I first met playwright, lyricist, and librettist Melisa Tien when she was co-facilitating the writers’ group for Rising Circle Theater Collective, which developed and produced original work by artists of color. Since then, through our seven-year residencies at New Dramatists and the weeklong silent playwriting retreat led by Erik Ehn, I’ve gotten to know Tien’s sly wit and unassuming pushback against rules, establishment structures, and art that looks through a lens of privilege.
I recall standing with Tien in the East Village after a performance of a play which would later become a massive hit. Though we both enjoyed it, there was something off about it for us, and we were both trying to hone in on our disconnect, when she precisely named it: “It’s sorta rich, white progressives patting themselves on the back.” In Tien’s own work, she strives to identify and call attention to different kinds of privilege because, as she says, “To acknowledge one’s own privilege is the first baby step in being able to include and assist those without it.”
In a play Tien is currently developing entitled The Boyd Show, we experience the life of Boyd, a young white man, as he grows up poor in a semi-rural part of the country; however, even though the story shines a light on his misguided call for connection through YouTube, we see Boyd not quite sure how to understand those different from him.
From the play, Boyd rehearses a video project where he wrote an imagined background for his mixed-race friend Sam, who is forced to perform it while being frustrated by how inaccurate it is:
(reading in monotone)
My grandparents immigrated from different places. My mom’s mom is from Jamaica.
My mom’s dad is from here.
That’s not true. He’s from Puerto Rico.
Whatever. Keep going.
(rolling his eyes, continuing in monotone)
My dad’s parents are from Russia and Poland.
(smiling at camera)
That is an interesting, interesting, background.
I don’t actually know where my dad’s parents are from. I never met them.
Moving on! Let’s see…next question…
What was it like to grow up with so many different cultures?
For most of The Boyd Show, Boyd is actually by himself, and has nobody to work though his childhood with him, but lives for posting videos of his life onto his YouTube channel. As such, the play feels tragic in Boyd’s lack of real conversation with the world.
In Tien’s play Best Life, which performs at JACK through April 5th, we get to almost deconstruct what it means to have a real conversation in our current, ever-polarizing world. In the play, a wealthy white woman named Sheryl is pulled into a conversation with a poor woman of color named Lourdes; however, Lourdes has the power to rewind their conversation whenever Sheryl fails to truly see where Lourdes is coming from. In the play, Lourdes simply has to say “Go back” when she needs to rewind:
Don’t you ever get so frustrated that you want to throw something?
Yes. I don’t actually throw anything.
I guess you can’t. Or you become ‘the angry one’.
I’m ‘the calm one’.
I’ve always been the calm one. See, we’re the same.
While the play finds humor and playfulness through its theatrical device of rewinding time, the intricacy of reasons why Lourdes chooses to call out “Go back” are embedded in a socioeconomic divide. According to Tien, “The play’s structure reflects the recursive nature of the race and class conversation in the US at large; it often seems to go around in circles and requires superhuman effort, patience, and willingness before tangible progress can be made.”
Tien, in fact, got the idea for the play from conversations she’s had over the years with a close friend who is white and financially secure, while Tien herself grew up financially disadvantaged. “Our conversations sometimes revolved around sociopolitical issues, and it became apparent that although we were both quite progressive, there were clear differences in the way we perceived the world, based on how we grew up,” explains Tien. “Often, I would leave these conversations frustrated by our seeming inability to see eye-to-eye. It turns out that what I was really frustrated by was our failure to understand where the other person was coming from.”
From the play:
Where do you live?
I’m not sure I’m comfortable—
I’m a very private—
Are you afraid of me?
Because I’m a girl?
Because I’m a brown girl?
Because I’m a poor, brown girl?
I’m not sure your approach is appropriate.
Friends share houses. Enemies share advice.
Tien’s script doesn’t specify Lourdes’s cultural background beyond “Person of Color, poor; outwardly calm, inwardly fed up,” which allows the conversation to feel universal in its scope. As a Mexican-American myself, I felt Lourdes’s experience speaking to my own, while at the same time connecting me to marginalized people from varying backgrounds. Speaking on this, Tien says, “I am interested in making theater that reflects the wide-ranging experience of people of color, with extra regard for stories about women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. My hope is that marginalized audiences will get a chance to see themselves on stage, also that dominant-culture audiences will have the chance to get closer to and empathize with those who are less privileged than them.”
The term “living your best life” is an identity concept which seems rampant on social media—this idea that whatever we might be doing with ourselves, living one’s “best life” is completely in our own hands; it is a readily available utopia should we choose to live it. For Tien, this play came from the process of seeing this concept of a “best life” against the backdrop of the “real racial and economic divides” which were being heavily reported in the media while she was writing. “The play became a way for me to think more deeply about what it means for a person to live their best life, and the factors that affect a person’s ability to live their best life.”
Best Life by Melisa Tien, directed by Ken Prestininzi, presented by JACK, plays March 21 – April 5 (18 Putnam Avenue, Clinton Hill, Brooklyn). For tickets and information: http://www.jackny.org/best-life.html