Who’s Black? Who’s White? Who’s Gay? Who’s Straight? Who Cares? Fred Newman’s Plays of Erotic and Political Transgression
with Thecla Farrell
Unpublished talk, Association of Theatre in Higher Education, 2000
by Thecla Farrell and Dan Friedman
Hello, my name is Thecla Farrell. I am a long time builder of the Castillo Theatre, an off-off Broadway theater in New York City noted for its experimental productions, populist political concerns and postmodern sensibilities. I’m from Trinidad, a performance-rich culture, and I have always loved theater. After I came to New York in 1987 I found myself attending off-off Broadway shows at least once or twice a week. I first came to the Castillo Theatre when I saw an ad in the Village Voice for Growing Up Out & Powerful, which turned out to be a very touching performance piece of song, poetry, and prose about growing up, written and performed by and about lesbians and gays of color. The performer I fell in love with, Pam Lewis, said in her performance, “Gay is political, gay is radical.” I’ll always remember that line because it came with the flash of a revelation of something I always knew, but didn’t know I knew. I remember, falling in love with Pam Lewis--and with Castillo--at that very moment, and that very evening stayed behind after the show and asked to volunteer.
Since that lovely day in June 1987, my work with Castillo has included being the finance person, producing a series of gay performance artists at the theatre, including Robert Lanier, John Patterson, and Pam Kansas. I have been the publicity director for the theater, the director of the group sales team, a member of the performing company, and a costume designer, among other things. I cut my theatre teeth at Castillo and made it my cultural and political home. I have done all my jobs there in an environment of being rooted for, supported, being related to ahead of myself. But working with Castillo has also challenged some of my most basic assumptions about who I am, indeed who we all are, in the world. Those challenges have everything to do with Fred Newman, his theatre and the larger community from which the theatre emerged.
I first met Fred Newman when I took a class at the Castillo Theater about one month after that show. I was very intrigued that this straight, white, political fellah from the Bronx was the main organizer of the pro-gay, progressive theater that I was now participating in. Newman, then 50 years old, was just beginning to write plays. The first play by Newman that I saw—and which I later learned was the first full-length play he had ever written—was Mr. Hirsch Died Yesterday. Mr. Hirsch is a good play to look at because it embodies many of the concerns with identity and the relationships between, in particular, Blacks and Jews and between gays and straights, which have come to characterize Newman’s work in the theatre. It begins with the character Fred (in the original production performed by the playwright Fred) reading to the audience a story in the first person about the death of a Bronx candy storeowner during his childhood. The same story was then enacted by a cast of actors, except that the gender and race of some of the key characters had changed. Fred has become Freda, a Black girl. The third scene is a confrontation between the two characters. Fred, a white, Jewish, straight middle-aged man, and Freda a young Black lesbian, a fight over whose story, whose history, this is. While the play ends with Fred weeping and stubbornly refusing to give up “his” history. Freda comes to the baffling and bemused conclusion that they are “two different people with the same history.”
Mr. Hirsch Died Yesterday was the first of Newman’s plays to explore the complex love-hate relationship between Blacks and Jews—two of history’s most persecuted peoples who have met on American soil under sharply unequal circumstances. However, for me and many others who saw Mr. Hirsch during it’s first six-month run at the Castillo Theatre, the play raised more general questions about why I, why we all, have such a stake in being who we are and so little apparent interest in who we are becoming. Implicitly, the play asked if such a commitment to “roots” keeps us from moving on, prevents us from growing, from developing. Is identity a natural category or a social construct? If it is a social construct, then what prevents us from deconstructing and reconstructing it, as the play was doing?
At that time, I decided that the weirdness of the play had to do with my being from another culture – later I learned that it was weird to Americans too. In fact, I discovered that progressive, liberal and leftist politics in America was organized, for the most part, around identity politics. There were Black militants, Jewish militants, Gay militants, and that what it meant to be a militant was to cling proudly to your roots, your history, your culture, your identity and to fight to get the biggest piece of the political and economic pie you could for your people. In practical terms, militant rhetoric aside, it meant petitioning the Democratic Party either indirectly through demonstrations or directly maneuvering within the party on behalf of your constituency.
