Hi! It's R. Eric Thomas. From the internet?
This week: rewatching Watchmen; Gladys and Patti are the best thing that ever happened to me; teacher TikTok is terrific; Lovecraft Country does a body swap episode.
So, I have an RBG story but it’s not great. I mean great as in soaring scope, not as in “I am the one person with tea on the late, great Supreme Court supreme.” So… lower your expectations! (I’m really selling this, I know.) About a year ago, I went to see a play called Fairview at DC’s Woolly Mammoth theater company. In a bit I’m going to have to spoil the end of the play so be forewarned. If you don’t want to know, skip down to the three asterisks.
We had seats in row D, I believe, four rows from the stage. Every seat at Woolly is great, as is the case with many regional theaters, and I was excited to get to see a superb production of an equally superb play only 45 minutes from my house. This is the beauty of regional theater, it always has been. Sometimes I grouse about every regional theater doing the same four shows every year, as if they are just xeroxing a list of the buzziest Broadway and Off-Broadway shows from 18 months prior. I think when you have, say, 45 theater companies across the country all doing, say, the same adaptation of Huck Finn that played at the Public for 6 months (this is not a real example… unless…) it communicates to me that the programming of a season is not taking into account the region of the audience and instead is relying on New York bias to fill a slate and hopefully some seats. This does a disservice to regional theatergoers because it treats us as a monolith who are just going to show up for whatever Manhattan audiences decided they liked. Sometimes this is true—name recognition sells tickets. But I often find myself leaving theaters wondering why what I just saw felt more like a touring production in terms of aesthetic and connection to the place than an organic production of a local team. Touring productions are great, but they are by design nearly exact replicas of what played in New York. I think regional theater has a different mission. I say all that to say this was not the case with Fairview. It made perfect sense that they were doing it, it felt specific to their audience and their context, and the audience engagement around it was thoughtful and stimulating. A thrilling experience before I even walked in the door.
As we made our way to our seats, I encountered two very well dressed ushers standing in the aisle. I waited to be acknowledged but they didn’t. They talked to each other in hushed tones before moving out of the way, but never directed us to our seats. I harrumphed internally even though I knew damn well where D4 was. Theater seating is usually not rocket science but I do like the experience of needless formality! It’s part of the whole aesthetic.
We sat for a while, maybe 15 minutes past when the show was supposed to begin as the pre-show loop of Black sitcom themes played over the speaker system. You’re never going to catch me complaining about having to listen to “Movin On Up” from The Jeffersons multiple times so I was good.
Suddenly there was a great murmuring. It was that thing when knowing spreads across a crowd of people speedily but unevenly. Something was happening. I’ve experienced this in instances when something terrible was going down but the best and most memorable instance was once before a Beyoncé concert when suddenly we, a stadium full of people, we’re all suddenly knowing that Patti LaBelle had entered the arena. We all simultaneously felt the need to rise, quiet ourselves, and turn in her direction. It was like we were some sort of flock migratory birds and Patti LaBelle was due South. That’s what was happening at the Woolly. I stopped singing along to the Good Times theme at full volume and instinctively turned my head to see Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg making her way to a seat two rows behind me. The well-dressed usher’s showed her the way because, of course, they weren’t ushers but rather part of her security team. We all stood as one and began to applaud. What a wonderful regional theater experience.
The play began and though it was excellent, truly excellent, my mind stayed on two things. One, as a former front-of-house manager for a theater company, I knew exactly the kind of evening that the house management and stage management staff was having and I was impressed and also I felt incredible sympathy for them. Running a show is hard enough without trying to navigate the presence of one of the most important people in the world. Two, I thought about something that I knew was going to happen. At the end of Fairview (last chance to exit the spoiler train), the play breaks the fourth wall and a Black character begins speaking to the audience. It comes after a moment of incredible activity and violence that totally destabilizes you. She makes a request of the audience. She wants to see them how they see her and so she asks the white members of the audience to come up on stage and sit while she goes down in the audience. I don’t remember how I knew this was going to happen, but I did. I’m a spoiler kween. Call me Oliver, cuz I’m going to get the twist. In retrospect, I should have let David, my husband who is white, know about this in advance but I didn’t think to and then once the play began all my thoughts shifted to another white person: Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (That’s how our relationship works—if I’m not thinking of him, I’m thinking of RBG.) What was RBG going to do at the end of Fairview?!!
It’s a kind of test for the audience as it’s wildly uncomfortable (for some; there were a couple of white people who literally raced to the stage as if in they were the Michael Phelps of the Performative Wokeness Olympics). And the stage isn’t big enough for all of the white people in the audience. It’s a play written with the knowledge that it will be consumed by more white people than non-white people and it wants to underline that. That’s why, I think, it works well when produced by regional theaters. It speaks to the theatergoing audience as a whole but also is deeply interested in the specifics of this theater, this night, this audience. It’s a great device; playwright Jackie Sibbles Drury is a genius. But I needed to know if Jackie Sibbles Drury had a plan for what to do if Ruth Bader Ginsburg was in the house! Surely there was a footnote or something. (All of my plays have contingency plans for roughly 75 celebrity attendees.)
