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How Hir made an old theatrical form seem relevant to me and an ever-more diverse America
I usually hate living-room plays. Actually, that's too strong a word --- I am indifferent to the genre. When it comes to dramas, I prefer Elevator Repair Service to Eugene O'Neill. Weird and nonlinear gets my heart and mind racing. That's why I was so shocked last month when I saw not one, not two, but three living-room plays that I loved the hell out of: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Appropriate at LA's Mark Taper Forum, Mac Rogers' Advance Man (part one of his Honeycomb Trilogy of alien invasion tales), and Taylor Mac's Hir at Playwrights Horizons.
My distaste for living-room plays stems from the fact that, until recently, they were usually about white, upper-middle-class families with privileged problems like hefty mortgage and college payments, ungrateful children, and general ennui. As a woman who grew up in a lower-class immigrant family in a culturally diverse community, I don't relate to those kinds of stories. Most of the time, instead of empathizing with their woes, I find myself tuning out and just admiring how big the family's house is onstage. (The exception is Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, which destroys me every time I see/read it and with good reason: It's about the working class.)
Although Appropriate, Advance Man, and Hir are technically living-room plays, they all expand the form by extending their tendrils beyond the archetypal dysfunctional family to richer societal subjects. In Appropriate, a white liberal family discovers that their deceased father may have been a KKK member, and arguments about self-identity, legacy, and white guilt ensue. In Advance Man, a family struggles with familiar domestic issues against the backdrop of an amazing metaphor: a space alien invasion. And in Hir --- the show that made the biggest impact on me --- the living room is completely and literally trashed. Former dutiful wife and mother Paige rejects her role as matriarch (and all urges to cook and clean) and her child comes out as transgender, leaving the ailing father and PTSD-suffering son, Isaac, reeling in the rubble of the fallen patriarchy. (Did I mention there's a shadow puppetry sequence? That automatically elevates Hir to theatrical legend as far as I'm concerned.)
Hir also grabbed me because of the conversations. I grew up in a household where the work was very much divided along gender lines: My mom handled the domestic duties while my dad took care of the car and anything else that required heavy lifting. I was taught that there were duties that all good women needed to know how to perform, namely cooking, cleaning, and staying quiet, and that my life would only have real meaning once I was married and had children. Even today in more progressive, gender-equitable families, women still do the majority of the housework. Paige in Hir explodes that hierarchy, transforming herself and, by extension, her home into a glorious jumble. I found it refreshing and freeing to see a mother in a living-room play who wasn't nagging or furiously cleaning up the mess, and instead was forging an identity beyond her family. Popular culture is filled with representations of the dutiful, loyal, and self-sacrificing female. Hir shows a rare woman behaving "badly" (by society's standards) but not giving a crap. Instead, she is growing, finding her voice, and making everyone in that living room listen to her. (Hir also made me feel less guilty for all the times I choose not to clean my apartment. Being given permission to be imperfect is a powerful thing!)
The plays written by Jacobs-Jenkins, Rogers, and Mac echo the discourse currently taking place across our country. What we thought we knew about gender, race, and art is in a state of flux. See the protests over institutional racism at Yale and the University of Missouri, the uproar over the gender wage gap in Hollywood, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the national dialog Caitlyn Jenner kicked into overdrive. America is currently transitioning. The status quo is being dismantled on all fronts, and these playwrights have their pens on the pulse of those debates, pushing the boundaries of what's addressed onstage. By exploring these big, contemporary quandaries in the most traditional theatrical space of all, the living room, these shows dissect these issues on a micro level. They're not preachy message plays or political dramas; they're complex, emotionally charged dialogs.
In Hir, it's a dialog between the old world order and the new, with punches and blows on both sides. Even if you believe the patriarchy is a damaging institution, what exactly constitutes the patriarchy? Does it even still exist, and if so, how does it manifest on a day-to-day basis? (Ex: when male creatives outnumber women on Broadway and Off, is it blatant sexism or just the way the cookie crumbles?) When you take those questions and apply them to an American family, you show the effects of binary gender norms on regular individuals, which inspires new queries like: What becomes of the father when he's no longer the head of household? What happens to the mother when she's finally given power? How does a brother react when he comes home to find that his sister is no longer a woman? To quote directly from Hir:
Paige: Max is no longer a she or he. So you call Max ze. You must use ze instead of the pronouns he or she and you must use the pronoun hir, in place of the pronouns her or him…. Any breach in decorum will cause hir to write in hir blog about how awful hir troglodyte fascist, heteronormative mother is. It's fantastic.
Isaac: I'm confused.
Isaac could be speaking for the entire audience. Hir doesn't shy away from showing the messiness and confusion of change. At the end of the play, the characters are more wrecked and raw than when they started. And that's fitting because, as the students protesting at Yale and Mizzou can attest, change is not easy, and it is not clean. None of us live in a bubble. We and our families are all directly affected by socialization. As we evolve, our language and our art, especially theatre, need to grow, too. Eye-opening conversations may continue to take place in the same old living room, but the words, concerns, and characters will never be the same.
Top image: Kristine Nielsen and Cameron Scoggins in Hir by Joan Marcus; Appropriate photo by Craig Schwartz