In Michael Pressley Bobbitt’s new play Trailer Park Elegy, I play a character based on me called Sham Sham. There is another character in the play called Lipsig, and the role is played by Chuck Lipsig. Neither of the characters is really like me or Chuck, but in a play if somebody says you’re the king and they call you king, that makes you the king. In this case, the characters based on me and Chuck are archetypes in a personal mythology of Bobbitt’s. The three of us have known and worked with each other in one way or another, as writers, actors, artists, and each other’s audience, for a decade or more, to the point where we fashion works of art out of our common experience and sensory perceptions of the world, creating what Freud might call a dream work, in which we might appear in each other’s dreams. However, everyone in the dream is really the dreamer. All the characters in your dream are really you. Trailer Park Elegy is Bobbitt’s dream.
Bobbitt calls his mythical Gainesville Paynesville. Chuck calls his Hogtown. I call mine Hadesville. This Sham Sham that I play calls himself a “broke-down ole hobo,” whereas I am a half-ass property-owner. He is single man, and I am married. He has a goat, I have a dog. Sham Sham is a sham of me, an image of me as seen in a funhouse mirror.
Artists have always done this kind of thing. The distinction between fiction and nonfiction is a relatively recent one, but the line between the conscious and unconscious mind has always been blurred. It starts with putting real people in real time and space, and then introducing imaginary circumstances, so that they say things that they wouldn’t say and do things they normally wouldn’t do.
Michael Glover plays the protagonist, with the biblical name of Elijah, and he is a man with a dark past. He has done something terrible. He has used violence beyond what is necessary.
Violence may sometimes be the answer, depending on the question, but excessive violence is wrong and leaves a mark. The violence does not occur on stage, which was the rule in Greek drama, which also required that the effects of all violence be fully laid bare.
It’s a play about forgiveness, but that also makes it a play that asks for forgiveness, so it is a play that asks whether or not some things are unforgiveable.
Nothing is unforgiveable – if you are truly sorry.
If you are truly sorry, you should be forgiven.
No matter what.
But you can’t be truly sorry unless you fully understand what you’ve done and why it was wrong.
Evil is inside each of us.
That’s why we must forgive.
Evil is a choice.
If you do the right thing, and things go wrong, that’s tragic.
If you do the wrong thing, and cause things to go wrong, to hurt people, that’s evil.
If you do the wrong thing, and things go right, then you get away with it.
Except that no one ever gets away with anything.
I have delivered my acting skillset over to the hands of two playwrights who are friends of mine – Tom Miller and Michael Pressley Bobbitt. I am the servant of their plays.
Of course, in a new play, where nobody in the audience knows the script, you’re off the hook, as an actor, in that if you fuck anything up, nobody’s going to know.
We Go on the Radio
Glen Richards pointed out to me that the residents of trailer parks consider themselves to be home-owners too.
When Marvin the Marxist first started teaching me, I told him I was a class traitor to the bourgeoisie and he laughed at me and said, “You’re working class, schmuck, just like everybody who gets a paycheck.”
People who live in trailer parks may well consider themselves home-owners, but they probably do not consider themselves class traitors to the bourgeoisie.
At the preview, I came off stage after my first scene and told Chick Lipsig: “Well, I just dropped the N-word, and I’m still standing.”
“Two things,” Chuck said. “One, you were quoting someone. Two, your reaction was in approbation.”
That’s Chuck for you.
Woody Blue liked the play a lot. Enough to hang around afterward and drink a glass of wine. She said the play was not only timely, but becoming more so by the minute, with Richard Spencer, a leading white supremacist, about to come to town for a rally.
Woody hoped it could be prevented and said a precedent had been set when the Nazis were effectively banned from speaking at Berkeley because public safety trumped free speech. So, if the Crying Nazi is coming to your town, loaded down with nine guns and a knife, the threat of bodily harm seems genuine enough.
