It’s been a little while since I’ve been too stunned to walk.
In fact, I found myself paralyzed twice today. The first paralysis occurred as I walked up a dingy New York City staircase into the The Steve and Marie Sgouros Theatre to see FringeNYC’s The American Play. As soon as I saw the other audience members, I froze a little – everyone was white. Once inside the bite-sized theater, I seated myself by the cool brick wall and wondered how I keep finding myself in small theaters filled with white people who all appear to be one big, over-enthused family. It isn’t unusual for me to be one of the few people of color anywhere I go, yet it always comes as an unpleasant surprise. It always feels as though the white audience members are in on a secret that I, and others with pigmented skin, have yet to learn.
But then the theater went dark and I put real life out of my head as three actors came out onto the bare-bones, metal-chairs-and-imagination-only stage and started performing. Created by The Dirty Blondes, a self-described feminist theater company, The American Play, went into a lot of issues that are hugely relevant and important in society right now through the lens of the very gruesome 1991 satirical novel American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. Alternating between scenes of a police interrogation, flashbacks to a crime, and comments from online forums regarding the crime, the play covers everything from friendship, patriarchal entitlement, and idolatry to the internet, bullying, and rape.
Given those topics, from the very first moments of the play I had a bad feeling brewing inside of me. The two male characters, Luis and Tim, are both very intense, with Luis being a big fan of American Psycho and the lifestyle of physical, emotional, and financial excellence that it portrays and Tim being a big a fan of Luis. Tim hangs on to every word Luis says, though his words are arrogant, misogynistic, and aggressively spat into Tim’s face. Unlike Luis, Tim comes from a poor background – to be exact, he is described as “trailer trash” – and worships the well-dressed, well-groomed, overly-macho Luis. Luis takes on Tim as his protégé and teaches him how to dress, how to smell, how to drink and, above all, how to think: “you want, you take.”
Men like Luis and men like Tim who aspire to be men like Luis frighten me. They are the men who take up too much space on the subway, the men who refer to women as bitches, the men who think their time is more important than anyone else’s. They are the men that I do not ever wish to be around
The play reached its peak as Tim is shown confessing to drugging, beating up, and violently raping Shelly, the female character who was also his high school best friend – he claims to have done it in honor of Luis’s teachings. While repulsed by the men’s behavior all throughout the play, at this point I found it hard to breathe. I saw myself in Shelly’s shoes. Shelly is a college student. She goes to parties, she hangs out with boys. She is sensitive, caring, and willing to give even those who hurt her a second chance. She is my best friend. She is me.
During the interrogation scenes, in classic blame-the-victim fashion, Shelly is asked about her sexual history, about whether she knew Tim to be violent, whether she’s absolutely sure that she was raped. The play was also laced with scenes in which the actors recite comments people have made on the internet regarding the rape. The hard-to-hear comments ranged from “boys will be boys” to “she knew what she was getting into.” I would have loved to think that the treatment Shelly was receiving was wholly fictional, that it didn’t exist outside of that theater. But that would be naïve. I know that if I were to go through the same dehumanizing experience as Shelly, I would likely be treated the very same way. The thought crushed me then and it crushes me now.
As soon as the play ended I walked down and out to the balmy warmth of MacDougal Street. I made it to only the corner of the street when I felt an urge to stand still, my second moment of paralysis. My head felt light, my heart, heavy. Never did I expect to be so stirred and shaken by a play I chose to see simply because its summary mentioned a book I happened to have read. I can’t say I enjoyed the show, but The American Play definitely struck a chord deep inside of me.