Columbus, Sauk City, & Viroqua, WI

“Wow. Really? That’s your takeaway from what I just said?” – Chris, ‘Sweat’

It was ironic, really, that the man was speaking to our ‘Chris’. I almost expected him to respond with this line.  We had just finished performing at the Columbus Area Senior Center, to an overflowing crowd of both seniors and other folks in town.  There was the requisite hearing aid feedback, audible commentary, and disapproving clucks re the swearing. One gentleman spent probably the first five minutes visibly counting each F bomb on his fingers (he gave up), which did not inspire charitable thoughts in me.  

This was the same guy who was now looking at my friend and delivering in brisk, kindly tones what can only be summed up by my other colleague’s translation in the dressing room  as some shit that’s racist AF. 

Arrival at the senior center, the playing space upon arrival (many many rows of chairs were added here),  Jessie’s cake (vanilla, not too sweet, and kind of cornbread-y texture).

I’m not sure how this came up, but probably we’d been asked what we’ve learned along the way, which they’ve been asking a lot. Our ‘Chris’ took the mic to share as a young Black man his thoughts about how Societal Change really happens. And part of his reflection was the idea that perhaps nothing shifts until those who are in power give up some of that power, whether that means me, as a man, making sure to make space for women, or white folks in power making space for african-americans or other marginalized groups. (paraphrase). It was an eloquent and sensitive probably 30 second share.

And this was the response:

Well, Ive been all over the world and seen a lot – apartheid, slavery – and I’ve also seen a lot of people in really terrible situations find the strength to get out and to make things better for themselves. And I must say that you seem to have done that, so, congratulations to you.

Paraphrased, but I’m pretty sure I got most of it.

It was a tough one. We all seemed to have hit various walls, not all because of the above. There were also beautiful moments.  A woman who had spoken in the talkback and made a reference to her (female) partner told our Oscar afterwards that it was the first time she had ever publicly acknowledged their relationship in that way. That was because of you guys. You’re all up there sharing your feelings and being so honest that it made me want to do that. 

An older/senior (white) woman passed the dressing room just as I was ranting, and poked her head in to thank us for coming. With a kind of electric grin she said that it was amazing to have that kind of conversation here in Columbus!! and it reminded me that everyone is on a path and in their own time. Maybe that was the first time anyone there had talked about anything like that in public. That guy really thought he was paying Chris a compliment.

Arrival at Sauk Prairie Community Center; the playing space where there had been a ‘Pickleball Tournament’ just hours before; Jessie’s cake (really, really large and heavy. I think this was the one with a layer of jam in it?)

The Real Real, as they say, continued in Sauk City the next night. At the preshow   411 one of my castmates brought up The Incident and asked what is our role in these talkbacks; are we allowed to speak as ourselves and push back or are we representing the Public or what and the assurance was given that we are all welcome as ourselves. I mean, try not to yell at an audience member, but I’m sure you wouldn’t. 

So my cast mate  took the mic to ask if anyone in the audience can speak to the reality of voting for Donald Trump. There were nervous titters and disavowals, and one or two people talked derisively about my friend  or my relative who voted for reasons like obama wanted to take our guns and how absurd it was.  My friend kept the mic and pressed on politely saying no way, statistically, someone in this room did not vote for him, and I’m really interested to hear your side of things, for real. 

And a man raised his hand and took the mic, and had exactly one thing to say: that as a traditional catholic, he voted for Trump because he was not, as he put it, pro-Death And that was it. I mean, he talked for a while, and in a mean spirit I want to also share that he stood up and strutted back and forth while he did, but, yeah. Abortion. That was it. Oh, yeah, and i”m not gonna vote for him again, because I think he’s gone too far; you can’t run our country like a corporation, it’s not a corporation. 

THAT’S when you think he went too far?? I wanted to stand up and scream. But it was my turn to stare at the floor, exhale, and despair.  But a few minutes later, a very courageous young woman took the mic to identify herself as a woman who has had an abortion and to calmly speak the truth to the fact that we all just watched a play about survival, and I think we cannot forget that abortion is an issue of survival for a lot of women, and that our survival and our freedom is tied to our gender. 

Also, beautifully, ‘Jason’ finally was asked to speak to the experience of playing his character. No one ever approaches me afterwards, but I think they did this time.

