(Musings on a new play by Tammy Ryan)
by Heather Helinsky
September 16th, 2011: At 6:45 AM, I am driving on the PA turnpike so I can reach Pittsburgh to meet with playwright Tammy Ryan for lunch. I hate driving—almost as much as Sam Shepard hates flying—but other modes of transportation are not an option right now. Yet, some plays are worth the drive. At the same time, I have several hours of empty road to wonder, ‘why am I doing this again? Why am I so passionate about this play?’
Back in 2009, when I was the dramaturg for Pittsburgh Public Theater, I was invited to a reading of LOST BOY FOUND AT WHOLE FOODS at Bricolage Theater’s “In the Raw” series. As an event, it was a mixture of new play discussion and social outreach and donations were taken for the Pittsburgh Sudanese refugee community. Already, the play had a vibrant life and community around it, and it seemed primed for a production that would draw in new audiences and engaging discussions. To me, no brainer, this play needed to reach audiences—here, in Pittsburgh.
But instead of a Pittsburgh premiere, it received more developmental support at New Harmony Project and a reading at The Lark. It was then featured at the National New Play Network’s National Showcase of Plays before it received a co-production between Premiere Stages and Playwrights Theater of New Jersey in September 2010. Finally, The Rep, the professional company in residence at Point Park University, will now be given its Pittsburgh audience.
At 1:15 PM (don’t judge me, I already told you I hate driving), I arrived at the Coffee Tree in Shadyside for my conversation with Tammy Ryan, who has been patiently waiting. She was extremely generous with her time and found a way of answering my sleep-deprived questions to her beautiful new play. As we talked, I realized I had still not answered for myself—‘why am I here, why am I so driven to discuss this play. Doesn’t it already have its Pittsburgh production?’
As I finished my interview with Tammy, I realized I had to go back to the play and figure out why I’m such a fan. It’s not just the story of the Sudanese Lost Boys, its Tammy’s writing—honest and truthful. As Tammy said in her conversation, ‘you have to bypass the conscious mind to get to the true stuff.’ And what I feel about this play, beyond its accomplishment for receiving a Pittsburgh premiere, is that for me, it’s a little elusive, it looks like a play we’ve seen before, but it’s not, it stretches the audience into a different theatrical vocabulary away from traditional American realism. It’s metaphorical. It asks us to imagine.
And so, my response to the play, hold on for the ride.
American audiences, whether consciously or not, are used to seeing a certain type of play. Whether it is a comedy or tragedy, a character’s traumatic past puts him in conflict with his present situation, and once he comes to terms with this past, he can move forward. Perhaps the reason this is an American theme is that we are still examining our past history to understand our current crisis. We are in search of a cause and effect relationship to make sense of our world. Plays can help us to be introspective as a way of giving the character (and ourselves) hope and promise of a future new life. In a way, this kind of dramaturgy puts a character on the psychiatrist’s couch and we listen to their story to help them heal. This is what we Americans applaud.
But in our 21st century world, we are beginning to collide with cultures that may not understand our need to sit on the psychiatrist’s couch and analyze how to move forward from traumatic national conflicts. Such is the case of Gabriel in Tammy Ryan’s new play LOST BOY FOUND AT WHOLE FOODS, a young man from Southern Sudan, who is “found” by Christine, a recently divorced, middle-upper class white woman who offers to be his mother. And as playwright Tammy Ryan orchestrates this culture clash, the form of her play demands a new dramaturgical structure than what psychological realism allows.
Gabriel is certainly an exceptional character. As pointed out throughout the play by the two social worker characters, Michael Dolan and Segel Mohammad, Gabriel’s ability to survive to the present moment is almost mathematically impossible: of the twenty thousand Southern Sudanese boys who escaped, twelve thousand made it to Kakuma in Kenya, thirty five hundred made it to America before the events of September 11th closed the borders to them, and of those only fifty made it to Pittsburgh. In this play, Gabriel is one of four Lost Boys who holds down a job at Whole Foods while also trying to educate himself at the local community college so he can go back to Sudan and save his country. With those odds, Segel finds it absurd for Christine to feel she should “help” Gabriel when there are so many others struggling for survival in refugee camps and Darfur where another genocide is taking place.
Yet what Christine sees about Gabriel are the deeper wounds of his past that he has yet to come to terms with. “They say in my country,” Gabriel explains to Christine as he stacks lettuce, “When God made Sudan he cried—and he laughed at the same time. If you are going to cry, you have to smile too. It’s much better to smile than to cry, and so I try every day, to make somebody smile. Even if it is only myself.” And so, Christine invites Gabriel into her home. Although Gabriel has been severely traumatized, his way of coping is to stay present. As the play unfolds, conflict arises when Christine pushes him to remember his past. But if the past can’t be shared, how does one heal? And the audience does want to know about the past—even expects to learn a character’s back story. But what the play makes us realize is that if we want to encounter the trauma of the Southern Sudanese refugees, be prepared for its emotional intensity.
As the social worker Michael Dolan warns, “I would ask you to leave this boy alone. He’s had enough trouble already.” Perhaps the strongest statement I feel Ryan’s play makes is: “You’re going to open your life to this human being, so you gotta know why you’re doing it. People cross boundaries, it gets messy. It’s not always a simple thing, helping people.”
