To think it thinkable shortcuts no work and shields one from no responsibility. Quite the contrary, it may be a necessary prerequisite to assuming responsibility, and it invites the honorable work of radical imagination. — “On Being White,” by Marilyn Frye

Slide1This paper was originally presented as part of WAM! LA’s 2013 Conference.

30 years ago feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye wrote about the importance of the imagination to feminism in The Politics of Reality. 20 years ago I read the book in a college Women’s Studies class, and to this day my feminism has been inspired by her explication of how to see oppression and imagine freedom. Oppression, she claims in her essay of that name, cannot be seen for what it is if you only look close up:

Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would have trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.

While stepping far enough back from a birdcage to observe it’s structure can be done in the space of a small room, stepping far enough back from our lived reality to see the patterns that indicate oppressive social structures can be only done in our minds. As if that’s not hard enough, we must step far enough back to be able to see not only the patterns that have affected us in our individual lives but also patterns that only affect those less privileged than ourselves. In so doing, we both gain clarity of vision and exercise what I like to call the empathetic imagination.

The empathetic imagination is able both to connect the dots between the individual instances of prejudice and limitation that make up oppression and to understand that even limitations that only apply to other people are still oppression. This is not a new kind of feminism, it is in many ways the oldest kind, but it is a kind increasingly at odds with today’s individualized, consumerized culture. From contemporary parenting practices to technology to for-profit online education, our culture encourages people (young people in particular) to place themselves at the center of their experience and of the world around them.

The question for me, as an academic, a writer, and a theater maker, is how can we engage young people in making the connections that allow them to see oppression as a “network of systematically related barriers?” And how do we help them empathize with people they don’t know, discrimination they haven’t experienced, and struggles that are greater than theirs?

First we have to learn to speak their language, by which I don’t mean the slang they use but rather the way that they use images to communicate rather than words. I got on tumblr recently after a few students told me, “It’s where the young people are.” I have heard millennials described as digital natives and boomers as digital immigrants; I consider myself a second-generation digital immigrant: My family was one of the first on the block to have a computer, but it started up in DOS, so that experience doesn’t really help me with today’s click, drag, and drop interfaces. So while it’s taking me a bit to crack tumblr, I can see that indeed it is where the young people are. And it is largely image driven.

In this virtual space, I can use images in ways that help viewers make connections between individual instances of discrimination and prejudice (what we in academia call critical thinking). The success of the post below, which has been reblogged/liked about 15,000 times and counting, shows that tumblr’s users are already asking questions about whose stories our culture values and about representations of oppression (or the lack thereof) within those stories:

Slide1 Slide2 Slide3 Slide4 Slide5 Slide6 Slide7

My question is whether these same viewers are willing to engage in an even more radical act of the imagination: Using words to create their own images in their minds. My internet plays, written about social issues with as few descriptors as possible in the same space as a blog post, challenge readers to engage imaginatively with words by turning them into images, thereby engaging imaginatively in the creation of the stories, the characters, and the worlds. Whether we imagine stories that reflect the systemic oppression that is reality or stories that reveal the possibility of a new, more free reality, when we create our own images we engage in a radical, counter-cultural act.

The more life I live, the more I am forced to confront how little control we have over anything, how little power we have to align the myriad forces that have to align in order for us to achieve our goals and realize our dreams. I think we tell stories largely to organize what is actually chaos. Stories put events into a narrative in which we can identify cause and effect. They embody intangible forces in characters, put words to our deepest fears and desires, and paint pictures of what cannot be seen by the eye.

When we summon the imagination to tell stories that feature people who are other than us, we teach ourselves to empathize with them. I write plays like A Woman and Her Doctor in such a way that none of the characters have a defined race, challenging readers to imagine the play in their head with characters who may look quite unlike the characters that populate most Hollywood films, television, and theater. I hope the same tumblr users that respond so strongly to pure images will be interested in using words to create their own images as well. The experiment is in progress.  Input is welcome.