Obviously, she’d go up. Like, there was no doubt in my mind that RBG would participate as a known art-lover and also as one the people responsible for bending the arc of human history toward justice she would totally understand, appreciate, and encourage the project at the end of the play. She’d definitely go up. But also? RBG should absolutely not go up! First of all, where would she sit? Amongst the rabble? I dissent! Also, it wouldn’t be safe! Did those fancy ushers have a plan for protecting her from a regional theater audience? (This is largely a joke, but as someone who has sat in many a talkback after an “important” play, I also mean this very seriously.) What if one of the contestants in the Woke Olympics jostled her? I kept resisting the urge to turn around and steal glances at her (she was literally looking at the back of my head). Should I pass her a note? Use my statement necklace to send a secret message? I was spiraling.
Then the moment came. People who shop at 10,000 Villages sprinted to the stage, other people made more slow progress, a couple of grumpy Liberal Arts Patrons audibly announced that they would not be participating because they paid for this seat. True chaos. Baby, this was White Drama Live. I was panicking and I started to look around with more boldness, as I felt like it could be read as just me being Black and nosey instead of specifically concerned with the actions of a Supreme Court Justice. But when my eyes found her seat, she was gone. Wisely, she’d been spirited away at some moment just before the big reveal for her own protection (not from the dangers of provocative live theater, but from the uncertainties of a crowd agitated by their own complicities in systems of oppression). Perhaps she watched from a balcony, participating in spirit. I honestly don’t know.
Yesterday, I caught the tail end of an NPR interview about Justice Ginsburg in which the interviewee was talking about her love of opera and how when she entered just before curtain the audience would rise as one and applaud her. I was warmly reminded of the night at Fairview and how awed I felt in her presence. Then I discovered the interview was with someone from the Heritage Foundation who dare to speak RBG’s name and so I had to wash my ears out with bleach. He spoke about RBG’s revolutionary work in the area of women’s rights and even had the temerity to namecheck Justice Thurgood Marshall and his work for the rights of Black people, as if every day the Heritage Foundation isn’t trying to dismantle everything that those two great jurists did and more. But RBG and Marshall are greater than they will ever be; their shadows are longer and hold us all in them, even when it doesn’t feel like it, even when it’s cold, and terrifying, and dark.
Later in the day, I spent an hour and a half Zooming with my friend Sean, whose help I needed on a creative project I’ve been struggling with. It was incredibly productive and afterward I was floating on air and the thought occurred to me, clear as day: when I’m making art I forget to be sad. Sad, you know, about everything. And I felt bad for a moment, as if it’s irresponsible not to be always on alert, always attune to the suffering all around and inside of us. Always attune to the venomous tongue of the Heritage Foundation and their ilk. But I believe it’s important to create and to receive art, to have something playing on another channel on the dial. Like I write in Here for It, what are we fighting for if not the life and the liberty to engage in the things that make us happy, that make us feel alive. And I thought, with gratitude and awe, of Justice Ginsburg, making time on hundreds of nights in her prolific and powerful life, to sit in the dark of an audience and be transported, engaged, and uplifted. And then rising up, when the lights came on, hopefully having been changed a little, energized, inspired—just as she changed, energized, and inspired us—and getting back to work.
The event may have aired at 8 p.m., but they were having 11 a.m. Sunday morning Church, with a capital C. And yes, it feels almost blasphemous to say what we witnessed on IG Live was Church—the Holy Ghost ain't in the habit of making green circle Close Friends posts. But make no mistake: what Ms. Gladys and Ms. Patti brought to the people was some kind of holy. The two made mention of their combined 150 years of performance experience (Patti started in her teens; Gladys was out here belting at four years old), and every minute of that was on display as they elevated a battle to a gift. By mixing humility, gratitude, awe, and old-fashioned star dazzle, Patti and Gladys gave a master class in performance and a master class in understanding the assignment (and getting extra credit even though you already passed the course, and the boards, and... actually, didn't you write this assignment?)
One of the marvels of HBO's extraordinary series Watchmen, which leads the 2020 Emmy nominations with a well-deserved 26, is that despite all of its delights, it repeatedly refuses to give us what we want. This isn't to say the show is engaged in a kind of Phantom Thread push-pull relationship with its audience. It delivers—narratively, technically, aesthetically, and conceptually—but appears, in retrospect, to be a series built on the tantalizing entertainment tactic of leaving you wanting more. A kind of superhero-fueled narrative burlesque, perhaps.
Not only are the nation's seemingly indefatigable classroom teachers coming up with new innovations to keep their students engaged in the digital morass of a virtual learning environment, but some of them are finding the time and the ingenuity to create TikToks about their experience, which keep me, an adult human, engaged in the digital morass of everyday life. A win for everyone! When the future sentient robot who is writing the history of this moment asks me what 2020 was like, I look forward to waking myself from a cryogenic sleep and removing my mask from my floating brain long enough to declare, "Oh it was awful, but the content was nice!"
The truth is, heretofore, I haven't really been feeling it for Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku). No shade at all to the performer, who is giving this complicated character depth and verve. But over the last few weeks I just haven't been here for the good sis, with her talented tenth-esque worldview and her willingness to be seduced by a man who was basically like "What if I stole your soul... I'm just kidding... unless 😂". I just have questions about her decision-making is all. I want the best for her. I'm rooting for everybody Black and not undead.
Let’s hang out!
Random Thing on the Internet
Three years ago I got assigned to write about doing the RBG workout for a story in Elle. It is so hard but I had so much fun doing it. If you missed it, or want to revisit it, here’s the link.
“The progress that I’ve made in my lifetime makes me optimistic for the future.” -Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaking at the University of Buffalo