Newman and his rag-tag band of multi-racial, politically engaged artists came from a very different political history and tradition. Shaped by some of the more radical cultural and political currents of the 1960s, Newman, a Stanford trained philosopher, who had left academia, never to return, for community organizing in 1968, is not concerned, as I learned by working with him, with getting a bigger piece of the existing pie for this or that group. Instead, he’s interested in transforming the pie into something entirely different. He is, to use that now very unfashionable word, a revolutionary. Not in the old-fashioned sense of picking up guns and marching on the White House, but in the postmodern—and, I would argue, far more radical—sense of transforming the totality of our political culture.
When I met him, Newman had already been working for nearly two decades in New York’s Black, Puerto Rican, Jewish and Gay communities, attempting to organize these constituencies outside the framework of the identity-politics and the Democratic Party into an independent political force, an effort that continues today within the Reform Party. I became very excited, and interested in Fred Newman, as both a political activist and as a playwright, precisely because he was trying to impact on the lives of people who, according to society’s definitions, were unlike himself. His theatre work at Castillo, not surprisingly, embodied his political concerns. Through the theatre he was able to give expression to his philosophical and political objections to the concept of identity.
Mr. Hirsch was just the beginning. In the subsequent 14 years, he has written seven plays concerned, in one way or another, with gayness and eight plays that explore Black identity and racism, all of which have been produced at Castillo. When I say they are about gayness or Blackness, I’m being, perhaps, somewhat misleading because their focus is actually on the relationship between gays and straights, between Blacks and whites. After all, the plays say implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, without whiteness, there is no blackness, without straight there is no gay. The spark of transformation and development for Newman is not found in identity—however radical or dissident its pose-
-but in the interaction between identities. It is through interaction that the liminal, to use Victor Turner’s term, the space in which something qualitatively new can emerge, is created.
What are we to make, for example, of a play, such as Risky Revolutionary (1996) in which Che Guevara comes back from the dead to declare, among other things, his erotic love for Fidel? Or of a play in which Lenin and Trotsky make out on stage as they do in Lenin’s Breakdown(1994)? Where else in our dramatic literature will you find a character, such as Emmy Strait, a third-rate Black comedian who is gay, taking on Malcolm X for his homophobia, as we do in Billie & Malcolm: A Demonstration (1993)? What questions does it raise for a 19th century Jew with liver problems and a 20th African American with AIDS, who may in fact be the same person, to met in a gay bar and dance as the lights fade at the end of What Is To Be Dead? (1996)? How do we deal with Pee Wee, the straight, white Southern-born captain of the Brooklyn Dodgers, saying of Jackie Robinson in Stealin’ Home (1997), “For about a decade I watched that son of a bitch shower every day for half the year. He was beautiful. I ain’t never had the hots for no man. But Jackie Robinson? I’d a lay in bed with him butt naked forever. I sometimes get a hard-on just thinkin’ about him.”
These plays and others like them in the Newman oeuvre are plays of transgression in the most profound sense. Not only do they challenge the dominant, conservative categories of white, straight, patriarchal society, they challenge the very notion of category itself. This challenge is, perhaps, most clearly explored in Outing Wittgenstein, the philosophical farce written for production during Gay Pride Month in 1992. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the early 20th century Viennese-born philosopher, was a major influence on Newman thinking about language, identity and change. At the same time, Wittgenstein, who was ruthlessly honest in his intellectual work, lived his life as a closeted homosexual. So, as a subject, Wittgenstein readily lends himself to an exploration of the philosophical/political/psychological issues inherent in identity.
