April 14, 2010

When does a play with issues become an Issue Play?

I saw Garlia Jones' Stranger in My Body at the New School on Saturday, and I came back to witness a reading Monday night for Blackboard Play reading series at the Cell. I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially when watching what the actors brought to the readings of the characters, both on stage and in a reading.

After the reading there was a brief talkback. Several people made comments to the effect that they were relieved that Stranger in My Body was not an "issue play." I found that . . . odd (read: slightly disturbing), particularly since the blurb about the play makes it quite plain that Stranger in My Body grapples with Issues. I also found it odd (read: slightly disturbing) to see who the comments were coming from, especially taking into account the playwright herself and the performers. Here are a few things to give you some context:
  • The playwright: cisgender Black woman.
  • The actors: 2 Black women, a White woman, a Black man, and non-American woman - all cisgender as far as I know.
  • The audience: 20-30 people, male-to-female ratio about even, a 50-50 split of White and non-White. All cisgender as far as I know.
  • The people who said that they liked Stranger in My Body for not being an issue play - all White.
  • From the looks of it, a mixture of sexual orientations.
Let me get this out of the way: I'm sure they meant it as a compliment. Apparently, many plays that deal directly with "issues" can come across as pretty fucking didactic. I can see why that would turn people off. Nobody likes to be manipulated, and no one likes being told what to think or how to feel. I get that.

But that's not what I'm talking about, so please don't make comments pointing out the obvious.

Here is where I start to squirm a bit. Of all the things that Stranger in My Body does right, what's with the trend of praising it for not being an "issue play"? What is that even supposed to mean in this context? The play itself has issues all over the place - gender issues, sexuality issues, religion issues. Stranger in My Body focuses on the lives of its characters and their relationships with one another, but does not make it apolitical. Hell, the play opens up at a fucking voting boothThe personal is political, and all that.

What am I supposed to take from this sort of commentary? The playwright is a Black woman who writes a play full of Black characters who don't make race the topic of conversation, and that's what's praiseworthy about it? Nevermind the sensitivity and nuance she brings when she writes about a man trapped in a woman's body. Nevermind how she brings complexity and depth to characters who would be all to easy to stereotype. Nevermind her skill at writing naturalistic dialogue that flows smoothly and feels spontaneous each time the actors say the words. Nope - the thing that 3 or 4 people felt most compelled to comment on is that Stranger in My Body is not an issue play or a topical play, but the only topic I see not getting any attention is race.

No, I'm not going to make this post about race per se, but I will venture a working theory I have about what constitutes an "issue play." Especially considering this discussion happening over at Parabasis, I'm starting to get the idea that an "issue play" is any play that directly confronts the experience of a marginalized identity that makes those who are not marginalized in the same way feel uncomfortable.

I wish I could be more precise than that, but I'm working with what seems to be the only two criteria: privilege and discomfort.

What do you think an "issue play" is?


  1. i define an "issue play" or any form of issue media as anything that tackles issues be they, say political, environmental, or the obvious forms of institutional oppression.

    as someone who tackles these issues regularly in his work, like yourself, i understand all too well the importance of tackling these issues with nuance and respectability without talking down to the audience or being cliched or making the work one-dimensional or preaching at them.

    that said, i think you hit the nail on the head with the privilege and discomfort point. one thing i've come to notice is that even when a piece is well-executed which seems to be the case for stranger in my body, the privileged will dismiss the issues outright (and no matter how well done it was) because it's an inconvenient truth.

    they don't like to be reminded of the systems of injustice, marginalization and privilege. and as far as they're concerned, their discomfort trumps our experiences, our issues and our humanity. because their comfort should be our top priority as far as they see it.

  2. If a play has made me feel uncomfortable, then it has succeeded.