All Over Creation: Identity Crisis

Two concurrent stage productions show what happens when we define ourselves too narrowly

The cast of <i>Cock</i>
The cast of Cock (Courtesy of Will Hollis Snider)

The circle on the floor should have been my first clue.

J. Ben Wolfe and Katie Van Winkle in <i>Am I White?</i>
J. Ben Wolfe and Katie Van Winkle in Am I White? (Courtesy of Erica Nix)

But really, how often can you deduce from a simple geometric shape that you're about to have a theatrical experience that so intensely parallels the one you had just the week before?

Then two actors stepped inside the circle and, through their movements, indicated they were confined within it, and that's when the déjà vu kicked in. As I'm watching Ryan Hamilton and Zac Carr verbally spar within this drawn ring on a bare stage in Theatre en Bloc's production of Cock, I'm recalling J. Ben Wolfe being similarly restricted within a painted square on the bare playing area for Salvage Vanguard Theater's Am I White?, which I'd seen the previous Saturday. As I noted in my review of the latter production, the square marking out the space in the cell inhabited by Wolfe's Wesley Connor at the Plymouth Correctional Facility also functioned as a metaphor for Connor's state of mind regarding his racial identity. Here was a man so deeply invested in the ideology of white supremacy that he was unable to reconcile it with the fact that his father was black. He had to think of himself as white and so was boxed in by a way of thinking that didn't allow for changes in either societal evolution or perceptions of himself.

In Cock, which I've reviewed this week (p.52), that restrictive shape on the floor also fulfills a figurative purpose, describing the arena in which people who are in love relationships square off against each other, fighting for power or dominance. When any of the show's four actors are in it, they treat the circle like the ropes of a boxing ring, something they can't step outside as long as they're engaged in a confrontation. Now, the ring doesn't describe the main character's mental state in quite the way I saw the square describe Connor's in Am I White?, but as Cock progressed, I came to see Carr's John as existing in a strikingly similar place. He's a man who, he tells us, has only ever been attracted to men, and yet when he breaks it off with his male lover, the first person John finds himself drawn to is a woman. He genuinely likes her and finds sex with her to be unexpectedly stimulating and satisfying. Love with her promises to be richer and more fulfilling. And yet John is so invested in the idea of himself as gay that he has difficulty imagining himself as straight or even bisexual. Like Connor, he's given a new way of seeing himself, and even though it expands the idea of who John is and who he can be, he's too tied to the old norm – and, possibly, too fearful of change – to accept it.

Now, I don't expect that playwrights Mike Bartlett and Adrienne Dawes compared notes when they were penning Cock and Am I White? respectively, or that they share some telepathic bond that enabled them to craft separate stage dramas that both addressed an individual's identity crisis in this like manner. And unless you believe that the shade of Thespis is responsible when two companies mount works this complementary at the same time, we have only chance to thank for SVT and Theatre en Bloc getting these shows on the boards together in October. That said, these plays and their concurrent productions seem to point toward a new truth germinating in the culture, one that recognizes we are increasingly beings of many identities – some forged from the blending of races and cultures, others because they've been granted the freedom to pursue multiple paths in careers, in family life, in love, that weren't available even in the recent past. This is the way the world is evolving, and we can't afford to cling desperately to the idea of being one thing when the evidence tells us that we are more than one thing. That's simply tying ourselves to the railroad track as the freight train of change comes barreling along. It won't end for us, just as it doesn't for Wesley Connor and John. We have to learn when to leave the circle, when to step outside the square.

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Am I White?, Cock, Salvage Vanguard Theater, Theatre En Bloc, Zac Carr, Ryan Hamilton, Ben Wolfe, Adrienne Dawes, Mike Bartlett

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