An Artful February: Rent, Roxane Gay, John, and A Thousand Splendid Suns

I still love Rent, even after 20 years. I remember seeing it when it first came out in 1996 and it felt so relevant. Watching the friends struggle to pay rent, to live a life worth living, to cope with friends dying of AIDS. In real life, beginning to have hope that the drug cocktails would start to stem the ever present tide of AIDS related deaths. Daring to hope that the funerals would subside. For this performance, our tickets were in the second row. As we sat down, I thought, “This is close.” And it was amazing. I’m a convert to front of the house tickets for live performances.

Just an interviewer and an author, sitting on two couches. Roxane Gay commented that she’s better on Twitter, when she has a chance to think of responses before sharing them. I disagree. She’s perfect in person. She emphasized the importance of creating joy in our lives, otherwise it’s easy to become a secretary of despair. She looks forward to Benadryl nights, when she knows she’ll get a good night’s sleep. I loved this. One of the things that I relish about being sick is taking medicine that will make me sleepy. It’s such a heavy, drowsy, languid existence.
John was long (3 hours, two intermissions) but was one of those plays that I thought about a lot afterward. The main guy in the play, Elias, well, I was so annoyed with him. But after the play I questioned Jenny’s character, and if maybe some of Elias’ actions were justified. And it was quirky.

I’ve read all of Khaled Hosseini’s books; they’re the type of stories where you’re so engrossed, you reach the end of a chapter and look up and it takes a moment to realize where you are, here in San Francisco, rather than in Afghanistan. ACT commissioned a play of A Thousand Splendid Suns and it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen there. The play (different from the book) is engaging, the actors dynamic, and the story of the growing friendship between Laila and Mariam is a reminder that even in times of despair, there can be love and joy.

The Suit

For the past several years, I’ve been a season ticket holder to ACT. I usually buy tickets to 4 – 5 plays. I pick the plays from the short description listed in the pre-season flyer and  don’t do much more research than that. Without fail, every year there is one outstanding play, two to three that are okay to good, and one that is horrible. The outstanding one usually catches me by surprise; I couldn’t have predicted it would be outstanding from the description.

Tonight I saw the outstanding play of the season.

The Suit is a spectacular story and it was executed flawlessly. The audience is drawn in from the very beginning, when the narrator talks of smoking weed and drinking moonshine in the township of Sophiatown, and playfully offers to share his imaginary indulgences with audience members in the front row. The set is simple: a few chairs, a carpet, a table, some rolling clothing racks. The cast consists of three actors and three musicians. Mathilda, the lead, beautifully sings a few solos; during the rest of the play the music is artfully woven into, onto, and among the dialogue.

The story is gripping while exploring love, desires, friendship, betrayal, survival, racism, and punishment – all within 75 intense minutes. Motives are understated; characters are real. If you’re in the Bay Area, make your way to ACT. You’re in for a treat. You may even see me in the next row.