happened years ago?

Patrick – I’m not talking about being angry about the hundreds of years of slavery, social ostracism and prejudice that African-Americans have been subjected to. I’m talking about seeing Africans and African-Americans as fully human, as having as much potential value as anyone.

Maxwell – Potential value and actual value are not the same.

Patrick – Especially if you don’t believe in potential value. Raimi had both potential value and actual value.

Anthony – It would be easier to talk about this if it weren’t so personal.

Patrick – This kind of conversation is always personal for someone—for someone present or absent, whether we know it or not. What’s abstract about talking about how we see people? I don’t think Patricia is guilty of anything most of us haven’t thought at one time or another.

Patricia – That’s a small justice, though I may not be as guilty as you think. I’ll admit that the spouses of colleagues have concerned me and I’ve expressed that concern in a way that may be more vivid than what I showed for—Raimi. I didn’t like running through the streets not knowing what was happening. I feel as if I could have been in one of those towers. I feel that what disturbs my colleagues will affect me and what I do. I’ve also been trained to demonstrate—to dramatize—concern for colleagues whether or not I care. That’s the business world. I wanted you to feel I supported you after Raimi died but I also thought if I made a big deal over his death it would just make you feel worse, that the awfulness of it would have just been confirmed. It seemed better to be a strong person rather than a mournful person, a person of resource rather than a weakened person.

Patrick – I see.

Maxwell – It wasn’t some kind of depraved indifference to your brother’s life or death.

Patrick – No.

Margaret – (mildly) I still don’t know what Patricia actually does. I never seem to understand what people with high-level administrative jobs in large corporations actually do.

Maxwell – We’ve explained it—more than once.

Margaret – (smiles) I still don’t get it.

Patricia – (softly) I didn’t think of Raimi as anything more than your half-brother who was a street vendor and an obscure musician. I did not see more than that in him. You were right about that.

Patrick – What might we have done to change that? What can we do in the future—so that we really see?

Anthony – You’re asking a lot of human perception, of the world.

Sarah – Even when most of this society begins to see African-Americans differently, there’s still likely to be prejudice still regarding one group or another.

Patrick – What do we do until then? And after? (pause) Why is it that when I see interracial couples on the street they ignore me?

(Margaret laughs)

Patricia – We’re so used to being stared at that we just try to focus on each other and on safe things, buildings and stuff that won’t object to our being together.

Patrick – Why do spouses in interracial couples seem to go out of their way to adopt what they think of as the culture of the other and end up with peculiar tastes, like Patricia’s love of country music and Maxwell’s taste for only traditional African music and disregard for modern African music?

Maxwell – It’s very subjective to call something peculiar. Certainly you like all kinds of things.

Patrick – Yes.

Maxwell – Traditional African music seems very…pure.

Patrick – Modern Africans are the same inheritors of history and technology and diverse cultural influences as the rest of us and that’s what comes up in their music. To be preoccupied with only the traditional seems like an exoticism, a denial of the complexity of modern Africans.

Maxwell – It’s what I like.

Patrick – Okay, but taste is something that we develop, isn’t it? It has origins, and we can subject our taste to questions, to criticism, to standards, even though we can like whatever we choose.

Maxwell – We are changed by the people we love. They open us. I’ve been changed by you Patrick, and I hope you’ve gotten something from me.

Patrick – Anthony, did you play golf before meeting Sarah?

Anthony – Two words. Tiger Woods.

Patricia – I love Maxwell and we understand and misunderstand each other and have good times and argue and negotiate—it’s love.

Patrick – (wistfully) Did you know right away that it was love, when you met?

Patricia – We enjoyed each other.

Maxwell -- I asked myself whether I wanted to live with her or without her, which would be the better life.

Anthony –What are you doing Patrick, reducing us to specimens?

Patricia – He’s judging us.

Patrick – I’m trying to understand something.

Sarah – Some things cannot be asked of one’s friends. There has to be trust.

Patrick – None of my questions are as bad as the insane interviews and comments directed at me. I’ve been asked by someone who worked in a library whether there are any black writers. Someone else asked me if I ever cut my hair. The things people let slip. And in job interviews, it’s worse—the interviewers think every line on the resume is a lie or a miracle. (pause) I’m trying to understand something.

Anthony – What?

Patrick – What makes us who we are, why we stay that way.

(End of scene)

(c) DG, 2002