“At the risk of going full-bore Pollyanna, we were supposed to be better than this. The Cubs organization should have wanted no part of Chapman. We have dance party rooms and petting zoo field days. Violence and recklessness are not the Maddon/Epstein values. Right? To follow my work is to know I want to the Cubbies to prevail as much as any other diehard. It’s in my very bloodstream. But not at the expense of moral degradation.”
“Yes. The Bernie Bros and their relentless bullshit partially marred a historic and inspiring week. Male privilege interrupted the unadulterated joy of so many women who never believed this moment possible. To watch 102 year-old Arizona delegate Jerry Emmett euphorically report her state’s votes for Hillary Clinton is to understand the impact of the candidate’s accomplishment on female Americans. It should have shut the naysayers up for a bit.
On Tuesday afternoon, after Bernie Sanders’ brother Larry delivered an emotional tribute to his sibling’s 2016 primary success, Bernie finally stepped up to the unification plate. He acquitted himself well with a motion to transfer all delegates to Clinton. It was a satisfying conclusion to what had become a party damaging refusal to acknowledge defeat. Democrats could finally make a united pivot toward keeping Trump from the White House. Or so I thought.”
The New Colony and Definition Theatre Company’s three-time 2016 Jeff Award-winner “Byhalia, Mississippi” returns to the Chicago stage at just the right time. This is an election year, and in fact, as the work made its press debut Monday night at the Steppenwolf 1700 Theatre, DNC 2016 was just getting underway.
Last week’s RNC, a literally whitewashed affair that did much to trumpet (pun definitely intended) fear of thy neighbor (especially when he or she is brown-skinned) and this week’s Democratic vision of evolving inclusiveness: they feel like appropriate bookends to an important artistic exercise in taking a hard, extended look at the tensions of now. Poverty versus privilege, evolving racial attitudes in the Deep South, gendered politics — these are just a few of the issues the work tackles.
And “Byhalia, Mississippi” does so without the sort of preachy, heavy self-seriousness that often derails entertainment into the realm of propaganda. The script is laugh-out-loud funny, achingly human and brilliantly acted by the returning original cast. At times the scenes are tough to watch. It is a persistent challenge to audiences, with underlying questions that any thinking person will take home to consider. Are we obligated to live honestly (a much different query than interrogations of “truth”)? And how far have we come along the path of universal acceptance?
The story is ultimately one of love, the bond between Jim and Laurel Parker (Evan Linder, Liz Sharpe). As the press materials distil it, “[The couple] is about to become new parents. They are broke. They are loud… When Laurel gives birth to their long overdue child, she and Jim are faced with the biggest challenge of their lives.”
What’s narratively fascinating is that Jim and Laurel are two people who betray and hurt each other. They are exposed to scandal and in fact, Linder and Sharpe spend a lot of the show’s two-hour and 15 minutes running time acting in different scenes. Though the characters are frequently separated and estranged by some corrosive internal and external influences, they ultimately remain each other’s “plan.” Their relationship reveals that there are elements of choice involved in matters of the heart. This is existentially comforting somehow, even if the road to reconciliation is a humiliating, rough ride.
These are not “good” people, and the dialogue goes to painstaking effort to suggest that there’s no such thing. But even as their lives come completely apart and others are waylaid as so much collateral damage, the bond between Jim and Laurel is perversely inspiring. And dammit, incongruity is a cold, naked human reality. This critic had grateful tears running down her cheeks during the production’s touching, soft ultimate scene.
Linder and Sharpe are terrific, as is every other performer on the stage. Cecilia Wingate, who plays Laurel’s stuck in the Jim Crow era but still somehow overbearingly lovable mother Celeste, — she’s a revelation. One of the three Jeff Awards doled out to “Byhalia, Mississippi” in 2016 include a Best Actress in a Supporting Role nod for Wingate. So well deserved. Talented is the actress who can engender genuine, complicated sympathy in a character who might be unlikeable under another’s care.
The writing from the playwright, lead actor, and New Colony Co-Artistic Director Evan Linder is fast, organic and complicated. Tyrone Phillips directs his experienced cast and crew with the fluidity and familiarity of an artist who understands the power of dialogue. “Byhalia, Mississippi” needs no special effects to have an explosive impact. And the intimacy of the Steppenwolf’s new 1700 Theatre is a perfect fit for such deeply personal material.
