(Nancy’s Note: Happy to give some space in this blog to a guest columnist and writer I greatly respect.)
By Charles Evered
Could there be a more absurd situation in life than sitting across from a friend at a coffee shop and finding oneself defending the very disease that has killed your father, your mother, your two brothers, your mentor, your dearest friend from graduate school — not to mention many other acquaintances, pets, people whom I admire greatly from a distance, and the disease that — if you were to see it through the eyes of a genetics expert or insurance actuary, would probably be deemed the most likely cause of your own death?
And yet, there I found myself, between sips of a grande mocha advocating diligently on its behalf, lobbying for the continued relevance of that age old chestnut — the seemingly out of vogue “cancer play.”
“Find another disease,” my friend pleaded. “Anything but cancer.”
So, as I looked off into the far distance, considering the groundbreaking possibilities of the first rickets or scurvy play, it became clear to me that if social security were the third rail of American politics, so it seems that cancer may be the third rail of American theatrics. It’s just not prudent to go there if you can help it. And if you do, you better somehow deconstruct it, be ironic, clinical, distant, cold or write through a prism of bemused “graduate school like” detachment if you want the play to be taken seriously.
The problem in my case however, was twofold: 1) I had written a play called Class, about the relationship between a jaded acting teacher and his mysterious new student — that isn’t really a “cancer play” at all. It’s a play about how two very different people find a commonality and change each other’s lives forever. At best, cancer makes a glancing but still potent cameo. And 2) while I’d like to think I can write outside of my own experience, and have, I don’t quite understand why I should have to insert another disease in the story in order to protect myself from what others feel is a subject begging for a critical drubbing or no longer worthy of theatrical dramatization. After all, by writing the play, I have done what everyone always tells writers to do: “Write what you know.” In this case, something I know too well — and way more than I would have liked thank you very much. It’s also something that way too many people still know — and are waging an expensive and very courageous battle against on a daily basis.
Still, within the context of the play, and in real life, the disease, represents the most frightening thing of all: chaos — utter “unpredictable unpredictability” that, at any moment, can take everything away. No matter how rich, successful, careful, vegan, famous or happy you are, it is still the Russian roulette of diseases, and while we can certainly do all we can to prevent it — and fight it, and while science is making real strides in managing and even eradicating it, (Go Angelina!) — the bottom line is — it still remains that “invisible bus” that we can’t see coming around the corner. And so, in a rather perverse and sinister way, it remains a great “leveler,” as the same disease that killed a youngish billionaire like Steve Jobs, can kill the poorest among us. It just doesn’t care.
In Class, I deal with some of those themes — taking care even, to address those very issues head on.
In previous productions of the play, it’s been both heartening and surreal to have people who are fighting cancer — and many who have conquered it — come up to me afterwards and “thank” me for representing their disease in a way that to them, feels refreshingly honest. They even seem strangely appreciative that the subject is brought up at all, without ironic distance, not in the context of a movie of the week, and no longer consigned to the theatrical ghetto of the dreaded “issue” play.
I would of course like nothing more than for the subject to become entirely irrelevant, and I hope someday it is. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a hundred years from now, audiences watched plays that mentioned cancer and regarded it with a curious detachment, as they might today when watching a play about an eradicated Victorian era disease? I would love nothing more. Until that time however, I’m afraid I’m still obligated to write what I know — while at the same time, hoping never to get to know it any better than I already have.
Charles Evered’s play CLASS is now playing at the Penguin Repertory Theater in Stony Point, New York until June 9. It was published by Broadway Play Publishing, Inc. For information: www.penquinrep.org. For more information about Mr. Evered: www.CharlesEvered.com.