Voices from the edge
From West Hollywood to the East Village, a bold new generation of American playwrights is speaking out.
November 1993
John Heilpern

Playwrights portraits, clockwise from far left: Han Ong, José Rivera, Nicole Burdette, Jonathan Tolins, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Cheryl L. West.

Holding up a mirror to turbulent America, our new dramatists might be black, white, or blue (as in the Blue Man Group) ... Latino, gay, Asian, or feminist... sexist or apocalyptic. "But there's no such thing as the mainstream anymore! It's blanded itself to death, " says George C. Wolfe, the brilliant new producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival (and the director of Angels in America on Broadway). "That's why these are exciting times in drama. There's a great hole in the middle of American culture, and new voices from every conceivable group are being heard. They are saying, 'We are here!'"

There is no playwright of the new generation who astonishes us more than the extraordinary Suzan‑Lori Parks. Now just 30, she has burst through every known convention to invent a new theatrical language, like a jive Samuel Beckett, while exploding American cultural myths and stereotypes along the way. "If theater's ever gonna be interesting," she says, "write with your balls, not your brains. Je‑sus!" She's passionate and jokey, and some kind of genius. Her epic dramas and spellbinding dreamscapes with quirky titles‑ Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World‑ utterly reject traditional narrative and natural­ism in favor of the theater of images, the Joycean musicality of words, and the reinvention of American myths.

In January, Parks's The America Play premieres at the Yale Repertory Theatre (where she's an associate artist) and will then be produced at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York. This remarkable piece takes as its wellspring the words of John Locke: "In the beginning, all the world was America. " It tells the story of a black man who bears an amazing resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. He is known as the Foundling Father, a gravedigger by trade. He digs holes. And so one day he digs a vast hole in which he appears dressed as Lincoln and invites members of the public to pretend to be John Wilkes Booth and shoot him ....

Parks might have come from another planet, and in a sense she has. She was raised as an army brat in Germany, the daughter of a colonel who's now a professor at the University of Vermont. "In Germany I wasn't a black person, strictly speaking " she says. "I was an American who didn't speak the language. I was a foreigner. Today I'm a black American woman and a playwright. But what does that mean? Am I only speaking to black women playwrights? To blacks? What does it mean?"

It means she refuses to be pigeonholed. She lives rootlessly in New York's Greenwich Village, writing stories never told and blowing off steam each day at Seido karate class. While at Mount Holyoke College in the 1980s, she took a writing class with James Baldwin. When he saw her manically acting out her short stories, he said, "Try writing plays." Parks's innovatory, feverish imagination went on to wonderfully deconstruct both the mythic history of the black experience and the history of America.

"Because of a shameful past," she points out, "there's an equation from both whites and blacks that automatically goes: Black people are oppressed. There are some wonderful plays about the black struggle ‑but is that all we get to write about? There's another equation, I think. And that's what I'm interested in. How about black people, period? What if you remove the racial tension for a moment? What, then, is the drama and what kind of theater does it make? Maybe really weird theater! But I'm trying to remove the straitjacket."

If Suzan‑Lori Parks reinvents reality, José Rivera finds magical realism by looking out the window of his home in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and two young children. "To write about the possibilities of a cataclysmic earthquake in L.A. is to write about a nightmare, but it's real," he says in his gentle way. His breakthrough drama of the apocalypse now, Marisol, portrayed an urban America hemorrhaging to death, perhaps to be remade or reborn, like Lazarus. Some of Marisol's acid‑rain fantasies actually happened to Rivera: As he was traveling home by subway to the Bronx in 1980, a wired madman swung at him with a golf club, just missing a deathblow to Rivera's head; later, in Brooklyn, a friend called asking him if he was still alive, having read a news report of the death of a man named José Rivera then Rivera heard from his mother that a good friend of hers named Marisol had been visited by an angel. He met her, a sweet Puerto Rican lady who told him the angel was a woman, beautiful and glowing in the dark, who spoke Spanish and had "a pretty pageboy haircut."

Rivera was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, 38 years ago. His father was a janitor, a short‑order cook, and a taxi driver; his four brothers are all in the military; his sister is a nurse. He resists the label "Puerto Rican playwright." After all, he points out lightly, Sam Shepard isn't described as "the Anglo‑Saxon playwright." Where is this most talented man heading in his plays of America? "I left Puerto Rico when I was four years old," Rivera explains. "And I left with a certain knowledge I've been trying to regain ever since. We lived on a farm in a tiny town with a culture of superstition. There were no phones or TVs. It was a world where people didn't write. They spoke. They told stories."

