My Standout Reads of 2021

First, a clarification: This is not a list of books published in 2021. It is just a list of 10 standout books that I completed during a personal banner year for pleasure reading. Belatedly taking up reading for fun again was already one of the best things I could have done for myself when the pandemic first began. I had been a voracious reader as a child but fell off the wagon when theatre and graduate school swept in to take up my time and mire me in books that could be enriching but were rarely enjoyable. With newfound time on my hands in 2020, I delved back into texts that offered me nothing but adventure and a chance to satisfy my curiosities. Last year, I kicked it up a notch, taking in 25 books (a drop in the bucket for true bookworms, I know) with nary a benefit to my dissertation, all drawn from a diverse array of authors and genres. There were sci-fi standouts of past and present (Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem), entries from American legends (Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays), fantasy series installments (two from Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher series), and others that are harder to pair up (where to put Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge and Wayetu Moore’s The Dragon, the Giants, the Women?). Virtually all of them had their merits, though some, like Michael Chabon’s Summerland, became more of a chore as they went on, and others, like Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, might be best used as reference books. All that said, the list below collects the ones that stuck with me the best for one reason or another. Here they are in the order in which I read them.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. While Adichie has become a figure of controversy recently, this sprawling novel remains a compelling examination of contemporary African (namely Nigerian) lives at home and abroad. Apart from being totally absorbed in Ifemelu and Obinze’s travails in the United States and United Kingdom, respectively, I found myself gaining (tentative) new understanding of subjects that still remain beyond my ken. The fact that much of the novel is recalled from the chair of an African beauty shop in New Jersey, for example, brings home just how much Ifemelu’s personal journey is, like many women in the African diaspora, bound up in her hair. It’s those kinds of narrative moves that bring in even readers far removed from that lived experience.

Machinehood by S.B. Divya. I have been recommending Divya’s speculative fiction (which I wrote about last year) to most anyone who will listen. Few books can weave together insights on artificial intelligence, a changing global landscape, religious extremism, and the rapidly evolving ways in which we work to such good effect. That it does so much with a diverse cast of characters and a solid dose of action makes it ripe for an HBO adaptation. I look forward to (or maybe dread) seeing how much of Divya’s future comes to pass.

Educated by Tara Westover. Of all the books I read this year, no other had me gasping, shaking my head, or blabbing to my girlfriend more. Westover’s book—which has been criticized and refuted by members of her family—is a page-turner of a memoir that paints a stark picture of life lived on the margins of society. That Westover was able to push through willful ignorance, pseudo-religious zealotry, mental illness, and familial abuse just to get a basic education is remarkable enough, never mind the fact she became a scholar in her own right.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. If my life depended on picking the best book I read this year, it would be hard to beat this one. Bennett’s multi-generational tale of two light-skinned Black sisters, one of whom crosses the color barrier to live as a White woman, is exquisitely written and so finely balanced. There is just enough ache in Desiree and Stella’s separation to hold the narrative strands together, just intrigue in Early’s work and Jude’s espionage to titillate the reader, just enough insight into the practical challenges of Reese’s life as a man, just enough time in between sections to show how much and how little has changed, just enough attention to Kennedy’s acting career to suggest it’s all appearances, just enough breadth in Bennett’s sentences to show her lyricism without make it seem like she’s showing off. The fact this book is being adapted for HBO with Issa Rae as an executive producer also turned me on (finally) to Insecure, so it was doubly good to me last year.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu. This book has a lot going on formally speaking. It shifts from narrative to script, it delves in and out of Hollywood tropes, and it’s written almost entirely in the second person. That last point, which I wrote more about last year, is important here because it addresses the reader in a way that either suits their experience or doesn’t. It’s a bold tactic to take in a book that is aiming very specifically at problematic racialized representation, and I think it works—not that you should take my word for it.

Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler. It would be easy to cheat and put Butler’s Parable of the Sower here alongside its sequel, but the truth is I found the latter book more compelling. Maybe it’s because Sower (which I wrote about alongside Divya’s Machinehood) hit me hard, and I knew what to expect of Talents. However, a lot of it definitely down to a device I tend to enjoy: multiple, conflicting perspectives. In Talents, Lauren Olamina’s quest to grow Earthseed is contrasted with the Christian devotion of her half-brother Marc and the wounded skepticism of her daughter Asha. Not only does that complicate the reader’s view of Lauren, it also illustrates the challenges any truly revolutionary movement faces.

The Beatles by Bob Spitz. Spitz’s massive biography is another one I have already written on—and, as I later learned, something of a controversial entry and doesn’t even crack Rolling Stone‘s list of best Beatles books. For all the (mostly minor) factual errors and disregard for John Lennon, I credit Spitz’s work for re-invigorating my love of The Beatles and introducing me to the often understudied early years when they were often less than Fab, not to mention the ruthlessness of the record industry and the genuine dangers of Beatlemania. That they emerged with any kind of sanity, never mind careers, is a testament to their unique powers. Next up: Getting back to Get Back on Disney+.

A Burning by Megha Majumdar. Like I said earlier, I love a book with multiple perspectives, and A Burning weaves together three to great effect in a story about ambition, injustice, and the dual edge of social media in modern India. Each of the three protagonists is compelling in their own way: Jivan for her self-belief in the face of a wrongful conviction of terrorism; Lovely, a hijra (member of a third gender recognized in Hinduism), for her longing for acceptance; and PT Sir for the way he sells his soul piece by piece in his ascent from schoolteacher to minister. The shifts in narrative and verb tense are disorienting at times, but that often enhances the heady rush of a story about three lives that seem to change in an instant.

Evicted by Matthew Desmond. My girlfriend recommended this book to me highly but warned me not to read it around the holidays; I could see why after the first chapter. Desmond’s ethnographic account of renters’ lives in Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the country, is full of heartache, frustration, and disappointment. It is also an incisive indictment of housing and social support systems that empower landlords to take advantage of their tenants and trap people in cycles of destitution and punishment. Each of the people Desmond tracks is richly and sympathetically drawn, and the circumstances that inhibit them are explained with refreshing clarity. We should all be so lucky to contribute research like this.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. My last book of the year, which unfolds through a series of journal entries written by a man seemingly trapped in a massive labyrinth, crept into this top ten on the strength of its premise and its theatrical potential. As in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Clarke weaves the magical and the mundane together nicely (with another helping of academic suspicion to boot), and the way the mystery, not to mention Piranesi’s sense of self, unravels is masterfully done. I think it would make a compelling theatrical adaptation, especially what with all the advances in digital technology. Put it down as a future project.

