The American Voice: Connections
In the 1820s, the “limelight effect” was first discovered by the British inventor Sir Goldsworthy Gurney as an aid to advanced cartography, required when cannon technology became more sophisticated, and this later led to the introduction of incandescent light. In the 1860s, an American inventor in search of a more inexpensive way to manufacture billiard balls stumbled upon the creation of celluloid. In 1879—(and I promise I’m going somewhere with this)—a bet about whether horses’ hooves all left the ground at any point while galloping led to the creation of the zoopraxiscope, a machine which projected images from rotating glass disks in rapid succession. And right around the same time, Thomas Edison discovered how to record sound onto a cylinder and play it back on a phonograph. Shining incandescent light through celluloid that’s synchronized with sound and forwarded through a projector results, of course, in movies: which, many years later, inspired Annie Baker to write the play you may have seen recently at Playwrights Horizons. So in a sense, an experience you just had—two hours of your life, not including train time—is connected, however unexpectedly, to the lives of Edison, a certain galloping horse, and Sir Goldsworthy Gurney and the 19th century battlefields of Britain.
Okay, admittedly, a labored example, but my point: we live in an increasingly globalized civilization, evermore aware of the connections between our lives and the lives of our co-inhabitants on the planet, not only across political and geographic borders but also across time. One can hardly consider any aspect of the modern world in isolation. Watching the morning news, logging onto Facebook, strolling through supermarket aisles, we see everyday proof that the world is increasingly interlinked, a web of enmeshed connections, events and handshakes. And as a result, not to sound too much like Yoko Ono or somebody, our cultural views are evolving to become less myopic, the experience of our lives becoming more tied to the experiences of people we’ve never met.
Tanya Barfield’s play Blue Door (2006) is set over the course of a long, sleepless night for Lewis, a brilliant and seemingly well-adjusted math professor, just after his wife of twenty-five years has walked out on him. She accused him of cutting himself off from his personal and cultural history, of narrowing his worldview in order to assimilate. This sets off the centuries-wide chain of events that explodes open in him in the throes of his insomnia, as his bedroom is invaded by the ghosts of history, four generations of ancestors whose life experiences have all added up to create the person he is today. Time spins around Lewis, leaving him with no choice but to take in the wholeness of his history. “And he wants to reach a higher plane,” Barfield said in an interview with Playwrights Horizons when we produced Blue Door in 2006. “Perfect symmetry of the world—the master design which is mathematical.”
Armed with a fine-tuned sense of dry comedy and a great ear for speech rhythms, Tanya’s plays are as quick-tongued and incisive as she herself is. Her plays are beautiful, emotionally articulate and sensitive, but precise and unfussy; never letting us linger for too long on her stunning twists of phrase before whisking us off to her characters’ next thoughts. And like Blue Door, her plays are driven by characters whose worldview is pushing at its edges, whose bedroom walls are, like Lewis’s, about to become more permeable. “I write about people in a state of emotional crisis; people on the edge of discovery,” she told Philadelphia’s Arden Theater. Looking at her more recent works, the discovery seems to hinge on a dawning awareness of consequence, a character’s very personal realization that her or his actions are part of a larger pattern, a chain of consequences that re-contextualizes her or his life within a wider frame. “I want to rise above the drudgery of existence and apprehend the eternal verities,” Lewis says in the midst of his fever dream. It’s only through engagement that his questions of identity and purpose approach an answer.
Ambitious and more overtly political, her play Of Equal Measure (2008) takes as its subject the hypocrisies of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, examining the nature of political compromise in an America that’s careening toward the First World War. The play centers on Jade Kingston, a (fictional) African-American secretary to Wilson, whose administration imposed segregation on the White House using the term “reorganization” before ultimately demoting or firing a long list of African-American government employees. It’s Jade’s responsibility to maintain this list of names for Wilson’s racist cabinet, a task that puts her personal career ambitions in conflict with the oppression of her community. And just as Wilson can no longer uphold American neutrality in light of the escalating war overseas, Jade comes to a crashing realization that her work has consequences far beyond her own reach. “The White House used my list to segregate the federal government,” she says in the final moments of the play. “I was blind—no, refused to see. This list dictated which honest, hard-working Negro employees would lose their jobs—a gaping hole (she touches her chest)—I need to tell this story.”
In The Call, Peter’s and Annie’s rocky journey toward adopting a child draws a connection between their privileged, urban American lives and the life of a stranger in a country they haven’t been to. It’s a terrifying, overwhelming prospect as their heretofore comfortable life is drawn onto a new map. The brilliant historian-philosopher and TV personality James E. Burke says that “the key to why things change is the key to everything.” We’re given remarkably intimate access to the process of change in Annie and Peter, just as we were with Lewis in Blue Door and Jade in Of Equal Measure. This process where what’s personal becomes political, where we understand how our lives are connected, is Tanya’s subject in these recent plays—and it’s her unique skill as a writer to give us this fleeting glimpse of how historical patterns take shape inside her characters’ hearts.
Director of New Play Development