The RW Interview

Naomi Wallace: Looking for Fire

by Connie Julian

Revolutionary Worker #1232, March 14, 2004, posted at

A special feature of the RW to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere in our paper.

"Today it is, once again, war and empire. And it is with these monstrosities that we [playwrights] should engage in one form or another. What would Euripides, Marlowe or Brecht have done? They would have made these times strange, to use a Brechtian formula, so that an audience could see their society anew and possibly act on those new visions. Why settle for a lesser goal?"

The playwright, Naomi Wallace, wrote this in an essay published in the London Guardian last March as U.S. tanks were rolling into Baghdad. For over a decade, she has been making our times "strange" by shining a light on the unexpected and fierce ways in which people without power come to grips with what is behind their suffering. Her plays are remarkably different from each other--in time, place, and subject matter--but they all bring to the surface the hidden relations between things, and between people and things.

In The Trestle at Popelick Creek,Dalton and Pace, a young man and woman stuck in a go- nowhere town during the Depression, battle together to understand what has happened to them and to find a way out.

Dalton: .Like at school. At school they teach you. To speak. They say it's math--

Page: History--

Dalton: Geometry, whatever. But they're teaching you to speak. Not about the world but about things. Just things: a door, a map,

Pace: a cup. Just the name of it.

Dalton: Not what a cup means, who picked it up, who drank from it,

Pace: who didn't and why;

Dalton: where a map came from, who fixed in the rivers, who'll take the wrong turn; or a door. Who cut the wood and hung it there? Why that width, that height? And who made that decision? Who agreed to it? Who didn't?

Pace: And what happened to them because of it?

Dalton: They just teach us to speak the things. So that's what we speak. But there's no past that way.

Pace and Dalton: And no future.

There are clearly huge stakes in obscuring these relationships. The plays of Naomi Wallace open them up, and her audience is invited in to see the world from the vantage point of the sharecroppers and orphans, the gardeners and meatcutters. She deals with the conditions of the proletariat, and capitalist property relations, in a sweeping way--through history, and with an eye towards a future where these killing relations will not be normal.

One Flea Spare is set in 1665 as the plague descends over London. A sailor (Bunce) and an orphaned servant girl (Morse) steal into the home of a wealthy couple, the Snelgraves, and all four get locked up together, under quarantine.

Snelgrave: I'm an ordinary man. I never meant to be cruel.

Morse: Neither did Sir Braithwaite. And yet when my mother, a maid in his house for fourteen years, came to him one morning with the black tokens on her neck he locked her in the root cellar. He was afraid they'd close up his house if they found out someone had taken sick. Neither food nor water he gave her. I lay outside the cellar door. With the door between us, we slept with our mouths to the crack so that we could feel each other's breath.

Snelgrave: We didn't lock up our maids. We called for a surgeon.

Morse: She said, "hold me," because she was cold, but the door was between us and I could not hold her.

Snelgrave: Enough of this. Get me some water, child.

Morse: Did you bring them water when they were dying?

Snelgrave: Yes.

Morse: You lie. You sent your boy to do it. You never looked on them once they were sick.

Snlgrave: I couldn't help them. It was God's wish.

Morse: You locked them in the cellar.

Snelgrave: That's not true.

Morse: And they died in the dirt and blood of their own bodies. And their last breath blew under the door and found your fat mouth and hid inside it and waited for the proper moment to fill your throat.

Snelgrave: You are an evil, evil girl. If your mother were alive--

Morse: My mother lives in your mouth, and one day she will choke you.

Tony Kushner, the playwright ( Angels in America, Homebody/Kabul ), has written this about Naomi Wallace: "At a dark time in history when, at least in the industrialized, `developed' world, and especially in America, it is incredibly difficult to write about class and oppression, alienation and exploitation, Naomi Wallace not only dares to do precisely that, but to do it in the theatre, and with the not-to-be-ignored voice of a true poet. Most other recent attempts to make political theatre sink in games of Rashomon, navel-gazing, or perhaps, more honorably, grief. Naomi Wallace commits the unpardonable sin of being partisan, and, the darkness and harshness of her work notwithstanding, outrageously optimistic. She seems to believe that the world can change. She certainly writes as if she intends to set it on fire. These plays are an antidote to despair."