Reflecting on the Semester, and Two Musical Musings

Pictured: Not an accurate depiction of my desk.

Earlier this week, I wrapped my second round of Texts and Contexts in Western Theatre, a class that is, in many ways, my sweet spot. Historically, the course has asked a little too much: it’s part script analysis, part dramatic literature, and part dramaturgy, all three of which could easily take up a full semester on their own. There’s also the challenge of teaching some version of the canon while at the same time revising that canon for greater diversity. In short, it’s got a lot of the stuff that interests me, quirks included. I was excited to take another stab at it after learning so much during my first go-around. Back then, I spent a lot of time curating the reading list and adapting previous syllabi (big ups to Jonelle Walker, Jenna Gerdsen, and Allison Hedges) for an online environment. This time, I experimented with structures of grading and community expectations, partly by embracing flexibility and student involvement. The results were largely successful and, as always, very revealing. Here are a handful of (non-prescriptive, totally anecdotal) takeaways.

The Students Responded Well to Flexibility. Last summer, I briefly looked into contract grading, a system that rewards grades primarily according to the amount of work done rather than (potentially arbitrary) rubrics that judge the quality of the work. The systems I looked at never quite suited my needs, but I did adopt a few grading policies that gave students some flexibility and tailored my rubrics to place greater value on meeting each aspect of a prompt. Most assignments had a 24-hour grace period after the due date and a decaying grade that went down by 10% for each 24-hour period afterward until the assignment hit 50%. After that point, students could still turn in the work at any point during the semester. The idea was that they would always get some credit for doing the work, and anyone who was burdened with other life requirements would benefit from some built-in generosity. Amazingly, I can count on one hand the times students turned in work after the 24-hour grace period. Perhaps that’s not a surprise considering I had a small class and considering the student only had to turn in 10 out of 12 writing prompts, with the remaining two prompts counting as extra credit. It’s worth noting, though, that half the students did turn in prompts for extra credit. Again, a small sample size, but I take some encouragement from the fact that 1) students took advantage of the class’s flexibility but rarely to the extent that it harmed their grade and 2) students routinely did more than they were required to do.

Students Filled in the Gaps When Asked. In addition to investigating contract grading, I had previously heard of instructors (colleagues Lindsey Barr and Jordan Ealey among them) taking time out of class to establish community norms with their students. I liked the idea and decided to set aside two portions of the syllabus to be completed as a group: the Participation expectations and the Discussion guidelines. Together, we spent the first class discussing “good” and “bad” examples of each and filling out the syllabus accordingly. I put “good” and “bad” in quotes on the board because oftentimes conventional participation—regularly speaking, engaging with the full body—is mediated by a variety of factors, including ability and culture. To that end, I decided to grade students individually and offer them a chance to appeal if they thought my participation grades were unfair. To their credit, anyone who got less than full points accepted their grade and, in every case, showed demonstrable improvement afterwards. There are a few caveats for these findings, among them the fact that it is, again, a small class that allows for individual meetings and that the guidelines, while agreed upon by the students, are too general to really quantify in points. Nevertheless, I found the students’ responses to these processes very encouraging and I think it set the groundwork for a collaborative class. Speaking of filling the gaps: students were also quick to point out problems in my quizzes, of which there were several. Seeing as how part of the point of the class is to train careful readers, I counted them catching me as a win…

Assessing Play Selections Gave Me More Things to Think About. In addition to completing some of the community requirements of the syllabus together, I distributed a survey at the top of the course that included four options for each play “slot.” Students were asked to identify which plays they had already read and then participate in a follow-up discussion. The idea was that I would use the results to assess the final play selections and ensure we weren’t retreading overly familiar territory. In truth, I already had a rough outline of what I wanted to teach, but the survey and follow-up talk justified that list. I also got good results in an end-of-semester reflection that asked students to write about a play they found engaging, a play that had trouble with, and their overall assessment of the selection. The results revealed a handful of plays that were consistently popular, one that was consistently confusion or even disliked (sorry, The Rover), and an appreciation for the breadth and diversity of the reading list. Students also had great insight on how to improve comprehension, including by releasing play texts earlier (easy fix) and either spending more time on complex texts or picking texts with difficult language but not so difficult stories (a slightly harder fix if you want to teach Early Modern plays).

Note to Self 1: Scaffolding Doesn’t Work as Well When the Heavy Stuff is Backloaded. One of the main objectives of having almost weekly writing assignments was to get students plenty of practice in responding to and analyzing plays. While their writing improved over time, the students seemed confused about some of the expectations around their summative assessments and overwhelmed by the stack of work they had to complete at the end of the semester. I addressed some of this by creating a bonus mini-lecture about writing reviews, but the larger problem seemed to be that all the big assignments were backloaded to around finals when stress is high and there’s little time to process finer-grain feedback. Thankfully, one of my students alerted me to this problem during our final project consultation, and the rest provided thoughtful feedback on how to resolve it. In the end, I pared down the final project and adjusted some due dates to free up more time. The students roundly appreciated the effort and I appreciated the opportunity to address a flaw in my design.

Note to Self 2: Don’t Have an In-Person Class That Could Have Been a Zoom Meeting. This was my first semester back on campus since March of 2020, and I returned determined to (safely) enjoy it. Having been converted to the “flipped” classroom format while working with Caitlin Marshall on the grant-funded redesign of our introductory course, I had every intention of maximizing class time through discussion, group work, and embodied activities. While I would like to think most of the classes employed those tools to good effect, there were a handful that could’ve just as easily been Zoom calls because they were largely stationary discussions. I say this not to minimize discussion, or Zoom classes, or the differences between talking on the computer and talking in person, or all the spontaneous interactions you get in and around the classroom that you don’t get online, but rather to point out that co-presence alone is often an insufficient use of shared time in the classroom, particularly in theatre education. The past two years have energized digital performance and given new edge to debates about theatre’s “requirement” for being there; I won’t resolve any of those debates, but I will say that being there may be different than being online, but if it is supposed to be something truly special, then it needs to be maximized, not taken for granted.