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Part Four (see here and scroll down for Parts One – Three)

Lights up on a bar. Woman has revealed the contents of her baggage, the suitcases, travel bags, makeup kits, gym bags, hat boxes, and a trunk on wheels. They were all full of books. Except the hat box. The hat box contained a hat: A wide-brimmed hat with huge flowers on top of it. She is wearing the hat and is sleeping with her head on an open book. A Bartender, wearing cherub’s wings and holding a small bow and arrow, appears out of nowhere. A trumpet sounds, music plays, and pink and white rose petals fall from the ceiling.

Bartender: Congratulations! You’ve got new matches!

She does not respond.

Bartender (slightly louder): Woman, you’ve got new matches!

He fires a small plastic arrow at her. She does not respond.

Bartender (really loud): WOMAN!

She starts up, her hat askew. Her eye makeup has smudged, but only on one eye, the one that was touching the book. The other is perfect. It’s a little Clockwork Orange.

Woman (confused): What’s the score!? Wait. What?

She starts to come to, adjusts her hat.

Bartender: Woman, wake up.

Woman: Okay, okay, okay, okay. Right. What was I doing?

Bartender: Apparently you were taking a nap.

Woman: No, I mean … (thinks) … oh yeah! I found it! I found the answer! (Gestures at the books pouring out of her baggage.)

Bartender: Uh-huh.

Woman: Yeah!

Bartender: So, what is it?

Woman: Earth.

Bartender: Earth? (He looks skeptical, then, doing his best Mary McDonnell) There’s no Earth. You made it all up. President Adar and I once talked about the legends surrounding Earth. He knew nothing about a secret location regarding Earth, and if the President knew nothing about it, what are the chances that you do?

Woman: Dude. I think we’ve been spending too much time together.

Bartender: Yeah me too.

Woman: Anyway … the answer is, “Down. To. Earth.” I’m gonna be Down to Earth. Easy going. Relatable. I’m gonna laugh at their jokes. Keep responses light. This, according to the received knowledge, is the key.

Bartender (not convinced): Sure. Good idea. You ready for your new matches?

Woman (doing her best dubya imitation): Bring ’em on.

The Bartender disappears. A Man enters. He is, objectively speaking, very good looking. Strong. Healthy. Symmetrical. He is, unfortunately, not the Woman’s type. Nevertheless, always down to earth, she says, …

Woman: Hey there … (peers at nametag) … zenbuddha. How’s it hanging?

Man: A jug fills drop by drop.

Pause.

Woman (looking serious): Indeed.

Man: How are you this evening?

Woman: Oh, you know, chill. Just chillin’. Takin’ chill pills. You know.

Man: Actually every human being is the author of his own health or disease. So there’s no need for pills. He is able who thinks he is able.

Slight pause. She wants to correct him. She tries not to.

Woman: Right, yeah, totally. (Laughing, as if at a joke. She touches his chest.) I mean, metaphor, but whatever! (Laughs again.)

Man: Listen, I believe that sex is life: The act of creation in pleasure, the loss of oneself in another, the coming together of opposites in a temporary union of yin and yang, that creates something other than either. What is life if not this?

Woman: Sure, but … (unable to move past his previous comment) .. you know, in terms of pills, if somebody really had a disease it would make sense for them to take advantage of modern medicine, right?

Man: All that we are is the result of what we have thought. Woman, I’m offering you the opportunity to make love to me. Do you accept?

Woman (to herself): Down to earth, down to earth, down to–fuck it. (To him) Nope. Sorry. Not. Move along.

Man (clearly injured, struts off): No loss.

Woman (into her drink (which is a gin martini, dirty, extra olives, natch)): Well not for me.

The Bartender reappears.

Bartender: Well done. Veeeery easy going. Totally relatable.

Woman: Fuck you.

Bartender: Never gonna happen.

Woman gestures at all her books and all her baggage.

Woman: I’m not sure the answer’s in here.

Bartender (doing his best Zen Master): You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself.

Woman: Dude. There’s something wrong with your programming.

Bartender (smiling): I know. Kinky, right?

Woman: Seriously. What am I supposed to do?

The Bartender glances side to side, making sure no one is listening. Gestures to Woman to lean in.

Bartender (sotto voce):  “Supposed to” ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.