* * *

Naomi started out as a poet. She was 32 when she wrote her first play: "I surprised myself in really liking to work with other people, working in community with people to create something. I was this loner, I wrote my poetry.but I found out my work was bettered in working with others, and I had an audience to dialogue with."

Her plays have since been produced in Britain, across Europe, and throughout the U.S. She has received commissions from The Public Theater in New York City and the Royal Shakespeare Company of London, among others. She wrote the screenplay for the film, Lawn Dogs , produced by Duncan Kenworthy. She has received numerous awards, including the MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship. Her new play, Things of Dry Hours , is premiering in April in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Naomi has also contributed to important collective efforts by artists to bring theater to bear on burning questions of the day. Her short play Standard Time was performed during an evening at the Public Theater in New York City for Mumia 911 (the National Day of Art to Stop the Execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal) in 1999. In 2001 she co-produced, with the Artists Network of Refuse & Resist!, " Imagine: Iraq ," an evening of staged readings of new plays that explored the connections between the people of Iraq and the West in a time of U.S. war and sanctions on Iraq. Her one-act, The Retreating World,inspired other writers including Trevor Griffiths, Reg E. Gaines, Richard Montoya and Harold Pinter, to contribute plays for this evening which took place in New York two months after 9/11. In August 2002, she organized a group of U.S. playwrights to visit theater artists in Palestine; essays from the writers on this trip (Robert O'Hara, Kia Corthron, Betty Shamieh, Lisa Schlesinger and Tony Kushner) appeared in the July/August and September 2003 issues of American Theater magazine.

Naomi and I did this interview in the fall of 2003 when she was in New York City for the production of Birdy , her theatrical adaptation of the novel by William Wharton.

* * *

Naomi Wallace is one of those rare U.S. writers who exhibits zero nostalgia for what the United States "once was" or "might be." This can get visual and visceral, as in her film Lawn Dogs , where American flags are tossed out truck windows and used to wrap up the carcass of a slain Doberman last seen protecting the predator-perverts in the local gated community.

There is a sense in her work that the fate of the people in this country is tied up with the people of the world. She told me: "I have always felt there was such a connectedness to what happened to me as a person and what was going on in this country and U.S. foreign policy, and all those things had to do with my life, the quality of my life, what I was supporting, what I wasn't supporting. I think the whole system works against you seeing that interconnectedness .but there are all these strings out there and we are all attached to each other somehow. And to me that makes the most exciting writing. Not an insular writing about the dysfunctional American family so to speak, which is usually the white middle class family and who did what to whom and now the secret's coming out. it's just a matter of letting the secrets be revealed and we're all defeated by them."

The characters who carry the day in a Naomi Wallace play are not defeated, even while their journeys are never straight-ahead. The life of the oppressed is brutal, and they are brutal at times to one another. But something else is also going on in these works. One is reminded of Marx's comment on "the German state of affairs" in 1844: ".these petrified relations must be forced to dance by singing their own tune! The people must be taught to be terrified at itself in order to give it courage." (Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right )

The revolutionary writer Ardea Skybreak has said, "We need, today, the art of the future--that is, art that calls forth the future.. It is part of the magic of art that we can do in this sphere what is not yet realizable in the sphere of material social relations." ("Some Ideas on the Social Role of Art, Part 4: Art as Harbinger of the Future," RW #1117)

For me, the plays of Naomi Wallace work in that way. She digs up the weeds, the rusted hulks, and the corpses buried in this bloody ground--and she introduces us to people who one day could plant something new.

Connie Julian, correspondent for the Revolutionary Worker

CJ: Your plays are often about the dispossessed, the poor. And the people in the plays will tell their stories in their own language and cadences, their own way. I thought if you would talk about where you came from, who you are, this could shed light on how you've come to know the people and situations in your plays.