What West Side Story Gets that Tootsie: The Musical Didn’t

Last week, I returned to The National Theatre in Washington, D.C., where I spent the better part of a year combing through the archives preparing a series of historical websites. This time, though, I went as an audience member for Tootsie: The Musical and brought my girlfriend along. Honestly, we would not have gone if the tickets weren’t on the house: I was familiar with accusations of transphobia aimed at the show, and despite my admiration for the film (which is very much of its time and even more worthy of those criticisms), I tend to be wary of movie-to-musical adaptations. Nevertheless, I thought it would be worth enjoying a night at the theatre and thinking through the politics of updating older material to contemporary sensibilities, a subject I wrote on recently with regard to Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The show itself was largely what I expected: cheerfully tongue-in-cheek at moments, kitschy in others, very New York, and never quite able to rid itself of heteronormative anxieties around sex and gender, despite its obvious efforts. If anything, the fact that the show apologizes for itself so profusely, including in a heavy-handed monologue from the best friend character, only made it more grating, especially considering the narrative thrust of the show—angry male actor finds success impersonating a woman and somehow gains a conscience, too—is largely unchanged. It’s maybe a bit hypocritical to say, but sometimes art is better off owning its problematic qualities than offering a limp self-justification.

One musical that did stick the landing (critically, if not commercially) on its updates was the new West Side Story film, arriving 60 years after the first thanks to the efforts of Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner. West Side Story has always been the subject of controversy: the original Broadway production struggled to get funding because its subject matter and protests against the paper-thin characterizations of the Puerto Rican characters have been levied at it since day one (check the bibliography in the link for sources on the subject). Spielberg and Kushner’s new West Side Story addresses some of that by fleshing out the characters and adjusting some of the numbers; “America,” for example, starts as a playful back and forth between the men and women before evolving into an ecstatic communal number that takes up the streets. Much of the characters’ dialogue is also in Spanish, which is presented without subtitles and, very often, without English translations clumsily shoehorned into other characters’ speech. I don’t know that Latin audiences will every truly feel like they have stakes in West Side Story, but that second choice alone ensures many of them will be spoken to, quite literally, in ways this film’s predecessors did not. Interestingly, while the film does important work in updating the Puerto Rican characters, it also presents the White characters, mainly the Jets, in a more incisive light. Riff and the gang are immediately and deliberately positioned as the aggressors in a rapidly diversifying New York, a place undergoing radical gentrification. The shame they feel about being left behind, a shame that is so often compounded by xenophobia and siphoned into racist violence, is made explicit by Lieutenant Schrank in his very first appearance. These shades of historicization speak to Kushner’s grasp of the social dynamics at play during this period, a grasp that, with all due respect, exceeded that of original librettist Arthur Laurents.

Naturally, the film is still West Side Story. It’s still brash and balletic, it still has some awkward dramaturgical and tonal shifts, and it still runs on the engine of teenage infatuation that will always oversimplify its racial politics. But a lot of what has always been thrilling about the musical remains, and a lot of the changes, from the addition of the Rita Moreno’s Valentina to shifting “Cool” to before the rumble, really work. The vast majority of the performances, with the exception of Ansel Elgort’s voice, work too, and you can expect the cast to be full of Oscar contenders. It may not convince any doubters and it may not fully answer the eternal “why now?” question, but if it has to exist, it exists in arguably the best form it can. It also gets a lot of credit from me for aiming at a more accurate and honest portrayal of the past rather than apologizing for the problematic politics at its center. Sometimes that’s the best you can ask of a “modern” update—that and some truly thrilling dance numbers, filmed with old-school flair an American master in Spielberg, a longtime fan of the original who looks like he’s had a musical in his pocket his whole career.

My Favorite Sondheim

Like most red-blooded theatre folk, I was moved by the recent death of Stephen Sondheim, the Dean of the American Musical Theatre. I say “moved” because as sad as death is, the passing of a true great often prompts as much celebration and reflection as it does mourning, especially for those of us who only really know greats like Sondheim by his work. It is worth noting that those who did know Sondheim personally were full of praise not only for his artistry but for his mentorship and encouragement. To depart this world after life like that—long, successful, full of friends and students—is something most of us can only dream of.

There is a lot to celebrate about Sondheim, both in terms of individual works and overall contributions to the form, and far more educated people than me have written far more eloquent tributes than I can. What I will say is that I, like so many, have a favorite. Well, maybe two: I used to show the filmed production of Into the Woods to classes all the time and it will probably be the one I hum the most in my old age. But the one that still resonates with me most is Company. For years that was because I, like Robert, was a perpetual third wheel who never seemed suited for relationships. The fact that my middle name is Robert seemed to make it all the more apt. Now, a year and a half into a serious, loving relationship, it all hits a little differently. I’m still thrilled by the many variations of “Bobby” layered into the opening, the crescendo in “Side by Side by Side,” the technical demands of “Getting Married Today,” the head-bopping fun of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” and so on. Now, though, I find myself responding to the ambivalence of “Sorry-Grateful” and the terrified yearning of “Being Alive,” songs I always respected but never quite loved. “Being Alive” is especially remarkable because it captures so much in such simple lyrics. All Robert asks for, over and over again, is someone to want too much of him: to hold him too close, hurt him too deep, need him too much, know him too well, someone who has to be let in, have their feelings spared, who expects him to care, and so on. On the surface, it seems like accepting a dreadful loss of self by entering into a partnership, but the yearning in the music is so poignant that you can feel it overpowering Robert’s fear. That tension is something present-day Jared understands much better than the Jareds of yore.

I like to think the great works reward repeat encounters and grow up along with us. That has certainly be true of Company for me, and I suspect it’s been true of at least one Sondheim musical for every Sondheim fan.