Woman leans back. Ponders. Adjusts her hat. Looks at the audience.

Blackout. End of Part Four.

… to be continued on the next Internet Dating: A Play.

Part Three

Lights up on a bar. A Woman enters carrying suitcases, travel bags, makeup kits, gym bags, and hat boxes, and pulling a trunk on wheels. She situates herself and her baggage at the bar. Bartender appears.

Bartender: What can I get for you?

Woman: New screen name.

Bartender: No more TK421?

Woman: Nope. Let’s try nromanoff.

Bartender: nromanoff. (Hands her a new nametag.) What else can I get for you?

Woman: Guys who like girls, Ages 30–50, Near me, Who are single, For new friends, short-term dating. Oh, and … a gin martini, dirty, extra olives.

Bartender produces drink and disappears. Man approaches.

Man: Hey there … (peering at nametag) … nromanoff. You know, I heard that since we won the Cold War, Russian women have really … (makes what he thinks is a sexy face but is actually just embarrassing) … thawed out. (Get it?)

Woman: Oh no, I’m not actually Russian, it’s a character —

Man: Oh.

He stares at her for a sec, disappointed, before he forgets about her entirely and moves on. Man 2 approaches.

Man 2: Hey there … (peering at nametag) … nromanoff. My idea of a perfect date is meeting for a hike in the late afternoon followed by cocktails on a terrace overlooking the ocean and a dinner of grilled fish tacos. How about you?

Woman: Well, I mean really, who doesn’t like that, right? I mean I want to go to there!

Man 2: That doesn’t make sense.

Woman: Oh, I know it’s —

Man 2: It’s bad grammar. I. Hate. Bad. Grammar.

Scowls disapprovingly. Moves on. A Man passes carrying a sign that says cute4x4guy. He wears no shirt and the sign obscures his face. The Man in the Gray Unitard chases him.

Woman: Man, things are getting out of hand up in this joint.

Man 3 passes, heading off somewhere else. He is wearing plaid. His hair is purposefully messy. She flags him down.

Woman: Hey.

Man: Hi.

They look at one another for a while, sensing an attraction. They laugh.

Woman: So … (peering at nametag) … brucebanner. Nice. I’m guessing I won’t like you when you’re angry!

Man 3 (nervously): Oh ha. Yeah, no. Yeah. Really. Not. Uh-huh.

He smiles an awkward smile and shuts his eyes for a second.

Woman: Well, who am I to criticize. I mean how many times have I been brainwashed into completely forgetting who I am altogether! A ha ha!

Awkward pause.

Man 3 (not really laughing but sort of asthmaing): Yeah, yeah, but you know what’s weird? Your boobs aren’t nearly as big as Scarlett Johansson’s!

Awkward pause.

Woman: Well, that’s not really the point, is it? I mean the point is that they are all like heroes on like a mythological level and she is a hero too …

Man: WHAT DO YOU KNOW YOU’VE PROBABLY NEVER EVEN READ A COMIC BOOK.

Man 3 storms off as an alarm goes off and a neon sign above the Woman’s head begins flashing “FAKE GEEK GIRL! FAKE GEEK GIRL!”

Woman: Oh come on, seriously?

Everyone in the bar stares at her.

Woman: Are you kidding me? I don’t have to prove this to you. This is what I love. This is not about you.

The Men all look confused. The look at one another. “Do you know what she’s talking about? I don’t know what she’s talking about.” Slowly they go back to chatting up other women.

Woman: Note to self: whatever I have an impulse to do, do the opposite.

Bartender appears.

Bartender: What can I get for you?

Woman: Gin —

Before she can finish the bartender hands her a gin martini, dirty, with extra olives.

Woman: You do know what I like. (Winks.)

Bartender: What else are you looking for?

Woman: Someone with baggage that matches mine.

Men 4, 5, and 6 appear, holding signs that say, “musicaltheatreguy,” “lightmycandle,” and “technicolordreamcoat.” They are all gay.

Woman (to Bartender): Point taken.

Men 4, 5, and 6 move on.

Woman (to Bartender): Say, how bout you and me get outta here?