To deal with Wittgenstein’s contradictions, Newman divides him into two characters, Wittgenstein and Wittgenstein’s Gay Alter Ego. This two-in-one approach to character is reminiscent of Shen Te and Shui Ta in Brecht’s Good Woman of Setzuan. As in Good Woman, the divided character in Outing is, at least in part, a response to a societal environment that makes honesty impossible. The first act is structured as a television show, “This Is Your Death,” which brings dead people back to life as guests of the Dolly Partonesque hostess Sally McNally. On the show Wittgenstein meets various relatives, friends and acquaintances from his life—including his Gay Alter Ego who he eventually and uneasily comes to accept.
The second act start our as a contemporary realistic comedy set in New York City’s Central Park the day after Wittgenstein appears on “This Is Your Death.” The TV show acts as the stimulus for a series of comic “outings.” It ends with on a farcical note, as a space ship lands in the park and Wittgenstein and his Gay Alter Ego step out, declaring that they are really from the planet Wittgenstein, “where everyone is gay.”
Diane, one of the recently “out of the closet” New Yorkers, asks, “So on Wittgenstein no man has ever slept with a woman and no woman has ever slept with a man? You’ve never slept with a woman, Mr. Wittgenstein?”
To which Wittgenstein’s Alter Ego replies, “Actually, I sleep with lesbians quite frequently. Indeed, so far as I can tell I am a lesbian. Gayness to us on the planet Wittgenstein doesn’t mean sex with the same sex—it means sex without definition. There’s no ‘opposite’ sex. Therefore, there is no ‘same’ sex. And when you take away ‘opposite’ and ‘same’ then sex is quite a different matter.”
Soon after, Wittgenstein adds, “Surely some people are biologically identifiable as women and others as men. But why should we identify ourselves—biologically or otherwise. Identity is such a vulgar Earth-like idea.”
To which Eddie, the only straight character left in the play, asks, “No one has any identity? I mean…uh…how do you know who anyone is?”
“Well, presumably our so-called identities are based on who we are,” replies Wittgenstein. “So we must have the capacity to know who we are logically and historically prior to having identities. It’s like any code. You have to know what something means before you encode it. Now some codes have positive value. Identity—human identity…has none.”
“So Mr. Wittgenstein,” asks Diane. “I wouldn’t be Black?”
“Well, you are Black,” responds Wittgenstein. “You simply wouldn’t be identified as Black?”
“It’s kinda like everyone is the same,” says one of the Earthlings.
“Oh no, dear boy,” replies Wittgenstein’s Alter Ego. “It’s rather like everyone’s different. It’s those categories of identity, which make everyone the same…Actually on Wittgenstein ‘same’ and ‘different’ have no real meaning. That’s why we’re all so bloody gay.”
Soon after, everyone piles into the space ship and flies off to the Planet Wittgenstein.
While Outing Wittgenstein is obviously one of Newman’s more absurd and comic works, its playful dialogue on identity is, at the same time, deadly serious. Serious because it is around this concept of identity that so much of our social and cultural lives revolve.
I feel very lucky to have participated for the last 13 years in a theatre that has been able to engage questions that matter, one that challenges some of our deepest held assumptions, one that provokes as, no doubt, even my small description has provoked some of you. As a gay woman of color from the so-called Third World, the question of identity and its transgression is more than an intellectual or aesthetic concern. It is, I believe, a question of cultural life and death for my people – all my people.
I feel privileged to be among you, for I am neither a scholar nor a critic. I am a cultural worker and community organizer who obviously has an intimate and non-objective relationship to work I am introducing to you. Allow me to end with an invitation to and study and critique Castillo. I am convinced Newman’s plays have something important to say about the “status of identity politics in research and performance” that we are discussing today. No matter what your perspective on identity and culture, I believe deeply that both academia and the Castillo Theatre would benefit from an ongoing dialogue.
Monk, Ray (1990) Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. London: Penguin Books.
Newman, Fred (1998) Still on the Corner and other postmodern political plays, ed., Dan Friedman. New York: Castillo Cultural Center.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1958) Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: MacMillian Publishing Co., Inc.