The Other Side of Niceness: Lasso, Chalk Circle, Mockingbird

First things first, know that you can count me among the people disappointed with season two of Ted Lasso. There’s an old adage that comedy is fast and there was very little fast about this season. That too many jokes were full of air would not be so troublesome if the show had maximized its best feature, namely a willingness to look past the earnestness so many of its characters strive for. The episodes that did go in an entirely different direction, like Coach Beard’s bizarro, post-FA Cup semi-final odyssey, stick out a lot in that landscape, and for all their incongruity, I found myself wanting more of that surreal, form-breaking fun. Ultimately, it seemed like the show, which still had many good moments, was suffering from some growing pains, unsure how to balance its rom-com send-ups with its darker strains of melancomedy. Finding that balance could have done a lot for the theme the show did explore very well: the other side of niceness.

A lot has already been made about the Great Nate Debate, the discourse surrounding kitman-turned-assistant-coach Nate’s transformation from timid nice guy to self-absorbed prick. I won’t spend too much time on the debate here except to say that I found many of the moves heavy-handed (the hair, really?) and sometimes confusing, to the point that, despite all the ways Nate’s darker nature was exposed over the course of the season, his sudden outburst at Ted seemed to come out of the blue. I will say, though, that Nate’s arc is one example of how the show excavates what sometimes hides behind pleasant exteriors. The lesson of Nate’s story is that “niceness” does not always equate to goodness—that even those who seem harmless can harbor selfishness to the point of narcissism. This is not to discount the many ways Nate is belittled throughout the show, but rather to say that sometimes what the “nice guys” lack that the assholes don’t is the balls to do exactly what they want.

In addition to charting a seemingly new course for Nate, the show also lets some of the characters’ pleasant facades slip. We see, for example, that Ted’s relentless positivity is not impermeable; in fact, it is covering up a very serious problem with trauma that produces, among other things, an aversion to conflict. That he begins to untangle that with Dr. Sharon is appropriate, not just in that it shows her own “professional kindness” in the form of therapy is valuable, but in that Ted is able to help her, too. We discover, in Sharon’s private moments, that for all her grasp of human nature, she is lonely and therefore vulnerable to things going wrong. Here we have two people with an aptitude for making people feel good but who have not translated that same energy into personal fulfillment. Indeed, it suggests that sometimes niceness can be a barrier as much as a doorway. While some characters were enriched by arcs that revealed their fragility, other revelations were somewhat less surprising. My bullshit detector immediately started beeping when Edwin Akufo (all-star VEEP alum Sam Richardson), the billionaire Ghanaian heir apparently intent on dismantling his father’s empire, first arrived in his helicopter and started to woo sweet-natured Sam Obisanye with extravagant purchases and promises. (Never trust a billionaire who buys ambience and uses conspicuous consumption in service of an apparently decolonial project.) That he turned out to be vindictive and crude when denied what he wants puts him in a similar category to the slippery Rupert, another billionaire with charm to spare. Interestingly, Rupert, as we discover, is actually repelled by niceness; as Rebecca’s mother points out, putting on a smile proves that he cannot get under Rebecca’s skin. For him and Akufo, good manners are about mobilizing their power in the most effective and least obvious way; once they do not have the power, niceness no longer serves them.

(Speaking of billionaires and power, it’s here that I should return to my first writing on Ted Lasso and its role in the Americanization of the Beautiful Game. If season two got one thing very right about elite soccer, it is that money calls the shots, to the point of making the game a ball pit for billionaire playboys. If we can accept that there are sometimes darker—or at the very least, cynical and commercial—interests lurking behind hyper-lucrative organizations like the Premier League, we might have to accept that Ted Lasso is being positioned for the same purpose. The fact that the Premier League is going to allow the show to use official materials and highlight packages suggests they know a good marketing opportunity when they see it.)

While Ted Lasso revealed what lies beyond niceness, other texts, such as Bertolt Brecht’s play The Caucasian Chalk Circle (stay with me here), reveal the differences articulated between niceness and kindness. As my class and I studied Brecht’s text recently, I found myself thinking back on what professor and devised theatre expert Rich Brown once explained to me and others during a workshop session: that niceness is complimenting a friend’s terrible new haircut to keep up appearances and kindness is telling them the truth because you really care. In short, kindness prioritizes a person’s needs, even to the point of superseding manners and other mores of polite society. Kindness also comes with a certain cost, as Grusha, Brecht’s heroine, discovers when she rescues a noble child named Michael from the flames of a political insurrection. As Grusha flees through the Caucasian mountains to protect herself and the baby, she is constantly reminded, in typical Brechtian fashion, of the real, material costs of keeping this child as her own. It brings her under such scrutiny that she is forced to go into hiding, first as a noblewoman to get a room for the night, then from a lascivious corporal, then in the bonds of a loveless marriage. Eventually, once Michael’s rich, selfish mother comes calling for her son in order to secure her rights afforded to his heirship, Grusha is forced to defend her right to be Michael’s mother based on the care she has shown him. The women present their case to Azdak, a roguish judge who has spent the past few scenes robbing the rich to feed the poor. As in the biblical story of Solomon, Azdak devises a test: the child will be placed in the center of a chalk circle and the women will each pull on one end to see who is strong enough to extract him and claim him as her own. Kindhearted Grusha is unable to bear the thought of harming Michael and refuses to quickly relents. Azdak sees this and awards her custody, recognizing that her love forbids her from tearing at her son.

