These days, everyone's a monologuist. Just look at how much we have to say in our Facebook status updates, Twitter feeds, Instagram stories, and YouTube confessional video series.
Monologues, like annoyingly hyperactive social-media presences, are risky because they break the hallowed "show don't tell" rule, which is followed by practitioners of all arts. Monologues instead make a show of telling. What's telling is how the performer tells, which lifts the monologue above the radio rant (or the thread) and into the realm of art.
Functionally, it's also the most cost-effective kind of performance to produce, requiring only a stage, a spotlight, a microphone, and a performer. In this way, if journalism is the first draft of history, then monologues are formally positioned to be the second.
Last fall, for instance, Mike Daisey stopped by the Neptune while touring The Trump Card, a long, indulgent monologue that offered cogent insights into the mind and motivations of our current president mere weeks before his election took everyone but Steve Bannon by surprise.
The pressure to produce the necessary show for right now moved director Anita Montgomery and A.J. Epstein over at West of Lenin to organize a trio of monologues called Three Americans: Voices of Hope. The show runs through March 4.
Jinx, kind of. During this same time period, Seattle stages will have hosted two other variations on monologues: Lisa Kron's Well at Seattle Repertory Theatre and Tim Smith-Stewart and Jeffrey Azevedo's Awaiting Oblivion: Temporary Solutions for Surviving the Dystopian Future We Find Ourselves Within at Present at On the Boards. Though these other two shows weren't produced explicitly in response to Seattle's perceived socio-emotional needs following the election of Trump, they do sit well with each other.
Despite their formal differences, these monologues all reveal the limitations of a single person's power to control interpersonal relationships and to effect real political change, paradoxically undermining the ethos of individualism inherent in the genre and in America's conception of itself. In their own way, each of these shows stresses the individual's role as a member of a community, revealing how much we need each other, and how horrifying that fact can sometimes be.
Three Americans offers up three monologues that are formally traditional but offer the stage to characters who don't often see the spotlight in American theater.
In the tightest of the three, Stranger Genius Award winner Yussef El Guindi's The Birds Flew In, a woman grieves over her dead son. Nadia and her husband fled their war-torn country for the relative safety of America, only to wind up raising a war-ready patriot. Annette Toutonghi's intense, trembling whisper reflects her character's unsure mind. She constructed the American dream for her son, but America raises soldiers—the same kind of people who ran her out of her country. Despite her weeping protestations, he went off to war. And despite his death, she's still proud of herself for raising a "man" who would sacrifice himself for his country. The sadness here, profound as it is perverse, is the mother finding solace in patriotism, the communal ideology that created the conditions for her own son's death. But her patriotism costs her something, unlike the easy version of patriotism expressed by people who offer empty condolences for lost soldiers and perfunctory gratitude for their "service."
Patriotism also comes at a cost to Pearl (Cynthia Jones) in Regina Taylor's Déjà Vu, another monologue from Three Americans. Pearl is a Freedom Rider in a Sunday dress with matching purple shoes who leans on her walker in the spotlight and recalls her attempts to vote as a black woman in the 1960s. It didn't go well, and not much has changed: Dogs used to bite black Americans in Birmingham, and now dogs are biting Native Americans at Standing Rock. Over time, she hopes—she has to hope—that the power of the votes she and others had to fight for will prevail.
Both monologues simultaneously magnify and minimize the power of the individual's story. Nadia's personal history couldn't convince even her own son to avoid war. Pearl's vote didn't stop racism and state violence. But the only sane emotional choice either of them has is to immerse their own stories within the broader collective.
If "telling" is the core of the monologue, Lisa Kron's Well questions the self's ability to "tell" any story in theater at all, thanks mostly to our faulty memories and to complicating details that are lost in the translation from life to art.
Well is a meta-theatrical show in which the playwright plays herself starring in the play she's trying to write. According to the script, it's a "solo show with people in it"—but the play is clearly set inside a single head, and Sarah Rudinoff, as Lisa the playwright, spends so much time in the spotlight that it's easy to forget the show is not a monologue.
The playwright's mother, Ann, played by veteran Rep actor Barbara Dirickson (who absolutely nails the hyper-intense Midwest-nice tone the part requires) has an invisible illness that she calls "allergies." Back in the 1960s, she managed to drum up enough energy to run an association dedicated to keeping her neighborhood integrated. Now she can't move without feeling pain and she's always exhausted.
The playwright, it seems, has inherited the same "allergies," but she cured them by moving to New York and coming out as a lesbian—which makes her suspicious about how ill her mother really is.
Over the course of the play, *AND THIS IS KIND OF A SPOILER ALERT,* Ann and the rest of the cast start to break character and challenge the playwright's right to tell this story. The characters declare their moral qualms with playing bit parts in a story where the truth is corrupted or forsaken altogether for the sake of art. In doing so, they oppose the mind that invented them, leaving the playwright (on the stage and on the page) to contend with the thing she's been trying to avoid contending with the whole time—her relationship with her mother.
In its own way, Well provides another example of individual liberation through collective action. Lisa is only able to confront her mother and therefore liberate herself after giving in to the collective and thus giving up her personal artistic ambition. Since the play is meta, however, Lisa's act allows Kron to complete her personal artistic ambition of finishing the play.
A more recent show follows a twisty-turny path to individual liberation similar to the one Kron lays out in Well. Tim Smith-Stewart and Jeffrey Azevedo's Awaiting Oblivion: Temporary Solutions for Surviving the Dystopian Future We Find Ourselves Within at Present—which played last weekend—began with the premise that art's potential for revolution is constrained by the artist's participation in the very system the artist is trying to revolt against. In Well's case, the system was Kron's subjective version of the truth. In Awaiting Oblivion, the struggle is existence itself.
The show's complex critique posits capitalism as the ur-oppressor, and it frames the nonprofit art industrial complex as a subset of it. This raises thorny questions: How can art make a dent in that oppression, much less triumph over it? Doesn't it make more sense to simply opt out of the whole mess in favor of more direct action? Say, for example, suicide?
AO, the suicidal playwright at the center of the show, comes to see that not killing yourself isn't enough, and neither is making art, but both are necessary ingredients.
"Your aliveness itself isn't the resistance," says AO. But the act of living and creating form the "rupture sustaining you toward the next tactic of insurrection." (The show is funnier than I've made it sound.)
That's the challenge for the individual self in the age of Trump. Every day you have to find a new reason to live. And you can't find it alone.