(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. Read more