The conclusion of The Caucasian Chalk Circle alone speaks to the notion of kindness as something deeper than respectability and social conditioning. Michael’s birthmother is perfectly respectable, but it is Grusha who has demonstrated an investment in the child’s wellbeing. Even apart from the stark contrast between these two figures, Brecht’s play constantly points to the risks Grusha incurs to do what is right. From the other workers of the palace warning her to leave the baby in the first place to the sham marriage that puts her true love at risk, the real stakes of Grusha’s decision are never out of sight. This is important to recognize in Brecht’s work, which, in the Marxist tradition he practiced, always investigates the socioeconomic position the characters occupy. It does so partly by subject matter but also through Brecht’s staging and dramaturgy, which alienate the audience (verfremdungseffekt!) from the action in such a way as to invite critical engagement resulting in ethical judgments and real-world action. Understanding Grusha’s attachment to Michael, then, is not about embracing sentiment but about identifying the material wager Grusha makes by claiming Michael as her own, even if protecting him is the right thing to do. This is partly why productions such as the 2013 one by Classic Stage Company in New York use a very obvious baby doll in all its plastic glory to represent Michael: to disrupt the theatrical illusion and remind the audience that he is a costly object. Ideally, the move does not dehumanize Michael but instead humanizes Grusha by showing her willingness to break all the rules of proper society in order to protect this precious item.

If the second season of Ted Lasso is about showing what lies behind nice faces and The Caucasian Chalk Circle examines the cost of doing good, then Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird (again, stay with me) shows the other side of people who take their goodness for granted. Based on Harper Lee’s classic 1960 novel, Sorkin’s Mockingbird, which I recently watched in the Shubert Theatre nosebleeds with my girlfriend, is written with a clear mission: to, as Sorkin says, converse with Lee’s novel and reshape it into something that responds to the moment. A lot of this is accomplished by expanding the role of Calpurnia, the Finch family’s Black domestic laborer, and playing up the degree to which Tom Robinson, the Black victim of racial injustice, is condemned by the tears of Mayella Ewell, the White woman Tom is falsely alleged to have raped. Calpurnia openly challenges Atticus Finch, the noble lawyer, when he tolerates his racist neighbors and accuses him of being sanctimonious after taking on Tom’s case. Mayella, meanwhile, is wound up to the point of hysterical rage at Tom, despite the fact that her father, as in the story, is undoubtedly her abuser. Calpurnia gives voice to Black pain by challenging Atticus’s assumptions and lamenting the death of Tom, who is shot seventeen times while trying to escape; Mayella encapsulates the privileges of whiteness, which allows her to construe her own pain into a rationale for condemning somebody else. Altogether, Sorkin’s efforts to bring To Kill a Mockingbird into today are obvious and, for the most part, successful in so far as they can bring this piece into the present. It may seem especially relevant in the ongoing racial reckonings that accelerated in 2020, but I would not characterize it as the play that best meets the moment. Still, by framing the action as a memory, as Sorkin does by casting the youths Scout, Jem, and Dill as character-narrators, the play does show how the past can bleed into the present. Though the conceit is manifested somewhat inconsistently, the effect is, at its best, moving and often thought provoking.

Where Sorkin’s play makes its most provocative changes is in the characterization of the iconic Atticus. The mere mention of the name calls to mind Gregory Peck’s almost saintly turn in the 1964 film, which crystalized him as the paragon of White liberal heroism. Although Jeff Daniels, returning to the role for the initial post-lockdown Broadway run, may not have quite the same gravitas as Peck, he does skillfully balance Atticus’s quiet decency, quick wit, and rhetorical grace. What Sorkin’s version of the role also demands is a certain shortsightedness that fuels a cantankerous temper. In Sorkin’s hands, Atticus’s commitment to basic human decency is complicated by the degree to which he lets racism slide out of deference to his neighbors. Throughout the play, Calpurnia and the children pick at Atticus’s stubborn refusal to call the racists out for who they are, taking it to the point that his belief in decency and non-confrontation is making him blind to the truth. As we come to learn, however, this version of Atticus is not afraid to get his hands dirty if necessary, as he proves when disarming the angry Mr. Ewell during a confrontation and verbally belittling him with surgical precision. It is a shockingly, if somewhat satisfyingly, violent moment for someone who has otherwise maintained nothing but restraint. Ultimately, even though Atticus defends Tom with skill and vigor, the nature of his commitment to resisting the full extent of racism’s power is left unclear. What is clear is that this Atticus’s above-it-all approach is not without his flaws, while the man himself is not without a certain edge. In my view, this demystifies Atticus Finch without harming the character’s legacy. If anything, it shows that complex people can perform heroic, if ill-fated work, even if they are not the saints we want them to be.

While it may seem odd to hold these three pieces together, I think all are instructive in the way they contrast the veneer of niceness with a deeper truth, whether that be the real selves lurking behind happy faces, the heavy costs of doing right, or the fact that sometimes being nice just covers up too many sins. As someone who has always gotten by on being nice, it is genuinely convicting to sit with work that asks something more of its characters. To do that in a way that invites audiences to reflect requires a willingness to peel away layers while ratcheting up the stakes. Ted Lasso excels at peeling layers and may, eventually, clarify the stakes. The Caucasian Chalk Circle and To Kill a Mockingbird, meanwhile, have stakes to burn. For them, the difference between niceness and kindness can mean the difference between life and death. As I see it, we have to be ready to make similar choices in real life, too.

It’s Not About Soccer, and Other Musings

Last month I completed a draft over a draught: a rough go of chapter one of my dissertation, with the final words lubricated by a couple of brews at one of my favorite haunts. Having a drink was a nice way to commemorate a milestone that seemed a long ways off last summer, when, according to my approved timeline, I should have already had some pages in my pocket. That timeline was always more for show, anyway; what really matters is that I have something.

While my dissertation takes a wide angle view of performance, the first chapter is very much focused on traditional plays. In it, I examine two “soccer dramas” that center high-performing women and girls: Caridad Svich’s Guapa and Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves. Svich’s heroine Guapa, a young Latina woman living in a Texas border town, longs for an opportunity to test her futbol skills at a street tournament in Dallas. Despite seeming relatively straightforward, actually making the trip to that tournament presents a significant challenge to Guapa’s family: not only is taking their one junky car to Dallas a risk, but the prospect of success isn’t that promising. As Guapa’s guardian Roly is keen to remind her, even successful women, like Marta of Brazil, aren’t paid what they are worth. It takes a debilitating accident that robs Guapa of her ability to play to change Roly’s mind. To combat the after-effects of Guapa’s accident, which are exacerbated by trauma suffered at the hands of her step-father, the family rallies around her and uses futbol to facilitate her rehabilitation and set up a potentially fateful trip to Dallas. Despite the happy ending, the results of that tournament are ultimately left unresolved.

