The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2021

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OCT 2021 Issue
Theater

Write Me Back: P.S. Offers a Unique Window into Pen Pals’ Isolation

Courtesy the author.
Courtesy the author.

“It’s been a wild year.”

Last October, the correspondence between Beatrice Hammond and Ona Zeng began with an understatement.

Bea’s first letter from Moody, Oregon reached Ona in Brooklyn. The letter also arrived in hundreds of mailboxes across the United States. Each recipient had purchased a ticket for Ars Nova’s P.S., a durational piece that allowed audiences to read a series of intimate exchanges between two (fictional) childhood friends.

One year later, P.S. culminates this October with an in-person theatrical event at Ars Nova’s 54th Street location. For readers who have gotten to know Bea and Ona over the past year, it’s a way to cap off the P.S. experience—though as those readers will also know, a joyous reunion looks unlikely.

P.S. was conceived by Teddy Bergman, artistic director of Woodshed Collective, who pitched a letter writing durational experience to Ars Nova. The theater paired Bergman with playwrights Sam Chanse and Amina Henry. In the many late-night Zoom meetings that followed, the three hashed out who Bea and Ona were and how their relationship would grow.

Courtesy the author.
Courtesy the author.

The artists also did some processing of their own. Porous conversations moved between careful plotting and rants about the state of the world. Plenty of both ultimately made it into the letters, which have a stream-of-consciousness quality.

“We wanted to create something non-digital and tangible,” said Bergman. “As opposed to simulating being together, it was an attempt to mourn not being together.”

The letters reveal that Bea, a Black woman, and Ona, Asian-American, grew up together in the fictional town of Moody. They bonded as outsiders in a heavily white community. Ona escaped to New York to try to make it as an artist, while Bea remained in Oregon and opened a community-based natural café. The two haven’t seen each other in eight years. Neither, we learn, has found the belonging they crave so deeply.

In the first letter, Bea unburdens herself about everything: a recent break-up, as well as her mother’s conservative politics and support for Trump, Moody’s silence on Black Lives Matter. Then she wonders: does Ona remember that night they graffitied a Safeway and danced to Tupac in the parking lot?

Below her signature, there is a plea, vulnerable but firm:

“P.S. Write me back.”

Ona does. She confides her own recent break-up from a similarly toxic man, recalls the constant microaggressions she faced in Moody, and describes the community spirit of the protests in Brooklyn.

And yes, Ona assures her. Of course she remembers that night in the parking lot.

“Remembering it makes me feel achy,” she writes. “Like I’ll never be that good again, or have that much urgency & promise & truth.”

In 15 letters over the next 11 months, Bea and Ona kept on sharing. The letters have continued through the election, the January 6 insurrection, the Atlanta shootings, and an unending pandemic. Though world events necessarily shape the lives of two women of color pushing through a divided America, the heart of P.S. always lies in the support that Bea and Ona give each other simply by staying connected.

Bergman, Chanse, and Henry crafted P.S. around the driving theme of belonging. For Ona, that need for belonging drives a spontaneous move, a new circle of friends and an artistic reinvention. It pushes Bea down a darker path, leading her to a cultish self-improvement community called Black Feather Farm (loosely inspired by NXIVM).

Courtesy the author.
Courtesy the author.

In the penultimate letter, Bea abruptly cuts off the correspondence at the command of the Farm’s leader. The final letter, a reply that Ona is sure Bea will never read, reflects on the preciousness of their connection and Ona’s failure to save her friend.

“All the words that have passed between us...where did they go, what did they do?” Ona wonders. “Did they do anything?”

While the letters end on a darker note, Bea and Ona’s correspondence as a whole is gentle, supportive, and loving. That tone felt important to Chanse and Henry.

“I became invested in the idea of them actually, as women of color, being a support for each other,” said Henry. “There’s enough conflict in the world right now. They didn’t need to be in conflict with each other.”

“It’s such a fragile connection, and something that they were renewing after a long period of time,” agreed Chanse. “I became, as it went on, very caring about wanting them to make this work and make it go somewhere.”

“I want that feeling of kindness between people, of people taking care of each other in the middle of chaos,” Bea writes in one letter.

“I don’t have a ton that feels solid to me,” Ona later writes back. “But reconnecting with you, this feels real, something to hold onto.”

P.S. gave the artists something to hold onto as well.

“It certainly helped me in my own processing of what’s been going on in the last year,” said Henry. “I knew that I would have it as a container to put some of that stuff.”

With most of Bergman’s projects sitting in limbo, the chance to create something immediate was invaluable. He took the lead on crafting the physical letters, holding handwriting auditions and working with dots design on custom stationery. He gleefully recalls P.S.’s first “production meeting,” a hasty, masked-up gathering outside a Rite Aid to compare paper samples, ink, and envelopes.

“It was thrilling to be like, making decisions about paper,” recalled Bergman. “I felt like I was directing for a second.”

He also collected the ephemera that populated the letters, including a North Dakota postcard emblazoned with the state branding “Be Legendary,” confetti from a celebration party on the night of President Biden’s win, and Ona’s melancholy drawing of Bea’s dog, Judy.

Even as the two keep holding each other up, tensions and disagreements that shade the letters become evident to readers. They mostly go unsaid, especially Ona’s worries about the Farm.

“I know it’s important to do things that are uncomfortable sometimes, and that hurt,” she writes hesitantly in one letter, as close as she gets to a warning. “But at the same time, not everything that hurts is good.”

“It is this nuanced dance where a lot goes unsaid,” said Chanse. “These are two people who are so different but also really care about each other, so we see how they’re trying to navigate those differences.”

Courtesy the author.
Courtesy the author.

Readers may well have shared Ona’s hope, however unrealistic, that this connection could somehow rescue them both. Instead, P.S. concludes with Ona on a positive track, and Bea seemingly lost.

Still, the authors caution against despair.

“I don’t know if the exploration is about one of them saving the other, so much as the need to be saved,” said Henry. “Bea and Ona give each other quite a lot. They prop each other up, and give each other strength.”

“Everything they’ve exchanged over this correspondence has permeated their being,” agreed Chanse. “There are seeds planted that they will carry with them, even if we’re not going to see it.”

“Will there be an impact of all these words that passed between them?” she continued. “Ultimately, that’s the question.”

The in-person conclusion of P.S. plays at Ars Nova’s 54th Street space October 7–23. A streaming version will be available on Ars Nova Supra October 25–November 20. Audio recordings and pdfs of all 15 letters will be made available to ticket holders prior to the event. Tickets can be purchased here.

Contributor

Joey Sims

Joey Sims has written at TheaterMania, Exeunt NYC, and Extended Play. He is an alumnus of the National Critics Institute and runs a theater substack called Transitions.

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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2021

All Issues