Highly recommended Summer 2016 viewing at a critical juncture for the determination of 21st Century American values.
“Byhalia, Mississippi” runs through August 21 at the Steppenwolf 1700 Theatre, 1700 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website.
“Did we really need exposed emails to confirm what the party already knew? Despite what we routinely hear from the arrogant mouth of Donald Trump, being right is not in fact its own reward. It’s incredibly unfortunate to watch DNC 2016 start off with the wrong kind of bang through a long series of unforced errors.”
“Though he was rested during today’s away win against the Milwaukee Brewers, it sure feels good to have Center Fielder Dexter Fowler back in the Cubs lineup. The 2016 All-Star with the fanciest moniker in baseball was missing for a month with a hamstring strain, but finally took the field for Friday’s opener in Wisconsin. Any lingering concerns about his health were erased with a big 3-4 performance at the plate, including a home run.”
“While four major crap fests were occurring and gobbling national attention, there were plenty of other insane side shows. These less covered events still offered schadenfreude for the less charitable liberal, ignominy for those acutely aware a sociopolitical low point was playing out on stage for all the world to see. Here are seven other absurdities you may have missed during RNC 2016.”
“Home” is a word with many different definitions. Over the weekend, I visited Dictionary.com to study them…
- A house, apartment, or other shelter that is the usual residence of a person, family, or household.
- The place in which one’s domestic affections are centered.
- An institution for the homeless, sick, etc.: a nursing home.
- The dwelling place or retreat of an animal.
- The place or region where something is native or most common.
- Any place of residence or refuge.
- A person’s native place or own country.
What I want to talk about this evening is the fifth definition on this list, home as “the place or region where something is native or most common.” Although I was born in Chicago, the first home I remember is an apartment in rural Virginia. My father Gregg was a military policeman in the United States Armed Forces, a professed proud keeper of domestic peace. My mother was a registered nurse, a healer.
Our apartment had a bathroom door that locked from the outside, and one of my earliest memories is of being trapped in the small room. The doorbell rang while I was doing my tiny lady business and I heard the unmistakable click of the lock as one of my parents ran to greet the caller. I’ve never figured out which one of them actually turned the handle and it seems unlikely this particular mystery will ever be solved.
After what felt like several minutes of banging on the door and crying, I was freed by my laughing mother. She claimed I had tripped the lock myself, silly girl, and what’s the sobbing and fuss all about? I was preschool aged but immediately befuddled. My mommy wouldn’t lie to me, right? I knew what I heard. I wiped my tears and filed the incident away. I was good at that.
Much later I learned from my father’s family that dad had been conducting light traffic in the drug trade to supplement his soldier’s salary. Society’s respected veteran and his wife locked their toddler in the bathroom to service a customer. Because neither of them admitted to it during the course of our relationship, I’ll never know for sure if the maneuver was for my safety or just to keep me out of the way.
It was established early on that home was absolutely for me, “the place or region where something is native or most common.” We moved several times throughout my childhood but each environment was characterized by the same features: emotional and physical threats with lots and lots of untruth.
My parents fought – loudly, violently and often. When I was 8 years old, I was huddled on the stairs that led to a second floor bedroom. I was trying to prevent my little sister from seeing what was unfolding. Usually she was only too happy to oblige but I always felt the need to act as gate keeper and watch to the bitter end. As if by sheer force of stare I could protect my whole family from destroying itself. As if I would know the exact moment to intervene and save everyone. On this evening, my father screamed three words that changed me forever:
“You trapped me.”
Although only a third grader, I knew instantly the trap was me. I could do math and figured out my mother was three months pregnant when she and my father married. If Daddy felt forced into domestic unrest by external forces, the fault was clearly mine. I felt a sudden and quixotic rush of guilt as well as a sense of my own power. In a bizarre way, this new information only reinforced what I already felt was a duty to be hyper-vigilant for my family. I was capable of generating danger before I was even aware of it. That contrary gift had to be channeled productively.
The impression Gregg’s words left, deepened by natural inclinations of character and a desire to be loved, unleashed a firestorm of achievement-oriented activity. I wanted to be the best at everything, to keep climbing new heights, make Gloria and Gregg proud. It was so painfully and openly needy. I owed it to my dysfunctional parents to help them care more, and I was persistent in effort. After all, wasn’t their unhappiness and disinclination to provide for our basic needs my fault? I trapped them. I was hungry in more ways than one to show them that engaging was worth it. That I was worth it. As a bonus, I enjoyed the luxury of disappearing into industry. A mind and body always in motion don’t have time to hurt and despair.