While Guapa focuses on a woman closely aligned with the Beautiful Game, The Wolves centers an all-girls indoor team focused on the labor of practice. The action of DeLappe’s funny, richly drawn ensemble piece unfolds in a series of warm-up sessions, during which the nine Wolves chatting about everything from post-genocidal justice to weird crushes. Their huddle is a new and intimidating environment for #46, an erstwhile world-traveler trying to fit in with a group that has been together for years. As #46 waits for her moment to shine, the other girls struggle to manage broken relationships, debilitating expectations, and the after-effects of injuries suffered on the pitch. Ultimately, the remnants of the team are forced to come together in the direst of circumstances when one of their number is struck and killed by a car. Rather than see them commemorate their fallen comrade with a win, the play ends with the team meditating on a cathartic pre-game chant and the tenuous unity they have forged.

Despite some obvious differences in their dramaturgy, these two plays share a number of qualities themes, including a nuanced depiction of success and failure. The ball-playing characters in each are driven to succeed yet constantly reminded of the limitations placed on them by the structure of the sport. Those limitations are often presented in stark contrast to the privilege afford male players, though in Guapa’s case it also includes her economic and social disadvantages. They also keep close ties to risk and mortality, Guapa through the injury suffered by its main character, an injury solved somewhat fantastically (and questionably) by a synthesis of her futboling prowess and spirituality; and The Wolves through the injuries suffered by the players, the global conflicts discussed in their huddle, and frequent mentions of the ways men dominate and take advantage of them. What I appreciate about these plays is that they problematize the “transcendent” narratives that privilege individual achievement and proffer sport as a way to “play your way” over material barriers. The barriers in these plays are quite real, which ultimately forces each set of characters, or at the very least the audience, to consider what they are meant to playing for. Then again, part of the problem, as I argue with help from other scholars, is the idea that play should have to do something at all. At some level, both of these soccer dramas trade on the idea that just getting to play and be part of a team has intrinsic value, even if that value has to be defined and contested.

Interestingly, both playwrights introduce published editions of their texts with long, thoughtful prefaces that distance soccer from their play’s essence. They literally say that their work is not about soccer as such, but about something else. Soccer is merely a vessel, a “prism,” as Svich says, for exploring these characters’ lives and the themes that undergird their stories. On the one hand, this assertion makes sense: after all, not a lot of play makes it onstage, save for The Wolves’ warm-up sessions and Guapa’s freestyling. Even the games that would conclude these characters’ journeys and seemingly validate their sacrifices are left unresolved, offstage, and out of the scope of the play. On the other hand, the idea that these plays are not “about” soccer yet are saturated in soccer suggests they are trading on assumptions about the sport – indeed, on what the sport itself can be “about”: beauty, creativity, empowerment, teamwork, pain and suffering, even symbolic violence. By simultaneously framing their plays with soccer but distancing the sport from their supposed essence, Svich and DeLappe open up opportunities to consider what it means to play – or at least, what it supposedly means to play. It’s this “meaning” that gets mobilized and challenged in the work I consider throughout the rest of the project, whether that means mythologizing a one-off historical event, maximizing a celebrity’s legacy, or cultivating political power through sport. At some level, the idea that these and other performances are not about soccer but something else furthers the notion, one commonly adhered to by fans and commentators all over the world, that soccer is “about” something more than itself.

Practicing the Art of Speculation

A few weeks ago I had the special pleasure of returning to a play after a long time away and finding that it didn’t stink to high heaven. I’ve been picking at it ever since, mostly in scratch scenes, of which I already had plenty. At some point I will need to make some choices to create a proper draft, but for now, I’m enjoying listening to my characters talk to me again. I’m also giving myself time to sharpen my speculation. The play is set in a near future where app users have the opportunity switch lives with other users – not science fiction, per se, but speculative fiction, a look at what our relationships with technology and the economy might produce next. This kind of writing has always interested me – I even wrote a short, 1984-inspired comedy that anticipated the rise of non-stop personal streaming, violence included – and it’s something the great works do really well. In fact, two stories I read this year demonstrated mastery of speculative fiction: Machinehood by S.B. Divya and the two-part Parable series by Octavia Butler (Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents). Divya’s book is part of the time-honored corpus of fiction that examines the boundaries between humanity and machines, but it also offers some striking speculation as to how that relationship might shape labor. In fact, the way people earn money, whether through minding machines or earning tips from an ever-present public watching them through swarms of cameras, was even more intriguing to me than the larger theme of “machinehood.” If Divya offers a look at what work could be, Butler, writing in the mid-1990s, portrayed a world eerily similar to the one we would inherit twenty years later. A crumbling environment and economy, a resurgence of fascists operating under the guise of religion, a pandemic of violence with global ramifications: it’s all there in grisly detail, albeit leavened by the heroine’s dream of taking her community to a better place in the stars.

It’s tempting to celebrate Butler for her foresight and test the validity of Divya’s predictions over the years, but what’s more important is recognizing that speculative fiction bases its version of the future on observations of the present. The rise of Donald Trump and the collapse of American infrastructure surprised a lot of well-placed and well-meaning liberals, but it did not surprise people accustomed to living on the margins. Keen observers like Butler saw some of this coming. Divya, meanwhile, is a trained engineer, someone who understands human and machine relationships in a way many others do not. She knows what she is talking about. For my part, I may not be an expert in lifestyle applications, but I am paying attention to how our relationships are evolving – not through technology as such but through the services technology supports. The app in my play isn’t a literal portal to another life; it’s a tool that helps consenting adults check and see if the grass really is greener on the other side. The systems that make that tool function, the hidden contracts and business commitments, are a significant interest to me, too. Ultimately, I have a sneaky feeling we may be set to turn even more of our personal lives over to some kind of management, perhaps with little appreciation for who (or what) is pulling the strings behind the scenes. Only time – and, maybe, some good speculative playwriting – will tell.

