It seems that every time I tune into any Republican nominee candidate speaking (something I try to avoid for my own personal sanity), the common buzzwords include "warfare," "welfare" and "Obama," the most common permutation being, "Obama is trying to wage class warfare." What with talks of the 99% and protestors being indiscriminately pepper sprayed (and Mitt Romney not caring about the "very rich" or the "very poor"), it's fitting that right now, one of the more emerging topics discussed on the theatrical stage is the issues of class.
In two weeks, I saw two plays on two different coastlines, which represented two different types of American theater: the commercial Broadway theater and the non-profit, regional theater. The first was Stick Fly by Lydia R. Diamond (who was profiled in the December issue of American Theatre, on Broadway at the Cort Theater, about an African-American family during a weekend at Martha's Vineyard.
The second was Elemeno Pea by Molly Smith Metzler, at South Coast Repertory, who is also a co-worker of mine at Theatre Communications Group. That one was about two White sisters and one sister's wealthy employer on Martha's Vineyard. (Aside: I was on vacation in California when I saw this and ate so much, but not enough, Vietnamese food throughout. Lunar New Year is like Christmas for Asian people, gastronomically.)
In these two scenarios, we won't discuss the race issue (which will be the topic for another blog post). What these two plays have in common are the class discussions, in the seemingly insular world of Martha's Vineyard.
In an interview with the OC Register, Molly says that she was inspired by her own experience waiting tables at the Vineyard.
"I was in the service industry for many years, though I'm finally retired from waiting tables. I worked in restaurants in New York, Boston and on Martha's Vineyard. I've gotten the opportunity to wait on some very prestigious people. On the whole they're really wonderful.
"But when I worked at this yacht club there was some bad stuff happening among the (customers), especially among the women. I watched and remembered and wrote some stories down. I was struck by the brutality of that world."
It's a world that seems (in the reality of these plays) to have a clear divide between the upper class who lounge by the beaches and eat lobster, and the poorer people who serve and clean up after them. In Stick Fly, amongst the family drama and unearthing of secrets (which is the weaker part of the play), there is a larger theme that is personified in the character of Cheryl, the daughter of the family's maid who moves in and out the proceedings.
As a young woman from the underclass who lives amid members of a higher one, and has both the opportunity and the potential to make a better life for herself, Cheryl embodies the dynamic tensions that are central to “Stick Fly.”...We become acutely aware that Cheryl is living the problems that the play’s other characters are able to theorize about from a comfortable distance. - Ben Brantley, New York Times
These two plays, though they were written before the Occupy Wall Street movement (look for an article about that in the April issue of American Theatre), they address that main divide between the classes and point out a lack of empathy, and constant belittling (in both directions) which only exacerbates those prejudices.
And both plays end on an ambivalent note, perhaps because there is no real answer yet (if the words of our politicians are of any indication) on how to close that wealth gap. Perhaps the first step is, as these plays explore, is greater understanding.