It’s obvious to anyone who has been awake and breathing over the last two years that the 2016 election represented a watershed before-and-after moment in American politics and culture. Ways of thinking about our cultural moment that felt insightful and true before November 2016 came to have a different resonance after the anti-progressive backlash of the election and the subsequent resurgence of racist, mysogynist, homophobic, and xenophobic sentiments and activism that came in its wake.
It seems to me that several works that were written in the first fifteen years of this century have had their thematic and emotional content utterly changed by the assertion of white male grievance and privilege that the current presidency represents. For example, Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop – which received an excellent production at City Theatre in 2014– is one that I often think about in this regard. That play, which imagines Martin Luther King’s last night on earth, ends with an emotionally powerful media montage of the history of the civil rights movement after King’s assasination, culminating – when the play was originally produced – with images from Barack Obama’s historic election to the presidency. The message conveyed was one of pride-swelling hope and optimism, a tribute to King’s legacy that said: “look how far we’ve come.” Today, any production of that play would have to include media coverage of the expressions of racism and white supremacy we saw at Trump campaign rallies and in Charlottesville and elsewhere, rendering its ending a depressing chronicle of Patriarchal White America’s Revenge and a dispiriting reminder of how little progress really has been made in extending equal rights and opportunities to all.
Taylor Mac’s play HIR is another play whose message and mood felt very different before 2016 than it does today. In the play, middle-aged mother Paige (here played by Helena Ruoti) has been awakened to her own oppression by two major changes in her life: first, her domineering, physically and emotionally abusive husband Arnold (Douglas Rees) has suffered a debilitating stroke which has rendered him passive and childlike; and second, her teenaged child Max (Liam Ezra Dickinson) has transitioned from female to male. Max, whose preferred gender pronouns are ze and hir, has also transitioned from public school to homeschooling, where ze has taken on the task of tutoring Paige in feminist and queer theory. This, in turn, has led Paige to rebel ostentatiously against everything she associates with patriarchal oppression and particularly to upend all of the norms, rules, and patterns Arnold formerly imposed on the household. The play’s crises are set in motion when older brother Isaac (Tad Cooley) returns home from deployment in Iraq to find his mother in charge, the house in complete disarray, and his humiliated and emasculated father dottering around the house in garish makeup, a clown wig, and a woman’s nightgown.
When I saw this play in its original production at Signature Theatre in 2015, it seemed to be flipping a joyful middle finger at a white male power structure that it figured – in the person of Arnold, particularly, but also in the person of Isaac – as irrelevant. “You are done,” the play clearly crowed; “we queers and feminists are the future.” Now, in the wake of both the 2016 election and recent studies concluding, rightly or wrongly, that the election was, above all, an outpouring of rural America’s fury over its perception that coastal elites hold the white working-class in contempt, the play comes across more as an example of the kind of smug liberal disdain that supposedly led the country’s Isaacs and Arnolds to respond with fawning admiration to the current president’s gloating misogyny and racism. When Isaac slinks out of the house in disgrace and shame at the end of the play, the taste is sour rather than sweet; hindsight tells us he’ll soon be putting on a red baseball cap and voting his vengeance on Paige, Max, and all they represent.
It’s hard for me to assess the extent to which it’s the changed socio-political climate alone that has altered how this play signifies, or the difference in production choices made by director Patrick Jordan and his cast – or, putting the two together, the extent to which the changed socio-political climate impacted the production choices Jordan and ensemble made. Whatever the reason, the barebones’ production seems a wholly different play than the one I saw previously, despite nearly identical scenic and costume designs.
The most significant of the differences is in the intepretation of Paige. In the 2015 Signature production, Kristine Nielsen played Paige as a daffy, addle-brained bird, flitting and floating on a giddy cloud of triumph over her escape from her cage of ideological oppression. Her performance was light and nimble, and she only allowed the character’s rancor to nibble at the edges at key moments of the play. Ruoti’s Paige, in contrast, is far more tuned-in, angry, and bitter, a choice that is fully understandable in light of the changed world we now inhabit. But it’s a choice that has the side effect of making her seem scolding, preachy, and superior – precisely the sort of lefty posturing that those on the other side of the culture wars find so infuriating. At the same time, Cooley and Rees offer much more sympathetic and likeable renderings of Isaac and Arnold than their 2015 counterparts, such that they start to appear tragic rather than irrelevant – or, perhaps better put, tragic in their irrelevancy.
In the end, however, it’s Max whose precarious position ought most to compel our attention and sympathy. Dickinson plays Max with a dead-on combination of know-it-all eye-rolling teen sarcasm and deep, barely hidden insecurity. Max’s mutually exclusive desires – to usher in an egalitarian queer future, and to be fully welcomed and accepted into the fraternity of white masculinity, with all the access to power and privilege that comes with it – make hir the character whose internal conflict most eloquently captures the prize that is at stake, both within the world of the play and in our socio-political arena.