NW: I listen to people talk, it's something I absorb. I've always loved to write people by writing how they talk. I grew up in Kentucky but my mother was Dutch, she was from a working class left-wing family in the Netherlands. And my father was from an upper class Philadelphia family but lived in Kentucky. So I grew up with the stories and culture of both classes. I spent a lot of time in my childhood with my mother's family, who had been involved in the resistance during the occupation in World War 2. They hid Jewish folks and communists and of course Jewish communists (because the best communists were Jewish) under their floor, and they actively participated in the fight against the occupation. So I grew up with all those stories and it was a very political family in Holland. My father was involved in the civil rights movement, but it was my mother who educated me. Both my parents were also involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement.

In Kentucky where I grew up, my father had a farm. The money that we had was in the land, the farm. But the community around it was largely Black and white working class. Those were the kids that I hung out with growing up, those were the families where I spent time. I just grew up listening to their stories about living in America. This was in the mid-'70s, and at least in Kentucky at that time there was a lot of economic depression.

I remember this one family I was quite close with. The father, he was an inventor, or at least aspired to be one, but he just couldn't find a way to support his family although he worked very hard. He was actually poisoned in the Korean War by the rations of tin cheese they gave the soldiers--this is a story in my film Lawn Dogs . He lost one lung from that. And the government of course denied it. I think he had about half a lung left when he died. But I remember as a teenager once going into McDonald's and seeing him sitting, you know, this man who was a wreck, not only from the war and what it had done to him but from just trying to make his way. I remember really being startled by the idea of the American dream. Because here was a family who worked so hard and just could not get ahead. And he blamed himself up until the day he died, that he'd somehow done something wrong. He died before he could get to a place where he could realize that it wasn't his fault, it was the fault of the system.

So those are the people I spent a lot of my time with, and I saw their lives. I was definitely someone from a privileged background, so I was an outsider in a way but I was still part of their circles.

CJ: I've noticed that some of the wise and the brave people in your work are very young, even children, like the young girl Morse in One Flea Spare and Devon in Lawn Dogs . What are you doing with these characters?

NW: I am not sure I have an answer for that except I often see in children a force for refusing to accept the notion that things cannot change. And while some people call it naive, I think there's a courage in the youth that our culture certainly does not value and actively represses. We are an extremely anti-youth culture that sets out to basically pathologize being young, being a teenager. Especially young people who are not privileged, looking at them as a problem, a pathology to be taken care of, to be drugged, rather than a source of incredible energy, creativity and talent.

Also, children are expected to be a certain way, and I like the unexpectedness of how children really are if you watch them. So that's why I often use children. Sometimes children just don't go by the rules, they often have a natural inclination not to, which we as adults have often lost.

CJ: In The Trestle At Popelick Creek , the girl Pace tells the boy Dalton: "You and me and the rest of us kids out here, we're just like. Okay. Like potatoes left in a box. You ever seen a potato that's been left in a box? The potato thinks the dark is the dirt and it starts to grow roots so it can survive, but the dark isn't the dirt and all it ends up sucking on is a fistful of air. And then it dies." Dalton responds, "But I'm not a potato. Potatoes can't run. I can."

NW: Right. Yeah, I can remember as a teenager, in the group that I hung out with there was a mix of classes. We didn't believe at the time that we couldn't all do the same things. And there was a kind of energy and a hope and an openness toward the future that 10 years later had really been beaten out of a lot of people. Some of us were going places and some of us weren't, and it had nothing to do with our own efforts. It had to do with privilege.

The tragedy of that or of internalizing the American dream and really believing that this is a system where if you just work hard enough you can make it, is extremely disturbing. It's also very brilliant--as a method to get people to internalize disappointment, to internalize blame, so that we arrive at the middle or end of our lives and we think why didn't I have those things that I was promised, well it must be my fault. That's not to say that these people I grew up with had all internalized the American dream. There were a lot of people who knew there was something wrong and it wasn't them and they were beginning to explore their own agency and questioning the system. But there are ways that the system works where you stay in this little box, you don't take a new direction, you stay on that path. I think that enlightenment usually comes from being with others who resist in community. It's not that you're rushing down your little road and suddenly, ping , the light goes on. It's usually because someone else has passed you a light. But for those who stay isolated and continue to chase the American dream, sometimes it is difficult to realize one needs to ask different questions.