He is currently in the midst of writing a new play, Cloud Tectonics, about a man who picks up a pregnant hitchhiker who stays pregnant for two years. Why two years? I ask. "She has no sense of time," he replies. And adds: "Real is a comfortably safe, explainable, perhaps sentimental, American reality. But the spectrum also includes wonder, the sacred, the psychotic, the irrational, the degenerate‑the other real world."

What is the actual reality of finding oneself categorized as part of an ethnic minority when, to some playwrights, the word minority implies minor? "It isn't easy being an African‑American woman, or an African‑American woman playwright!" Cheryl L. West says. "It's tough enough being a woman." She points out, without bitterness, simply as a fact, that most of America's theater institutions are run by white males. "They feel women writers limit the repertoire, and a black woman limits it more. There's the presumption that if you're black, you're just angry. The language in my plays can also be a little raw. Women aren't supposed to write like that! Well, you weed your way through the prejudice. And it's changing. It must be. I'm getting produced!"

West is the first black American to win the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, for her 1991 Before It Hits Home. Spike Lee has optioned the film rights to the ruthlessly honest drama, which tells the story of the devastating impact of AIDS on a black family. Two previous winners of the Susan Blackburn are Wendy Wasserstein and Marsha Norman, who both later won Pulitzers. The premiere of West's new play, Holiday Heart, will be a coproduction of the Syracuse Stage, the Cleveland Playhouse, and the Seattle Repertory. Theatergoers across the country have seen her epic drama of four generations of black women, Jar the Floor. Yet she came to playwriting late. This daughter of a single mother has three degrees and worked in social service before becoming a full‑time writer only three years ago. "I wasn't born to do it," she says. "I had a desire."

Now 37, West lives in Champaign, Illinois, writing her dramas of the black experience and the American family, of observed truths and lies made universal, like a harder‑edged August Wilson. Her authentic voice has caused trouble among the black community. She was called a "black white woman" for Before It Hits Home. "I was told that I had betrayed and slandered the black community. People didn't want AIDS and black even mentioned together. It was more painful at first. I get scared. But I was raised to be brave and stick with it, and I have to tell the truth as I see it‑no more, no less."

A self‑described alien‑outsider, 25‑year‑old Han Ong is arguably the avant‑garde leader of the next generation. He peers through the looking glass of American contemporary culture with a rigorous, fierce, and suspicious intelligence. Born in the Philippines of middle‑class Chinese parents, he immigrated to Los Angeles with his family at sixteen. He once described himself as a living billboard of discontent, like Magritte's anonymous bowler‑hatted gentleman with no face.

I ask him if he has acquired a face. "I've acquired certain portions of a face," he replies, "but it's not there yet. I guess once it's there, I'll stop writing. It's still a perpetual quest. I've acquired a mouth, and I have one ear, so far. I'd like three ears. But you have to earn them."

At other times Ong talks like a fearless drama critic: "It's unbelievably easy to get away with bad writing if one is ethnic .... Any two‑bit fool with eyes could tell I'm an Asian playwright. We must employ a deeper level of inquiry. He wrote his first big piece, L.A. Plays, to fill a vacuum by putting young outsiders like him, the disenfranchised and the marginal, onstage. The substance of his postcards from the edge is the conjunction of sex and race, the subculture of L.A., the search for identity, and the demythologizing of the American dream.

Swoony Planet, the first of a trilogy, is about how immigration is changing the face of America. "In Swoony Planet the immigrant narrative is a frequent‑flier narrative," Ong says. "It's been flown so often, it's bleached dry of any significance. America almost desperately needs the mirror of the outsider. I don't think there is such a thing as the American dream, personally. My characters have certain notions of it, such as the dream of being away from where you are, or were. Like the disillusion of all dreams, it's a journey from generic to specific ‑from the fuzziness of cotton and pink and the wide, blue expanse of sky to more specific details, like being spat at on a street corner. In my plays it's a journey from up to down, an inverted triangle. It's the limitless possibilities of coming to America and the disparity between its myth and reality."

Han Ong's work ‑he is also a gifted performance artist‑ has shaken things up at the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard, at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum, and at New York's Circle Rep. He has a new play commissioned by the Public Theater and an adaptation of Agamemnon for the Actors' Gang, Tim Robbins's theater company in L.A. "I'm deeply unhappy when not writing," Ong says. Among his influences: Georg Buchner's masterpiece Woyzeck (which Ong has also adapted) for its surreal menace and ice; the plays of Samuel Beckett for their lyrical minimalism; the novels of Thomas Bernhard for their monologues of contempt; and the plays of Fassbinder for the way they explode the notion of a perfect play. It comes as a welcome relief to learn that Ong has also been strongly influenced by, of all things, Sesame Street, which he watched while learning English in the Philippines. His impatience with a static frame comes from the TV show, as do his moving collages that are one step slower than MTV. At 25, Han Ong has an exciting body of work ahead of him, but where does he belong? "I don't feel I belong in America," he says, "though I'm very American in lots of ways. I don't belong in the Philippines certainly, nor China. I don't know where I belong."