Bartender: Well, I’m a computer program, so I don’t think I’d get far.

Woman: You’d get to third base at least! Ask anyone, I’m easy.

Bartender: Har-de har-har.

Woman: Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Bartender: Listen, not that you’ve asked me, but it seems this scene isn’t quite right for you.

Woman (Sighs): What scene is, Bartender? What scene is?

Bartender: You’re the playwright. You tell me.

Woman: Ba-dum ching.

They smile at each other. Bartender disappears. Women sighs. Inhales deeply and closes her eyes. Man 4 appears. He looks at her, sitting at the bar, holding her breath.

Man 4: Hi.

The Woman is surprised, inhales more and then exhales suddenly and pops her eyes open.

Man 4: Hi.

The Woman now has the hiccups.

Woman: Hi. (Hiccup.)

Man 4: Hi.

Woman: So … what’s up? (Hiccup.)

Man 4: Not much.

Woman: Yeah. (Hiccup.) Me either. (Hiccup.)

Man 4: Okay, well then.

Man 4 starts to move on.

Woman: Wait! (Hiccup.) I can rewrite this! (Hiccup.)

Man 4: Look, I’ll be honest with you. I’m sure you’re more than well-versed in the things that I like … (points at his nametag ,which reads forklingonssex=violence) … but I’m looking for someone with a little more …

Woman: (Hiccup)

Man: Class.

Woman: (Hiccup)

Man: Yeah.

Man 4 moves on. Woman inhales and holds her breath as long as possible. As she exhales, she speaks into a pretend handheld recorder:

Woman: Captain’s log. Day 3 in Internet Dating World. Men continue to astound. No Exit yet presents itself. Sole comfort is the pleasure of drinking in private.

The Bartender appears.

Bartender: Don’t drink alone, Scarlet. People always find out.

Woman: Aha. But it’s not the Victorian age, is it? We’ve got options now, haven’t we?

Bartender: You tell me.

He gestures at the stage, the lights come up on the other actors and we see that all of the men–straight, gay, and somewhere in between, the business men and the geek guys–are, regardless of age, all pretending to be listening attentively while actually engaging in an elaborate game of Accidentally Cop-a-Feel: brushing hands on boobs as they presumably reach for a face, sliding their hands down a lower back and until they’re grabbing ass. The women, though actually trying to engage in conversation, are also adeptly avoiding the hands. It becomes a dance. The men reach for a boob, the women subtly move one shoulder back. The men run their hands up the women’s legs, the women cross them in the other direction. The dance accelerates. It’s a little Fosse: Sharp, straight movements in close quarters but without touching, accentuated with the sound of a slapstick and performed to the jazz of their own inane bar chatter. The men get more aggressive. In a few couples the dynamic changes and the women become the aggressors. The dance ends for every couple with either a kiss or a slap.

Woman: Sigh.

Bartender: ?

Woman: Exactly.

Blackout. End of Part Three.

… to be continued on the next Internet Dating: A Play.

Part Two

A Woman leans against a bar, drink in hand (gin martini, dirty, extra olives). Other Women and Men mill about, flirting. Man wearing fedora approaches.

Man: Hi there … (peering at nametag) … TK421. Want to get a drink sometime?

Woman: (Toasting.) Well, I’ve got a drink. Thanks.

Man: WHY DON’T YOU JUST ADMIT YOU DON’T LIKE BALD MEN.

Man storms off.

Woman: Wow. How did I manage to screw that one up?

Man 2 approaches. He carries a baby.

Man 2: Hey there … (peering at her nametag) … TK421. Great profile!

Woman: Thanks!

Man 2 offers baby to the Woman. She doesn’t take it. Awkward Pause. Man 2 moves on.

Woman: Jesus, what is this, No Exit? (Looks at audience.) Get it? No Exit?

Awkward Pause. The audience moves on. Man 3 approaches. He is small but not short, a little too young for her, but what the hey. They look at one another for a while, sensing an attraction.

Man 3/Woman (simultaneous): Hi/hey.

They laugh.

Woman: So … (peering at nametag) … THX1138. Hey! I get that!

Man 3: Cool.

