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Essay

The American Voice: Permanent Revolution

By Sarah Lunnie, Literary Director

“You know, I always wondered how they were going to rebel… We were so open-minded. About sex. About drugs. I couldn’t imagine how our kids would really – stick it to us. And then of course they find the perfect way.”

This wry lament from Marvin in Magic Forest Farm (2009) — an early play by the incisive Zayd Dohrn — has broad resonance; what parent of a teenager hasn’t, at some point, thrown up his hands in bemused appreciation of the pointed, almost poetic irony with which some stubborn expression of independence on the part of his progeny visits upon him ghosts from his own past? Like many of Zayd’s plays, Magic Forest Farm chronicles a story of rupture and return. Eleanor and Marvin Behrman-Cohen live with their teenaged children in La Jolla, that sunlit, carpeted suburb of San Diego. But 10 years and a lifetime ago, these now comfortably middle-class ex-hippies lived with the kids on a commune in Northern California. Having abandoned that life in favor of a more stable environment in which to raise their growing children, neither one is prepared when 16-year-old Allegra, hungry to understand herself by reconnecting with her origins, declares her intention of returning to the very place, and way of life, they left behind for her sake.

The characters who populate his plays are less often clear-eyed men and women of conscience, but instead, compellingly, flawed and fallible.

While the context is different, the same kind of intergenerational conflict — in which child turns back to examine that which parent set aside — reverberates powerfully in The Profane. Raif Almedin, the first-generation immigrant novelist and staunch secularist at the heart of Zayd’s penetrating new play, shed the religious belief of his parents and their forebears long ago. So when his independent-minded daughter Emina, raised in a secular, intellectual home in the liberal fortress of Manhattan, returns from Syracuse having committed to a newfound religious observance — and with boyfriend Sam, the son of devout Muslims, in tow — Raif can’t bring himself to conceal his disapproval. In hushed tones, with her beloved in the other room, Emina accuses her father not only of prejudice, but also, disarmingly, of blind hypocrisy:

EMINA
And Sam’s family, no matter what you think, they’re just as American / as we are... 
RAIF
They hold themselves apart! In their little enclave. They keep to their tribe— 
EMINA Whereas we mix? 
RAIF
I mix. I go all over. I give readings. I attend conferences... 
EMINA And those people aren’t your tribe? 
RAIF
“Those people” are artists and academics and intellectuals / from all over the world! 
EMINA
And are any of them poor? Uneducated? Do any of them not read The New Yorker, Pa? That’s your tribe!  

This early scene embodies the crackling rigor with which Zayd, throughout his body of work, charts his characters’ conflicts. In its evenly matched volley of argument, the play refuses to cede authority to either character, or to resolve tidily their contradicting points of view.  

It strikes me — having spent the last few weeks reading, or re-reading, most of Zayd’s anthology — how much the dynamics and dramatic questions that drive The Profane elaborate on concerns that run through his work. Like his play Outside People (2012), in which an American expat in Beijing who falls in love with a Chinese woman must confront the subtle cultural, political, and economic forces that inform their relationship, The Profane reflects Zayd’s international perspective, his cosmopolitan sensibility, and his keen sensitivity to the often unspoken dynamics that can unite or divide people from different worlds. It is also, like others of his plays, a story about the sometimes maddening difficulty of being a parent. And one can’t help but notice that the recurring narrative of rupture from the past, of children grappling with their parents’ ideological legacies, is also, in a way, Zayd’s own story. The son of Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, Zayd lived in hiding under an assumed name in Morningside Heights with his fugitive parents until he was almost four years old, when they turned themselves in. While it would be reductive to presume direct connections between his parents’ controversial political action and his playwriting, it seems clear that Zayd’s lens on the world is wide, politically attuned, and almost genetically interrogative.

Direct lines between Zayd’s revolutionary heritage and his work are perhaps clearest in one of his earliest plays, Haymarket (2001), which chronicles the aftermath of the 1886 Haymarket bombing. When a dynamite bomb hurled at police by an unknown person turns a peaceful workers’ rally violent, its anarchist organizers are forced into hiding amidst a climate of popular fear and anxiety. The play’s hero, a leftist newspaper editor, is hanged after turning himself in to face trial, a willing martyr for the cause.  

But this early play — in which a principled man overcomes his fears and personal hopes to sacrifice his life in the name of larger ideals — is in many ways atypical in the context of Zayd’s larger body of work. While politics — explicitly or obliquely — express themselves throughout his anthology, the characters who populate his plays are less often clear-eyed men and women of conscience, but instead, compellingly, flawed and fallible. Preternaturally attuned to the vagaries and variability of human character, Zayd trains his gaze closely on the weaknesses and inconsistencies that place his characters’ actions at odds with their proclaimed values or aims. Many of his plays express an interest in the danger of fundamentalism in all its forms, not all of them explicitly religious or political. In Sick (2009), a mother’s desire to protect her children pushes her to such extremes as to effectively shutter them from any meaningful experience of the world. In Muckrakers (2013), a young activist blogger’s commitment to radical transparency without regard to other ethical consideration proves destructive. In Want (2011), the charismatic leader of a makeshift self-help cult fails to live up to the standards of chastity and radical honesty he promotes (and to which he’s been holding his followers), exploding the foundation of their shared life when his hypocrisy comes to light. Throughout, Zayd’s acute dialogue is undergirded by an almost anthropological interest in observing communal life: the rituals and commitments, spoken or unspoken, that order its progress; the ways in which members of a group struggle to adhere to its norms; and what happens when they fail. 

He is, it seems, a professional skeptic, in that he mistrusts anything that appears to be simple, and anyone who purports to know the truth. Grace, where it appears in his plays, reveals itself only in flashes, and on a human scale — but, in small gestures of kindness between flawed people, it does reveal itself. In this way, one senses that, despite his contrarian insistence on interrogating his characters’ motives and inconsistencies, Zayd is not a cynic. It seems instead that, in resisting the comforting but suspect pleasure of congratulating any of his characters too vigorously, and persisting in his project of observing the distance between what a person professes and how she behaves, he has found a way, in a broken world full of imperfect people, to affirm his belief in human potential — which, it seems to me, might itself be a kind of idealism.  

In an epilogue to Haymarket, the play’s martyred hero quotes the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin: “He is no true revolutionist who clings to anything at all. He dare not shrink where the cause is at stake or refuse to break any tie which binds him to the old world.” Zayd himself told The New York Times in 2009 that “a lot of what I think and write about deals with constraints and looking for a way out, especially in family situations, when the struggle to live free of constraints can take an emotional toll.” It strikes me — though I don’t know what Zayd would say about this — that one might characterize his body of work as a chronicle of attempted revolutions. Some are political in nature; others are more personal. In Sick, teenaged Sarah finally musters the will to leave the oppressive apartment that has become a kind of prison, but many of these attempted revolutions fail, and in those cases, their undoing is rooted in some all too recognizable human frailty: desire, ambition, fear, a surfeit of certainty. Still, Zayd’s characters want nothing less than a break with history — to change themselves, or to change the world. What could be more human?