The last time I saw my mom was in my early 20s. She committed extensive identity fraud against my sister and I before fleeing downstate. She’d been lying for years until a repossessed car and a locked drawer of never paid bills exposed the truth. She tried to change her story again and I slapped my own mother – hard. She walked out the door with her purse and the clothes on her back – and never contacted us again. I filled out a police report and the bankruptcy judge who discharged the case regarded me with tremendous pity. I gained a new understanding of home – the place where one can be victimized and abandoned in slow motion. And left to handle the cleanup.
When I was 30 years old, I checked my dad into a hospital for another mental health stint. Although I hadn’t lived with either of my parents in a long time, I was still “home” every time we engaged, my fight or flight responses at the ready. Surprises were rarely of the pleasant variety. But this one should have been good news. Turns out I’d never been a trap after all. Gregg told me I was the first realized, but fourth conceived child. He did not unburden himself out of the goodness of his heart. It was the act of a rebellious man unwilling to confront the consequences of his refusal to stay medicated. I was trampling upon the homeless, bi-polars perceived right to terrorize people in public places. And that required punishment. So he spat the truth in my direction. The first three fetuses had been aborted. They had discussed the same end for me, but ultimately decided to skip the clinic and get married. I was an arbitrary act. Let my story serve as confirmation that the mentally ill can still be tremendous, calculating assholes.
I was horrified, and hated him intensely in that moment. But in a way, the truth did offer a sort of freedom. I’d never heard that my sociopathic mother insisted she couldn’t get pregnant, and that my troubled father failed to question repeated, terminated evidence of her falsehood. I guess the former Catholic altar boy who still skipped red meat on Fridays couldn’t stomach a fourth trip to the abortion clinic. When my father told the whole truth – that three other babies could have been in my position – a whole new can of psychological fuckery opened. Why me? Why had I been born at all? And why were the people who brought me into the world such monumental pricks?
I was so angry and felt an odd sense of loss. My identity had been wrapped in the narrative of the unwanted, troublesome baby with a karmic debt to repay for 22 years by that time. My internal home – my mind – had been violated again by people who – let’s face it – just didn’t have it in them to love me. My mind was the place where I should have felt the safest, where I stubbornly protected my truths. Suddenly Gregg had upended the world order. It was never clearer, as I stood dumb with shock and rage in the emergency room of Good Samaritan Hospital, that I’d just been a fixture in the physical homes I’d inhabited with Gregg and Gloria. A weapon of psychological warfare. No great and mighty impetus after all.
It’s said often that knowledge is its own power. My home, my identity had been stuffed into a blender and pureed. I was already in badly needed individual therapy and in time would add group work to the mix. True story: Al-Anon can work wonders for all co-dependents, not just ones affected by substance abusers. Compulsive lying and gambling, hoarding – the manifestations of addiction are comfortingly similar in their own way. After so many decades spent in emotional isolation, community was key. But before I got there, the knowledge my father imparted to me that day at the hospital gave me the strength to turn around and leave him – for good. In my nascent, evolving home, Gregg, Gloria, their lies and psychological games were unwelcome. I was not the pre-birth harbinger of doom. I was an innocent baby, unfortunate in parental luck. I needed to learn who Becky really is and build her a newer, safer home.
In three weeks I will be 38 years old. I’ve had no contact at all with either of my parents in a long time, long enough to rewrite my definition of home. Remember that list I read at the top of this story? My life today, my living space with my partner Bob and our old shaggy dog Jude most closely matches number 6. The place of residence or refuge. I never understood my parents’ struggle with honesty, even before it started to negatively impact my very existence. I sailed from my mother’s womb as a blunt oversharer and will return to dust the same way I imagine. My natural inclination leans toward the belief that bad timing is more easily forgiven than deceit. I’m sticking with it. I’m capable of shame but I no longer wear it like an albatross stole. For whatever reason the house of relative strength and clarity I inhabit now was built with the materials it required. I can’t regret anything, even the pain.
My mind and my environment, full of quiet, unconditional love that I fought to attract and feel deserving in receiving, is home today. I’m trapped by nothing but the certainty that I’m exactly where I belong.