Trailer Park Elegy is all about the Klan and racism and the South, and there is rape and gun violence, and there are jabs at being “sissy liberal” and a shot at “our fancy gay mayor”, offered in the spirit of bonhomie, smiling, as the questions are spread out on the stage: Where exactly do guns fit into rape prevention? Is it at the point where prevention gives way to rage?
It is at this point in the play, the violence having taken place offstage, as was the rule in Greek theatre, with the effects of violence fully realized, that it might not seem like a good idea to resort to drugs and alcohol, but thank God (Bobbitt) because Elijah does just that, and the stuff acts on him like a truth serum. All the different acting teams have come together center stage, gathered by none other than the fancy gay mayor in a purple suit, along with all of Paynesville (the audience) to hear Elijah commemorate a racist old bitch who’s been dead for 20 years, and to do so drunkenly, honestly, confessing, in effect, begging for forgiveness, for everyone, which is laughable, so the scene appropriately ends with the ashes scattered, given back to the trailer park, blown all to the shit, with the mayor caught between the dust to dust.
Michael Glover and Marival Parish play their scenes together as Elijah and his betrothed Sarah with the domestic ferocity of a Bergman movie, full of intense close-ups. We see into the heart of their relationship, where surely they would wish no one to intrude. Combined with the monologue Sham Sham delivers to Mabel the Goat and the eulogy Elijah delivers at the memorial, the effect is of a communal soul-baring. Elijah’s revelation is that the darkness is inside us, all of us. And by us, he means white people. He doesn’t mean Chen or the little black kids with cane poles over their shoulders, or the chickens who are tearing apart civil rights’ leaders. He’s talking about the darkness that overtook Christine Ellison, that particular darkness that wears bedsheets and is coming to your town.
Elijah gathers the trailer park community and unites it with the greater world, not to forgive a racist and three rapists, but to recognize their humanity. It’s called pity and fear. What the four of them have done in life is abhorrent, so evil it is awesome, overwhelming, soul-devouring, and so, finally, we must pity them.
So, what happens at the end of the play is a post pity party, where the trailer park tenants gather at Elijah’s home, beyond the Prairie View trailer park, in residential Paynesville.
It’s a new play, an original work, by a living playwright, who is also a member of the company, like Shakespeare, who happens to be directing the play, and you are originating a role, embodying that character, and the character is you, even if he’s your Bizarro – how can you go wrong?
Old theater adage: As long as you stay in character, it will all work out.
Three Moments with Mandy
Mandy Fugate is Kate, the park receptionist, but more than that, she is it’s take-charge get-things-done go-to sergeant, and Many is wonderful at it all, a pro, with timing, awareness, presence, funny, real, sharp as a tack onstage and off.
The Scooter: When Sham Sham suggests that Elijah, who has injured his ankle, can transport himself on the scooter, and, oh yeah, Kate can push him, Kate shoots Sham Sham a look that kills.
Cracking Open the Beer: When Kate, imploring Elijah to open his door, says, “We’re really worried about you!” Sham Sham cracks open his beer, and Kate shoots him a look that kills.
The Memorial: When the ashes are about to be scattered, Kate places her hand, comfortingly, on Sham Sham’s shoulder, and he places his hand on hers.
One Neat Trick we pulled was when Scot Gross as Mario and I walked offstage and continued our conversation was we walked behind the audience and then re-entered on the other side, continuing the scene.
Daniel Day Lewis says that one of the reasons he is retiring from acting is that it is just too emotionally painful when a project ends. I know what he means. Your connection is visceral, multilayered, mentally and physically challenging. You have to learn your lines, which means you have to think about them, word by word, and fit them into the flow of dialogue and unfolding plot, which means other people, and they’re trying to do the same thing, and you’re all going out there where you can embarrass yourself in front of people, or you can tell them the truth, so that as players you recognize in each other the kinds of powers each of you has to make things happen. When the lights go down for good, it all turns into memory.