Being (with) the Beatles

Last year I hit upon a great way to fill the time while waiting for new arrivals from the library: gradually reading one very big, very dense book a chapter at a time! The best books for this purpose are the ones worth taking slowly or dog-earing for a second look. Last year’s was A History of God by Karen Armstrong (which, full disclosure, I finished earlier this year). This year’s was The Beatles by Bob Spitz, an 850-page (not including notes) beast that I just wrapped. It’s been on my shelf for years and it was worth the wait. Granted the criticism it has received (like all Beatles books), Spitz’s opus is beautifully written, complete with an in-depth look at each band member’s childhood and their early years together, not to mention a recounting of their greatest hits, on and off the charts. It was a fantastic reason to not only learn about the band but revisit their complete catalogue, which I got as a (rather expensive) birthday present years ago, before they were even on iTunes. In a way, it was like getting to know old friends.

Getting to know the Beatles meant learning more about their shortcomings and the many layers of performance that made them myths. I knew beforehand that the members of the band, John in particular, were not entirely like the mop-topped boys who kicked off the British invasion. They were competitive, even cutthroat at times; they were, by and large, woefully self-absorbed and inattentive to their mates, sometimes to the point of abuse; and they held certain prejudices of their time. In short, they were young, immature but driven guys who rose to untold heights in one of the fiercest, most exploitative industries there is. It’s no surprise that they weren’t actually nice. Of course, they were carefully cultivated for an audience that was evidently hungry for what they brought to the table. The clean-cut, besuited image they became famous for in the early 60s was the creation of their manager, Brian Epstein; before that, they were leather-clad rockers and rebels. Somehow, their new look made them global sensations and the object of then-unimaginable teen obsession, appropriately dubbed “Beatlemania” for the sheer, violent intensity of affection it prompted. Beatlemania became a prison for the Fab Four (one made all the more egregious by the shamefully exploitative licensing deals made on their behalves), so much so that they quit the stage and retreated to the studio. From there, they experimented not just with music but with themselves, hitting new conceptual heights with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album enabled by a colorful persona that allowed them to step outside of themselves. From there came the “discovery” of Indian spirituality, John’s creative frustrations nurtured by the much-maligned and misunderstood Yoko Ono, a medley of side projects, and a growing disillusionment with the band on everyone’s part. Being the Beatles, whatever that meant, was eventually too much, especially after they contrived to throw away even more money with their ill-fated Apple Records escapades. Each man went on making new versions of himself in the public eye, never quite escaping the myth of the band that made him famous. They were, as Paul pointed out in a recent interview, all too human, of course, but what the rest of us see is so heavily saturated in myth and layers of performance that the truth is often difficult to determine. Not that many people want the truth; the music, and the story, tends to be enough.

The Water, The Chair, The Conference: Three Short Musings

Teaching Water by the Spoonful Now

Last year, I approached my first Texts and Contexts in Western Theatre course with a contemporary play, Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline, set up as a sort of workshop text. I’m doing the same thing this semester, this time with Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes. “Contemporary” is a flexible term, but a play that is ten years old and written with enough current references tends to fit most definitions, at least at first blush. Interestingly, Water by the Spoonful is a play that feels very “now” and yet very “ten years old” at the same time. A lot of it takes place in a chatroom for recovering cocaine addicts – no named platform, just a chatroom – and on the one hand, that makes it strikingly appropriate for students who have spent the bulk of the past two years learning online. On the other hand, when a character references signing in from an internet café, it hits a little differently (my friend Tara taught this play last semester and clued me in to that time-capsule treat). It’s a reminder that a lot has changed since the proliferation of smartphones and conferencing technology; there’s less need to find a settled spot to plug in from, or a silly screen name to cloak your identity (unless you really want one). In short, the internet isn’t quite the same place it used to be. Interestingly, Hudes pushes against the actors typing or otherwise engaging with a “computer” onstage, allowing the actors simply to speak. That’s actually quite appropriate for the Zoom era. To what degree all of this changes how students approach the play remains to be seen.

In addition to facing the internet of yesteryear, there’s also the small matter of war. In Water by the Spoonful, Eliot, one of the main characters, has returned from a tour of duty in Iraq and brought with him the ghost of an Iraqi citizen. Throughout the play, the Ghost begs Eliot to return his passport, eventually pleading so intensely that it forces a physical confrontation. We also learn that Eliot suffers from an addiction to painkillers, the after-effects of an injury sustained in the line of duty. With the United States pulling (chaotically) out of Afghanistan, it seems like the ideal time to redirect attention toward the country’s Middle East escapades and their traumatic results. I say “redirect” because, up until very recently, America’s wars in the Middle East had faded into the background for so many of us during this time of domestic upheaval. Like internet cafes, they almost seem to call from another era, even if, in the case of Afghanistan, they have been going on this whole time. So while the play still feels very “now” in redirecting our attention to the trauma brought home by soldiers and the harm inflicted on Afghanis, it also feels strangely distant. My hope is that we’ll get to explore more of that dissonance as we work further back into the canon, asking ourselves what still resonates, what doesn’t resonate, and what we can get out of holding those two things in tension with another. Lord knows there will be plenty more dissonance when Antigone comes around.

Sitting with The Chair (and Spoilers!)