Off Broadway's Naked Angels, one of the leading avant‑garde theater groups in New York, has produced such playwrights as Jon Robin Baitz, whose Substance of Fire and 3 Hotels detonate the cultural hypocrisy of the American middle class; and the young Italian‑American Frank Pugliese, whose quite promising Aven' U Boys tells of the working‑class wars and hatreds of his former 'hood, Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. But a founder of the Naked Angels troupe, who also gave it its name, is the delightful 29‑year‑old Nicole Burdette. Born in San Francisco, the daughter of an ex‑Golden Gloves boxing champion, she is virtually the only playwright we have met who gives the impression of being happily blessed doing what she does.

Burdette is the Holly Golightly dramatist of New York City. "Why do I write? Well, I love it! Though not like 'I love to play tennis.' I don't write for money or a production. I write to get better." What about the audience? "I am the audience!" While praying, of course, that others will join her. Which they do. Her much‑praised Chelsea Walls resonates with imaginative life and freakish happenings within that fabled home to writers and artists in New York, the Chelsea Hotel on West Twenty‑third Street. Burdette can be a little impractical. Her Chelsea Walls carnival requires 27 actors, a boa constrictor, and a parrot.

She's fun. "I know I'm not Tennessee Williams. I'm trying. " She is also a stage and screen actress (she appeared in Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It), a playwriting teacher at the YMCA, a poet, a sometime journalist, an ex‑nightclub hostess, and a blues singer. "I like to try everything once," she says. "Or twice. Except writing plays. Playwriting is forever." The titles of some of her fourteen plays tell us something about her various passions: The Dizziness of Too Many Possibilities (from Kierkegaard), Pagans in Limbo (from Dante's Inferno), The Great Unwashed (an anonymous phrase from Bartlett's Familiar Quotations), and a new play, which will need a full symphony orchestra, ideally, Listen to the Music and Wait (from George Balanchine's advice on choreographing new ballets).

"I have a desire for the upswing," she explains cheerfully. "I want people to leave the theater with hope. Or maybe it's because I don't have the guts to believe in doom. " She looks earnest suddenly, so I offer Nicole Burdette a wish. She deserves one. Her wish, it turns out, isn't really for herself. She wishes that her mind will be blown every day by extraordinary theater.

And what of George Wolfe's dead, or blanded‑out, mainstream? There's a glimmer of the young and surprising even on Broadway. The Twilight of the Golds, by 27‑year‑old Jonathan Tolins, has just opened at the Booth Theatre. The unknown Tolins, who lives in Los Angeles, is a Harvard graduate and the son of a Long Island corporate lawyer. In a neat twist, he wrote The Twilight of the Golds semi-secretly at his desk while working as an office temp at Disney Studios ‑and Disney ended up buying the screen rights to the play.

Amiable, thrust into the public glare but trying to keep calm, Tolins says all this overnight recognition is a miracle. "The Broadway opening might be the single most glorious night of my life, because there might not be a second," he told me warily. But whatever the commercial fate of Tolins's play, its nightmarish theme couldn't be more imaginatively relevant. Outwardly a conventional domestic comedy, The Twilight of the Golds almost psychically spins off from recent scientific studies that claim it may be possible to find a genetic basis for the variations of human sexual behavior. Tolins's drama tells the story of a family thrown into crisis when a pregnant woman is told her fetus will most likely be homosexual.

"What I'm asking," he explains, "is at what point do we decide a life isn't worth living? I don't see it as simply a gay issue. If your parents knew everything about you before you were born, would they have had you? If science can conceive of a future possibility of gene therapy and social engineering, are we going to eliminate people with human possibilities that we don't like? And if so, what do we lose? A Stephen Hawking? The gays? Why give birth to a homosexual child in today's climate? Or what if we can remove the gene that brings with it so much resentment and suffering?"

Like the scientist, the dramatist also asks, What if? In The Twilight of the Golds, Tolins is essentially posing another chilling question. When do we stop playing God? This young playwright, in his turn, is asking, What kind of America do we want? So the new dramatists‑such as Tolins, Burdette, Ong, West, Rivera, and Parks‑are claiming their rightful place by taking America apart to put it back together again in compelling new forms, con­veying urgent messages.