LOST BOY FOUND AT WHOLE FOODS has been germinating for Tammy Ryan since 2003, when Pittsburgh Playback Theater invited her to work on a project in collaboration with Catholic Charities. Pittsburgh Playback Theater uses improvisational theatre and drama therapy to reach out and open up a dialogue with different communities. They brought Ryan on to work with special groups, including Sudanese Lost Boys, to give voice to their story. Usually, Ryan would take what they were saying verbatim and organize it into a dramatic narrative. Ryan hadn’t done much research on the Sudanese Lost Boys but ran into a problem when the participants wouldn’t open up and answer her questions. Ryan realized that they had already been through so much interrogation to enter the country, why would they open up to her? “They looked at me as if I had three heads and I didn’t know what I was going to write if they don’t talk to me.”
Ryan then realized she might be able to open them up through childhood games. “I said to the American actors, show them a game, teach them a childhood American game. Once they did that, then the Sudanese participants showed them a game, and then the actors showed them another one, and it started a cycle of sharing which is really an important part of Dinka culture, which I didn’t know, I just did this out of desperation.” The result was a piece called Long Journey Home performed with a mix of Sudanese and American actors. Once the Sudanese refugees understood that a play was a forum to discuss their situation, they had a more enthusiastic response to the process.
That could have been the end of the project. However, Ryan was “really touched by them, the personality that is still so hopeful. They just persevere. Their focus is education and they are determined to go back. So later, when a Whole Foods was built in Pittsburgh, I recognized them and found it ironic that all these Shadyside matrons didn’t know their story. I was struck in the beginning by the abundance of food and yet I knew how these boys had starved and I wondered what it was like for them. One day, I saw one of them cut open a papaya and offer it to this wealthy woman, and just the color of the papaya in his hands, made such an impression on me. If I was a painter I would have painted this moment of irony and I would have been done.” For Ryan, it was a moment of “emotional collision” that spurred her to writing the play.
She then delved into the research about the Dinka culture, but she still felt she needed to give herself permission to write about the Sudanese boys’ traumatic experience. “What did I know about this? Every play, for me, has a thousand reasons why I shouldn’t write it. I don’t want to exploit anyone, so it is a composite of people I met along the way as well as the research I did. When I write plays like this one about places I haven’t been and I have to personalize it to explore sense memories that I don’t have, so I go to the place of imagination to create the internal world of the characters. I do a lot of research with images to give myself permission to write it if a play is not based on my own experience.” Ryan, who has been influenced by playwright Constance Congdon, believes “you have to bypass the conscious mind to get at the true stuff. I have to make all kinds of deals with myself to let it come out.”
A new dramaturgy is needed and the play itself writes its own rules to explore the emotional terrain. A key phrase that keeps being repeated is: “Imagine.” Gabriel asks the audience in the opening prologue to imagine the sun rise as slicing open the earth “like a papaya, spilling its red juice across the sky.” Gabriel uses the word “imagine” again as he explains his fear of crocodiles living in the Pittsburgh’s three rivers. Through this key word, Ryan makes us realize, progressively, that it is almost impossible to imagine the trauma that these boys have been through. If
that’s so, is it even right to engage with traumatized refugee communities who have fled to America?
Another dramatic principle that emerges from the play is what Segel Mohammed says when she first meets Christine: “Whenever I meet someone new, I think, where does this person and I overlap?” Segel and Christine first overlap as single mothers. In each scene, Ryan raises our awareness of how her characters progressively overlap, despite their cultural differences, worldviews, and traumatic experiences. Or, conflict arises when characters are unable to find this point of connection. And perhaps, there is the answer. If we cannot imagine what it feels like to walk in someone else’s shoes, we can still seek to find those points of overlap and build genuine and true relationships from there.
As LOST BOY FOUND AT WHOLE FOODS is now opened in Pittsburgh, I continued my conversation with Tammy. In one question that she posed to me, “if we are out of psychological realism, then where are we? It’s interesting, can we name it?”As a dramaturg, I want to continue to wrestle with this question as our country faces a minefield of international encounters, will the dramaturgy of our plays change? Will we continue to look to the past for answers? Maybe it will always be a part of our cultural identity to search the past for meaning and a solution to rebuild what has been damaged, which is so much the heart of another Pittsburgh playwright, August Wilson. In the meantime, LOST BOY FOUND AT WHOLE FOODS has found some new theatrical gestures to explore relationships in this play of “emotional collisions.”
© Heather Helinsky. Quotations from play used with permission, © Tammy Ryan.
LOST BOY FOUND AT WHOLE FOODS directed by Sheila McKenna, sets by Stephanie Mayer-Stanley, lighting by Andrew Ostrowski, costumes by Cathleen Crocker-Perry, sound by Steve Shapiro. At Pittsburgh Playhouse (Oakland) 222 Craft Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. www.pittsburghplayhouse.com. Through October 16th, 2011.
WITH: David Anthony Berry, Ben Blazer, Connie Castanzo, Laurie Klatscher, Jamil A.C. Mangan, Shammen McCune.
For further reading, reviews by Alice T. Carter and Gordon Spencer. Also, Tammy Ryan’s interview at Pittsburgh Talk Theater