I’m happy to wrap this post up with a report on a really joyous and beautiful matinee at the VFW Hall in Viroqua.

The grounds outside the hall, Jessie’s cake (lavender-lemon, unforunately heavy on the lavender and unfortunately frozen in the middle, but ‘Oscar’ got the slices cut anyway!); Arrival at the hall. The entrance leads you straight into a bar that looks exactly like Stan’s bar in ‘Sweat’ in my mind… right turn into the community center playing space:

How, how will we do the show in bright sunlight? we wondered; a look at the stage L backstage area.

I loved this crowd!! and I think we all did. It was, again, as one of them put it, pretty lily-white here, and homogenous, but also from the get go they were vocal and warm and laughed uproariously at kind of everything. And the kind-of litmus test moments like the Black History month joke or Tracey’s speech went down a storm. It was PACKED. Oh my gosh. On a cold Sunday afternoon in this little town people showed UP, and so many seats were added that we feared we would not be able to make some exits/entrances. The enthusiasm and welcome were palpable, and I will always love our gung-ho Host Lady from the rotary club who asked ‘Oscar’ if she could put some decorative gourds on the bar, to celebrate the season. I heard the SM telling her later that unfortunately the play is set close to New Year’s, so it wouldn’t make sense.

They were so lovely; emotionally responsive, available, engaged. Over and over we heard We don’t have factories here, but we have/had farms, and this is our story. We heard about how there used to be 45,000 dairy farms and now there’s 8500. The young people who want to farm can’t rely on it in the same way.

What about your sons, Marta??! called a woman from across the room. What about your boys?

Well, they’re not doing so good! responded Marta, and for the next while there was a lot of calling each other out to encourage and contradict and challenge by name, as in the amazing Cherry Jones lookalike who leaped to her feet to call out her neighbor for being all pouty-faced about the future of farming and how he discourages young people from going into the field. This is a great place! I’ve worked with farmers all over the world, and I moved here because look around you, everywhere people are working with their hands and it’s great! I had the privilege of standing with them after, camera in our faces, as they amicably argued about whether or not it makes sense to encourage young folks to be farmers. Well, look, all I wanted to do as a young man was either work the railroad or milk cows, but it’s just not practical anymore.  I pointed out that we might as well have been having a conversation about going into the theatre.

I think the thing I’m most grateful for about Viroqua (aside from the chiropractor in the house who worked on ALL of our backs FOR FREE) was again,  an opportunity to collide with some of my own assumptions. I mean, who knew that in an audience of dairy farmers I would hear a reference to Peter Brooks’ ‘The Empty Space’? Who knew I would meet a guy who used to work with Studs Terkel  and call him his mentor? Who knew that I would hear people talking about dairy farming with the same passion and ambition that I’m used to hearing from folks in the Arts? It was just new for me. And somehow in that afternoon something crystallized for me that’s been growing this whole tour and that I finally had a chance to articulate and share during the what have you guys learned portion. My biggest personal takeaway from this experience is a newfound respect for and awareness of what I do as work. That I hunger to feel useful and provide a service and hone my skill and share it with the world, and that this counts. That, as The Playwright has said more than once, artists are working people. I think I’ve spent a long time harboring societally-induced guilt that wanting to do the work I do makes me silly, or lazy, or egocentric. I think that for years now there’s been a gnawing feeling that my factory, as it were, is about to shut down; that live theatre has no place anymore, that my skills are obsolete and /or unimportant. And, as the gentleman said in Saginaw,  I didn’t know I felt that way… and I feel better. 

L : For real -this guy used to tour with Up With People.  R: wild apples foraged by our bus driver and shared among the cast. (Our bus driver is also an artist; he played me some of his instrumental compositions (flute) and said he looked me up  – “you are – ‘Magician’s Daughter’?)

Well, for anyone still reading, I’m grateful. . The next time I blog I’ll probably be back in NYC. I can’t believe it’s almost over. I’m sitting in a hotel lobby ‘up north’ in Hayward surrounded by taxidermy deer heads and gazing at a beautiful lake view. Tonight we will head to Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College to do the show partly for, we think,  we hope, the tribal community here.  I can’t wait to keep walking into the unknown. Thanks for walking with me.

One more!


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