Sandra Oh has been a favorite of mine ever since the early, halcyon days Grey’s Anatomy, so it’s immensely gratifying not only to live in the age of Killing Eve but to get a show like The Chair. Oh is the perfect person to lead a series that shifts from satirical to heartfelt to prescient, all while skewering many of academia’s ailments, among them the slights suffered by women, and women of color in particular. There is so much I love about The Chair – and so much that has already been written about it, including this excellent review from real-life Chair Dr. Karen Tongson – that it seems almost churlish to bring up two criticisms that I think limit it somewhat. Before I begin, it’s worth mentioning here that the whole discourse (as the kids are calling it) around verisimilitude in The Chair has been quite a merry-go-round, so much so that it has come in for some criticism of its own. As Dr. Koritha Mitchell points out in her op-ed for CNN, Oh’s Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim is a character, not a real person, and the encounters she has are designed to explicate who she is the protagonist in this story, not to present a documentary account. She also argues that an inability or unwillingness to accept Ji-Yoon as the protagonist is tied to the marginalization of women of color and other historically excluded groups. In other words, it is not enough to praise diversity in storytelling without being willing to acknowledge protagonists who don’t fit the hegemonic mold. While this is a crucial insight, I worry that, on a structural level, The Chair itself doesn’t always live up to Ji-Yoon’s status as protagonist. For a show about the lack of opportunities and the flush of additional labor put on women of color in academia, The Chair spends an awful lot of time asking Ji-Yoon, and the audience, to pick up after Dr. Bill Dobson, her messy White male colleague. Make no mistake, I largely enjoy Bill’s story and appreciate what the show does to undermine the cocksure, “inspirational” tropes he is meant to embody, and the fact that he becomes such a problem child is part of the point. But we spend a lot of time with Bill and his problems (some of them admittedly serious), so much so that he is essentially a second lead, even if his time onscreen is often unremarkable and repetitive (we only need so many wandering misadventures, cute bonding scenes with Ji-Yoon’s daughter, or hurried, illicit meetings with undergraduates before we get the point). So while I appreciated Bill’s story arc, I wonder if the show risks perpetuating the same problems it meant to combat by constantly centering him beyond the purpose of explicating the challenge he poses. It’s worth remembering that assessing what a show values sometimes comes down to just counting how much screen time it gives to each of its characters.

Speaking of Bill’s story, the other facet that left me a bit cold was, unfortunately, the ending. (Spoilers Ahead) Early on, Bill becomes embroiled in a “cancel culture” situation when an ironic fascist salute in his modernism class is captured on camera and turned into a meme. Some students quickly latch onto it as evidence that Bill may be harboring Nazi sympathies or, at the very least, is completely oblivious to how his actions might resonate. Bill stages an ill-fated town hall with the students that devolves into an argument, triggers further protests, and leaves most of the faculty scrambling. Throughout the remainder of the show, Ji-Yoon is forced to chart the best path forward, which may include terminating Bill if he is unwilling to apologize unreservedly, which he is not. In the end, she chooses not to vote for his removal and instead argues in front of the disciplinary committee that getting rid of Bill is unfair to the students; not only will they see right through their face-saving maneuver, they’ll be left without proper instruction on how to handle complex situations like this one. The problem with this move is that the students have largely been marginalized up to this point. Apart from a handful of (somewhat underwritten) characters, most students pushing for Bill to be punished are faces in the crowd, many of them barely more than “woke” mouthpieces with axes to grind. To be fair, the show demonstrates a certain wry insight by focusing on academic politics rather than what is good for the students, and the constant fear the professors have of appearing to be doing something inappropriate, even in fairly innocuous situations, speaks to how much universities are governed by concerns over liability, something Tongson discusses in her piece. Yet that only makes the sudden about-face to a sincere, inspirational plea all the harder to take. As Alessa Dominguez’s piece in Buzzfeed argues, the show may not be quite the satire it aims to be (it’s worth arguing here that many of the criticisms Mitchell confronts are brought up by Dominguez). While that could be blamed on a certain conservatism within the structures of universities, it could also be the result of trying to balance too many tones at once. In any case, while The Chair makes the right move in re-centering students, it only does so after giving those students relatively short shrift, sacrificing the very nuance it claims to argue for. It’s an ending that could be good, but I’m not sure the show earns it.

You may notice that I’ve equivocated a bit on my criticisms of The Chair. That’s partly because 1) it’s a TV show that I thoroughly enjoyed, 2) I don’t want to be one of the people trying to read it like a documentary, and 3) they’re fine points that I hope to look at closely in a second viewing. More importantly, I believe in the value of multiple perspectives, and many of the features I critique might look different when viewed from another lens. That’s something the show does quite well, actually; even the crusty old White men clinging to their relevance get their moment. And heck, if scholars the caliber of Mitchell and others are seeing what The Chair wants to show them, then what do I know?

After ATHE 2021

Last month, I chaired and presented on a panel at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) conference, one of our field’s biggest annual gatherings. Apart from enjoying a successful discussion on performance, power, and activism in contemporary sport, featuring the brilliant trio of Sean Bartley, Noe Montez, and Leticia Ridley, I got to attend several insightful sessions that not only got me excited for the school year but also helped me tweak my approach for future conferences. With all sessions recorded for later viewing, I decided to only attend those sessions where I might have something worth asking during the Q&A. In addition to actually engaging in some conversation, my question would be recorded for posterity (for better or for worse). This was initially meant to be an online-only tactic, but I realized it’s a great way to approach conferences in general. When faced with a long menu of sessions, why not select those that might offer you an opportunity to participate? It’s certainly a lot better than hearing a raft of papers on a topic you thought might be interesting but soon realize is anything but. It also allows me to pull some of what I’m learning back to the classroom. In the “re: PERFORMATIVE” session, for example, I asked the panelists and other attendees, many of us involved in the #PerformativeX special section of the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, how we can teach students about the many flexible powers of performance and “performativity.” It was a tall order, to be sure, but it also made for a great talk that will help me develop my own plans to teach performance more effectively.

Speaking of online conferences, it seems like keeping conferences virtual or at least hybrid is a no-brainer going forward. Yes, there are practical considerations to bear in mind, including contracts, and there is always something special about being there, at least for me. But keeping hybrid and virtual options on the table goes some way to expanding accessibility, and I’m hardly the first one to point this out. Not only does it open the conference up to people who may be unable to travel for a variety of reasons, it makes a number of tools – closed captioning, slides and documents, chat functions, etc. – available at the touch of a button. Assuming recording is set up, it also ensures that some amount of the work is housed for later use like a Netflix for real theatre nerds. Granted, Zoom fatigue is always a factor to consider (I certainly did not attend all the sessions I planned to) and there is no real substitute for the impromptu conversation or hastily arranged coffee chat after a panel. But for all their social benefits, conferences should ultimately be about sharing knowledge, and there’s no reason to limit that capacity by refusing to make online engagement available to attendees. Over to you, American Society for Theatre Research and other organizations looking to the future..