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Speak, Fictional Memory! Zakiyyah Alexander Digs Through the Past in "10 Things To Do Before I Die"
By Isaac Butler

The past looms large in Zakiyyah Alexander’s 10 Things To Do Before I Die. In the play, directed by Jackson Gay for Second Stage Uptown, two estranged sisters pick over their past and ten boxes of their dead father’s belongings while trying to make sense of their lives. The older sister, Vida, is a high school teacher unable to quite cope with her students, her panic attacks and the married man she’s dating.  Meanwhile Nina, whose highly-autobiographical and successful first novel is the source of their estrangement, struggles with writer’s block, self-medicating and a relationship she’s not sure she wants. 

It is the past’s power over us that is ultimately the subject of the play.  “I always knew that the play would somehow revolve around going through boxes of stuff and reconnecting to your past.  And, I also knew it would be about sisters,” Alexander wrote in an e-mail interview recently, “everything else was a surprise.” Each of the play’s characters face turning points provoked and shaped by the lives that came before.  Vida’s favorite student, a sensitive budding writer named Jose explains his abusive father with discussions of his own father’s childhood.  Vida and Nina are not only held back by each other’s past actions, but by their own struggle to understand their parental abandonment from an early age.  Nina’s live-in boyfriend Jason struggles between his looser past-self and the well compensated corporate manager he could be.

Interspersed with all of this is a recurring discussion of the problematic nature of autobiography. Alexander’s interest in autobiography sprang from her “reflection on family, and what it means to look back on the past from different eyes.” While Nina says that her goal in writing an autobiographical novel- titled The Men Who Fucked Nina- was simply to understand and reconcile herself to her own past, Vida is so incensed by the passages about her that she can quote them verbatim.  Over its two acts, the play marries a quintuple-coming-of-age story with a meditation on our responsibilities when looking to and reconciling with our lives.

10 Things To Do Before I Die threads a fairly singular needle.  The play is about autobiography and the past without being about the playwright’s autobiography and past. Contemporary audiences are used to seeing artists root through their closets for skeletons.  Many theatre artists make entire careers out of their lives.  Currently running at St. Ann’s is Cynthia Hopkins’ The Success of Failure (Or The Failure of Success) the third part in an autobiographical trilogy of work.  Monologist Mike Daisey interweaves his own life story with the subjects of his pieces. This strain of American Drama may have reached its peak with Lisa Kron’s Well, which not only starred Kron but had the actress Jayne Houdyshell appear with her on stage and play her mother, offering factual corrections and interjections about Kron’s work.

Then of course there is Eugene O’Neill.  If there was a hall-of-fame for autobiographical work, he would probably be the first inductee. After putting stand-ins for his parents in several plays (including Moon for the Misbegotten and Mourning Becomes Electra) he finally managed to create Long Days Journey Into Night, about which the only fictional element seems to be that he changed his own name in the play. He was so horrified by his own creation that he demanded it be sequestered until twenty-five years after his death, a demand his own widow disobeyed.

The play weaves together many themes beyond all of this. The relationships between men and women, teachers and students, art and people, childhood and adulthood and dreams and reality all get a good workout over the play’s two acts.  It also jumps between naturalism and lyrical diversions and dream sequences.  According to Alexander, “darker feelings always feel a little surreal to me… By popping from what may at times feel naturalistic to a more language rich text there is hopefully room to experience the shift the characters are going through.”   

10 Things To Do Before I Die marks Alexander’s first major production in New York, an experience she has found “equally fun and stressful.”  The play runs through June 14th as part of Second Stage Uptown’s summer season.  After that, another writer, Lila Rose Kaplan, will have her New York debut with Wildflower, a play about a mother and son fleeing their past to Crested Butte, Colorado. 

Read more about 10 Things To Do Before I Die
Author: Isaac Butler
Isaac Butler is a director and producer. He also writes about theatre, politics & cultural issues for his website: http://parabasis.typepad.com