What's it about?
At its core, O, Earth is about trying to make sense of this ridiculous world around us. It's a play (Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, set in the early 1900's) within a play (O, Earth, set in the present day) which intersect in eerily familiar but amusing ways. The play’s improbable, but intriguing list of characters includes: Thornton Wilder himself, 1960's trans rights activist Marsha P. Johnson and… Ellen DeGeneres?
What'd I experience?
Walking into the the small, musty-smelling theatre, I had a choice to make: Do I sit in the very first row or not? Without a raised platform to indicate the stage, sitting in the first row would mean sitting close enough to the action to feel all the rock-like pieces of Earth covering all of the floor just behind the curtain that doesn't quite reach the ground with my own feet. Do I want to be so close that actors could, potentially, make eye contact with me? Do I want to be so close that actors could see me yawn? Am I that kind of person?
I remembered that I am.
So I chose a seat by a part of the stage that looked like it would get a lot of traffic and prepared myself for any interactions I might have to engage in. As I and everyone else settled into our seats, a pair of beige trouser-clad legs and Oxford shoes appeared behind the curtain at one side of the stage, continued walking along the curtain to the other side, bent down and picked up a shovel lying on the ground. The man attached to the legs then peeked out from under the curtain before finally stepping out from behind it and announcing himself, standing so close to me that I almost said hello.
And so it began. The man introduced himself to the audience as Thornton Wilder, a playwright from the past, hoping to dig up a time capsule he buried many years ago under what is now the HERE Arts Centre. He went on digging into a mound of dirt as a new character appeared, the Stage Manager. She talked to the audience about the O, Earth, saying that while it is based on Wilder’s now-antiquated play Our Town, we do not need to be familiar with that play to appreciate this one, that she will be here to guide us along.
Wilder finally comes upon his time capsule and the story of Our Town begins with small-town teenagers George and Emily. Emily sits on a ladder that we are to imagine is her house and watches her boyfriend George greeting other townspeople from her window. George has just joined the school baseball team and Emily is not pleased. As George tries to talk to her standing under her window Emily tells him off, though unconvincingly: “I've decided to focus on useful things, and not waste my time on people who are just going to turn around and become dumb, misogynist, dumb assholes.” Her anger is not real and she takes George at his word when he tells her that he hasn’t changed. They kiss and George runs off.
Emily sits crying as a new character who looks an awful lot like Thornton Wilder, but is called Mr. Stimson, knocks at her invisible door looking for her mother. He says he’s here because on Wednesdays he and her mother always watch Ellen.
I found myself confused, but intrigued. Surely, they wouldn't be watching the same Ellen that replaced Oprah as the Queen of Daytime television or the same Ellen that takes monumental group selfies with celebrities at award shows...But what if they are?
Emily turns on her TV and onto the stage come two red couches, a coffee table, and an actress looking a lot like Ellen DeGeneres. Today on the show Ellen is interviewing a gay couple whose flashmob wedding proposal at Home Depot has gotten millions of views on the internet. In typical Ellen fashion she asks the guys about their wedding plans and gifts them scuba-diving suits with tuxedos printed on the front along with a giant $10,000 check. The guys are ecstatic, Ellen is not.
This unexpected intersection of past and present is where I began to really appreciate my front row seat. A lot happened from this point on and I was right there to soak it all up.
As Ellen takes a nap on her couch after the show, George and Emily’s relationship has progressed to them living together. It is subtly revealed that George is a trans man and not-so-subtly revealed that Emily is unhappy with her small town life and wants to get out.
As Emily plots her escape, Ellen wakes up to FaceTime with her wife, Portia de Rossi. She tells Portia about the guests she just had on her show. She wonders if they would have been allowed on the show if they weren’t so… “normal.” She laments that unlike the eighties, gay people are now widely accepted in society - but only if there is nothing weird about them.
Meanwhile, it appears that Thornton Wilder has dug up more than just his time capsule as two new characters – my favorites – Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera walk onto the stage. They explain that they were part of the Stonewall movement, that even though they were called gay drag queens then, they knew they were really trans women just trying to survive in a world that didn’t want them.
From this point on, everything is a bit of a blur. From Emily somehow appearing in Portia’s kitchen and drinking wine with her as Portia sadly says, “I’m famous, too, you know,” to Marsha interviewing Ellen on the topic of trans rights in today’s world, what I remember most clearly are the tears welling up in my eyes.
As someone with close friends who are trans, I couldn’t help but think of them as I watched Marsha softly ask Ellen about the current state of “the movement.” Ellen tells her that, while it was pretty tough in past decades, gays can get married now, that she herself is married now. But Marsha is unconvinced, wondering, “there is still a movement, right?” before asking Sylvia what she thinks about all this, to which Sylvia emotionally responds, “This is bullshit.”
I can feel Sylvia’s pain and echo her thoughts as I think of all that my trans sisters still have to do just to stay alive, to not be cast aside, to be othered. I can feel her pain as I recall all of the histories of the Stonewall Riot I’ve read, which portray only upper-class white men as the heroes of the movement. I can feel her pain as I think of all the terrifyingly incessant news stories about yet another trans person murdered somewhere in the western world.
The play ends on a bittersweet note, because it ends in the real world. Emily makes a defiant observation about the world: “We are all here because we believe we can love each other.”
As I walked out of the theatre, this line echoed in my head as the cold winter breeze and my own tears stung my eyes. If Emily is right and we really are here because we believe we can love each other, why does it feel like some people just haven’t gotten the memo?