He smiles a beautiful smile with just a little crinkle at the corners of his eyes. Runs his fingers through his hair. You see the Woman smell him. It’s nice.

Man 3: Yeah. You know, most kids wanted to be Han Solo. I’ve always felt I’m more of a Luke Skywalker.

Woman (deflating a little but hanging in there): Oh. So …

cute4X4 guy walks by, no shirt, covering face with sign. Man 3 stares at his ass.

Woman: Goddamnit.

Man 3 walks away, following cute4x4guy. Bartender appears.

Bartender: Hey! You know you’ll get more accurate matches if you answer more questions!

Woman: Yeah, I know, it’s just … accurate to what? Some fictionalized idea of the perfect person for me? Someone who on paper has no unacceptables but in reality might be a serial killer? I mean I just feel like maybe we’re doing this backward. I can’t seem to get a sense of anybody.

Bartender: Would you date someone who had ever had a relationship with someone of the opposite sex?

Woman: I mean, ever? Is that really someone’s criteria? And don’t you think there should be at least some attempt at standardization for these questions?

Bartender: Which describes you better, confrontational or non-confrontational?

Woman: That’s exactly what I mean – it’s not an either/or situation.

Bartender: How often do you smoke cigars?

Woman: I’m pretty sure that’s not a question for me.

Bartender: Is it cool for guys to wear earrings?

Woman: I don’t know, is it 1987?

Bartender (exploding): IT’S A COMPUTER PROGRAM FOR GOD’S SAKE JUST ANSWER THE QUESTIONS.

Woman: Computer program? What, like a holodeck? (Awkward laugh. Possibly with snort.)

Bartender (simmering): _

Woman (sheepishly): Martini, please.

Bartender freshens her drink. Disappears.

Woman: I am crushing it.

She leans there a moment, playing with her drink. Spills some. Looks around casually then licks the spill up off the bar. An idea.

Woman: Computer program, huh?

She begins to swish her hands around, manipulating the men around her ala Minority Report et al. She swishes a man into prominence, observes, swishes him to the side, others are brought forward. Some are compared side by side. She starts to giggle. Uses her hands to make the men dance. Poses them in positions of elaborate sexual shenanigans. Does that thing where when you pose men’s bodies like female models in fashion magazines you realize how ridiculous the positions of the female models are.

Woman: So this is what it feels like to objectify people!

Gets a little excited. Slips in her spilled martini and almost falls. The men are all crashed into each other by her waving hands. They stare at her.

Woman: It’s okay! I’m fine. We’re fine. We’re all fine here. (No one responds.) Oh forget it.

Woman returns to the bar. The Men resume circling among the women, flirting.

Woman (shouts at a passing Man): Hey you know what’s wrong with internet dating? Huh? No wingman!

The Man keeps walking. Bartender appears.

Bartender: Woman, you are making a scene.

Woman: Well, it’s what I do! (Looks at the audience.) Get it? Cause I’m (heavily slurring speech) in the theater?

Bartender: Uh-huh. So how does this thing end?

Woman (burping): Probably with a blackout. (Looks at audience.) Get it? Cause I’m dru–

The Woman passes out.

Blackout. End of Part Two.

… to be continued on the next Internet Dating: A Play.

Part One

A Woman leans against a bar, drink in hand (gin martini, dirty, extra olives). Other Women and Men mill about, flirting. Man approaches. He speaks with an Italian accent.

Man: Hey there … (peering at her nametag) … TK421. Wishing you a very lovely beautiful day as you are.

Woman: Okay. Thanks.

Leans in to kiss her. She leans back. Awkward pause.

Man: Have fun and enjoy!

Moves on. Man 2 approaches. He is a bit nervous.

Man 2: Hey there … (peering at her nametag) … TK421. I think you have such a beautiful smile and eyes and that I love them.

Woman: Huh. Wow. Thanks.

Awkward pause. Man 2 moves one. Man 3 approaches. He poses several times in bicep-enhancing positions.

Man 3: Hey, rockhardabs, here. I value knowing oneself. Hard work. Accomplishing goals.

Woman: Yes. Sure, me too.

