Last week I saw a play called The Motherfucker with the Hat (starring my fake boyfriend Jimmy Smits aka Matt Santos). The play is set in New York and follows a guy named Jackie returning from a stint in prison and facing parole, a potentially cheating girlfriend and a whole lot of AA work ahead of him. In the staging we saw, all of the characters were Latino (though apparently Chris Rock has also done this show.)
I enjoyed the show, but I left feeling a little discomfited by the experience of sitting in white audience (mostly older people) who didn’t seem to get the jokes but did seem to find some of the language/accents/attitudes hilarious. Sometimes we would all laugh, and I thought we were laughing at a great line, and it felt like they were laughing at the sassy Latina snapping her fingers… I can’t prove that’s what was happening, but there were certainly moments where the line was NOT funny, and they were still laughing…
In the liner notes, the Artistic Director wrote:
“I think what Stephen (playwright) is up to in the play is that he is creating people who may seem different from the ones sitting next to us in the theater but who become, over the course of the play, deeply human, deeply familiar and deeply sympathetic. And the canny wisdom in that method is that we are able to recognize that the fundamental questions we all negotiate–most especially, our responsibility in love and the ethics of our relationships: how we carry ourselves in the world–are not exclusively to those of us with cultural capital.”
Man, I totally love that sentiment. I just finished two non-fiction books, Random Family by Adrien Nicole Leblanc and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, that really drove home this point. It sounds kitschy and sentimental, but stories about being human (loving, grieving, striving, wanting, hurting, believing, etc) are transferrable, and cultural differences only affect our ability to empathize as much as we let them. Both of these books are about folks with very little cultural capital and share very little tangible common ground with me (Puerto Rican drug-dealing teenagers and impoverished families in a Mumbai slum, respectively), but the stories were told so well, so empathetically told, so truthfully told, that I connected viscerally to the “characters.”
Unfortunately, I came out of this Motherfucker play feeling like the surface details (the accent, the swearing, the “Papi,” and the blowjob references) distracted the audience from the core story of these five people dealing with some shit. It’s not the writer’s fault; the shit was transferrable, I think, if the viewers had let it be. The questions the play was asking and answering were applicable to these characters, to Coco and Jessica in Random Family, to Asha and Manju in Beautiful Forevers, to Emily and the Steppenwolf audience in Chicago. It just didn’t seem like people were there looking for stories about human commonality as much as they were there to be titillated by a play with “fuck” in the title. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong, but the laughter in all the wrong places suggests I’m at least a little bit right, and that’s really too bad.
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