Last night I went to Company One‘s production of An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a co-production with ArtsEmerson. Despite my anticipation over this long-awaited production, I couldn’t help but enter the theater distracted and out-of-sorts. My unrest arose from an encounter minutes before I walked through the door.
I arrived at the Paramount around 6:50 pm, picked up my ticket, and crossed the street to Caffè Nero for coffee before the 2.5 hour production. I had brought along “Citizen: An American Lyric” by Claudia Rankine to read.
As I drank my coffee, two girls sat beside me at the communal table. One had a sandwich and water in front of her and the other a cup of clam chowder and a bottle of coke. I didn’t know Caffè Nero served clam chowder. It smelled… funky. I never actually saw her eat any of the soup. One girl was trying to open the bottle of coke.
“It hurts my hands,” she said, grimacing at her friend.
I pulled out the bottle opener on my key-chain and offered to crack the cap, to which she smiled and thanked me.
She didn’t need my help. It just happened to be unobtrusive, unassuming, and thoughtful.
After that I noticed her friend (who sat beside me) would find something interesting to look at over her left shoulder (the side on which I sat) for long spans of silence. She would smile at her friend across from us, who would hide a smirk and give me a quick sideways glance. I paid this no mind.
From one look at these girls I saw they could be no older than seventeen.
What happened next was what shocked and upset me most that night.
A man sat at the end of the table. I hadn’t noticed him before. His headphones were in and he had been engrossed in his phone.
He took up conversation with the girl across the table from me. I tried not to listen. It was none of my business. I ignore a majority of the conversation until I heard her ask:
“So… what are you looking for?”
“Oh, well… friends,” he responded.
I closed my book and stared down the end of the table, dumbstruck.
The man was easily 30 years old.
“I’m new here,” he says, and goes on to explain he’s lived in Boston for nine months after moving from Armenia.
“Do you go to school around here?” He asked.
“We go to W.J.O.H.S.” she answers.
I cringe. “H.S.” H.S., you idiot: HIGH SCHOOL! I want to scream at him.
“Is it near by?” At this she nervously looks at her friend.
“It’s a ways—way over there,” she says, gesturing in an arbitrary direction.
The man hardly notices my incredulous gaze throughout.
“So, do you have—are you on Facebook?”
“Oh, no, I don’t have Facebook, sorry.”
“Oh, I see.”
The table grows quite. She begins texting her friend sitting beside me, glancing across at each other in recognition. They pack up their things and begin to leave.
“Goodbye,” she says to the man, “it was nice meeting you.”
He smiles and nods and goes back to his phone.
I feel filthy.
In my feminist heart of hearts, I know she did not need my help. I know she did not need a machismo savior to swoop in and defend her. She did not need a White Knight. She was smart and confident and independent. She went to high school in the city. She read that man like a book and dismissed him with ease and charm.
The girls were gone. The man was swept up in his phone. I flipped through my book. Unable to read. Unable to think. My heart was beating at an uncomfortable rate.
I gathered my things and approached the man. I get his attention through a shoulder tap.
“I just wanted to let you know that those two girls you were talking to were sixteen years old,” I say to him.
“Sixteen?” He looks surprised.
“Yes. They were high schoolers. So the next time you’re looking to ‘make friends’ you should at least make sure they’re eighteen years old.”
He thanks me for telling him and explains how he is still new to Boston. He thanks me again and goes to fist-bump which I instinctively engage and feel horrified immediately after.
“NO. You know, this isn’t a fist-bump moment. This is not cool. That is predatory behavior. Do you understand me?” I say to him. “Do NOT do it again.”
It was a mixture of pride, shame, and sadness that followed. Four other people had sat at that communal table and said nothing while the man spoke to the girl, just like me. They didn’t bother to look up from their devices. They opted out of any kind of social responsibility.
I walked across the street to the Paramount.
A critical function of the theater is to implicate an audience’s role in society and comment on it in a safe, fictional space. It can evoke an audience’s empathy, anger, confusion, biases, prejudices; it can question our beliefs, morals, and laws. But the ultimate, underlying question is how do our perspectives and values meet and engage the society around us?
I saw An Octoroon. I haven’t quite decoded everything I felt through the production. But I believe I have a grasp on how Jacobs-Jenkins is inviting me to engage with the society around me. His message resonates quite timely with the #OscarsSoWhite movement on social media. He invites audiences to question and challenge the lack of stories from all people of color (POC) featured in film, television, and stage productions through the subversion of the melodramatic fetishization and dehumanization of POC derived from The Octaroon, by Dion Boucicault.
The discomfort and anger I felt towards the predator in the coffee shop is exactly the kind of power and responsibility the theater wields. It has the capacity to showcase the dangerous in a safe, controlled environment. And, in my ideal vision of theater, it should inspire an audience to take action. To confront injustices they witness, to stand for their believes, to ask questions as to why things are they way they are.
Jacobs-Jenkins’ mission aligns very similarly to my own. I want to promote and produce theater that empowers under-represented voices in the theater. Theater that challenges the status quo. And theater that requires action and engagement in response, that creates dialogue between individuals and their society.
As for representation in the theater, this is a pretty special moment in Boston. Back The Night by Melinda Lopez, Baltimore and Milk Like Sugar by Kirsten Greenidge, The Convert by Danai Gurira, Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar, An Octaroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins; all plays written by playwrights of color and confronting challenging perspectives within American society.
It’s a special moment in Boston to support diversity in arts and entertainment, because without active engagement we cannot reshape the status quo.
When I think on my coffee shop experience, I can’t help but thinking about a quote I encountered while working on my thesis: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” – Irina Dunn. Then I think on playwright Pam Gem’s idealistic optimism that both men and women fall victim to the ridiculous expectations of society. Then I think of tough love, maternal or paternal love. Then I think of David Mamet, “There is no character. There are only lines upon a page.” I wonder about how I hear and understand what people say differently based on who is saying it and what social context it falls in. I wonder if I really know what he wanted. I contemplate the concept of “the right thing to do.”
I imagine I will remain engaged with this moment for some time to come.
Special thanks to Ramona Ostrowski and other ArtsEmerson & C1 staff for allowing me to vent my frustration.