Man 3: Right on. (lifts shirt, reveals abs, points at them) Am I right? Am I right?

Woman (muttering into her drink): (Answer privately).

Awkward pause. Man 3 moves one. Man 4 approaches. He is really sweaty.

Man 4: Hello there … (peers at nametag, then just stares at boobs) … you ladies looking for a (does boob juggling gesture) threesome?

Woman: Nope. Not. Nope. Move along. These are not the droids you’re looking for.

Man 4: Hey, that’s —

Woman: Nope. Not. Too late. Move along.

Awkward pause. Man 4 moves on.

Woman: I don’t know if this is going to work. Maybe I should update my profile.

A Bartender appears.

Bartender: What can I get for you?

Woman: Guys who like girls, Ages 30–50, Near me, Who are single, For new friends, short-term dating.

Bartender: Would you date someone who has smoked a cigarette in the last six months?

Woman: Well … smoked one cigarette? Just one? I mean I guess no, I don’t want to date a smoker, but once – it could have been for a show. Or just one night out or something.

Bartender: Yes or no.

Woman: Okay, I guess no.

Bartender: Would you consider yourself extremely honest, sort of honest, or not at all honest.

Woman: Umm, I’m pretty sure honest is a finite value, so you can’t really be extremely honest, you’re either honest or you’re —

Bartender: A, B, or C?

Woman: Jesus. Extremely honest.

Bartender: Coming right up.

Man 5 enters in workout clothes, sweatbands and all. He holds a sign that says, “tightbuns” as he passes in front of Woman. Man 6 does the same; his sign says “cute4x4guy,” but he is not wearing a shirt and is using the sign to obscure his face. Man 7: Uncle_Bob. He looks exactly like your uncle. Man 8: “Stud_27” is wearing a gray unitard that covers his body and face.

Woman 1: Okay, okay, this is really not working.

Bartender appears.

Bartender: Perhaps if you answer more questions.

Woman (sighs): I don’t know. Why would anyone want to date me anyway. I mean look at me, I’m sitting here, friendless, helpless, hopeless, unemployed in Greenland.

Collective inhale of shock from everyone in the room. They cease flirting. Freeze.

Bartender: Hopeless!!!

Woman: Oh, no, I’m not. I was just quoting …

Collective exhale. Unfreeze. They resume flirting.

Woman: Wow. Good kinesthetic response.

Drums her fingernails on bar. Sips drink. Tries to fish olive out of glass but it keeps slipping out of her fingers. Finally puts her mouth to the edge of the glass and uses fingers to spoon it in as she slurps up the remaining gin. Man 9 approaches. He looks like a totally normal, very cool guy. Woman spits olive and gin back into glass as she says,

Woman: (Skip question)!

Awkward pause. Man 9 moves on.

Woman: Oops.

The other people in the room are coupled off now, making out like they’re on a nighttime soap opera (open mouths but no tongue, moving their heads too much side to side, running their hands up and down one another’s backs). Except for one couple. The Woman spies them, lights focus in on them, all the other couples freeze. They are speaking to each other in low tones, looking back and forth from one another’s lips to eyes. She laughs and brushes her hair back. He inhales – you can see the effect of the pheromones on him. She touches his hand casually. He traces a line down the side of her bare arm and rests his hand on her knee. She whispers something in his ear. Again you see him smell her. During all this the Woman has been unconsciously inching forward, closer and closer to the couple. She is too close. Suddenly they notice her, she realizes where she is, the lights change back and the other couples unfreeze.

Woman: I am so. Sorry. How embarrassing. I didn’t mean to intrude. It’s just that–you seem so real. I mean, I don’t know, this bar, you just like really … wow. Yeah. Sorry.

Starts to walk away. The man stops her.

Man: Hey, it’s okay.

Long Pause. Woman stares at them again. They smile.

Woman: So you did it! You actually found each other this way!

Man 10: Sure! We’re a committed couple looking for a playmate. You interested?

Awkward pause.

Woman: (Softly) D’oh.

She walks slowly back to bar. Resumes position from opening. Collective inhale.

Blackout. End Part One.

… to be continued on the next Internet Dating: A Play.