CJ: In your plays terrible things happen and often people do terrible things to each other. But because of the way people transform, or even the hint that they could transform, the plays end up being fiercely optimistic. I'm wondering about the process by which you get there.

NW: I think that's actually the reality. Sometimes people are beaten down. Sometimes people do not come to a consciousness about their situation. But I don't believe things have always been the same, and that you've just gotta accept that there are a lot of bad endings. People do change and they do reach out to each other and they do resist. Those are the facts, and if I'm a playwright who's writing about the different elements of power and exchange between people, then I have to include those who resist or say I'm taking a different way, or I don't know where I'm going but I'm not going to do what I did before. That kind of resistance to injustice or to a deadening culture--that exists, it's around us all the time in the smallest ways and in the largest ways. I think those who tend to support the system we have and its continuance are the ones who say, "Oh you're just putting on a hopeful ending, or you're not being realistic because it's all blackness."

CJ: There's an intriguing method you sometimes use to develop the characters and story line. You have heroes and monsters, and people in between, and everyone is very complex. And sometimes a really deep truth will fall out of the mouths of one of these depraved characters, the dominator or enforcer, like David in The War Boys , who is the intellectual bully. I don't sense that you are trying to say, "We're all people here," or that there's some kind of reconciliation going on. But I'm wondering about the method, how do you look at portraying those contradictions?

NW: Well, there's two reasons I do this. One is that sometimes if you put the good politics in the mouths of the goodies, no one wants to hear it, but if you give it a twist and put it in the mouths of the baddies, as I call them, we suddenly hear it in a different way. The master of that is Tony Kushner and his Roy Cohn in Angels In America .

For me, it's also because I don't believe in the evilness of human beings, any human being really, although certain base elements in our present administration want me to revise that notion. But it's a system people get caught up in that deforms their humanity so to speak, deforms the goodness in them. And we see flashes of their own awareness of that.

CJ: When David in The War Boys tells the story of sodomizing his sister with the radishes, it's such a hideous chronicle of how some people are forced to grow up. He was trying to get in with the "better" kids, and in order to do that he decides he has to act in this subhuman way.

NW: Right. And as he tells what he did he almost mocks himself, and it's made very clear why he did that, that he was under peer pressure to be "better." It's not just this dark dysfunctional thing that came out of the family. In order for people to get a certain kind of power they often betray those they love.

CJ: He actually says, "I knew I could make it up to Sis later when we got home." That was chilling.

NW: That play I wrote when I first entered theater. I was taking a critical look at the kind of psychology we use on the stage, "character-building": "I'm so and so and this is what happened to me when I was little, and everything that I am now is because of this incident or that incident." It's the idea that we are so tied to these experiences that we can't become anything else, and how we manipulate those experiences to excuse ourselves. You see this in more mainstream theater, that moment where. "When I was a child.", and you go, here it comes. Or "my father when I was this or that age did this to me." It's predictable, a certain way of psychologically looking at people and how their past creates them.

Although to an extent some of that is true, I also believe in reconstructing ourselves and using our past in different ways. How we read our own past and where that can take us, rather than this kind of stock psychology that you see on the stage a lot for characters... It's not to say that someone may not have to make a terrible choice over something in a moment in their life, but to say that this is what our character pivots around is too easy, people are far more complicated than that.

CJ: One thing that is interesting about the way you reconstruct the history, often something physical goes on. The transformation, and the taking of responsibility (or just being haunted by it) is made visceral for the audience, like the way David lays his clothes out on the stage when he's describing raping his sister.

NW: Yes, I think it's about how we can be changed by re-enacting something but also about how we can never get back to that original experience, and that we're already changed in a way. We have already changed each time we remember it. But I love the stage in that way, it's so different from film, because just a pair of shoes on stage can become magical, or a pair of socks.

CJ: For me, the special physical thing in your plays is the touching--touching that is really strange and kind of shocking, to both the characters and the audience, in different ways. Like in One Flea Spare when Bunce, the sailor, so tenderly puts his hands up the skirt of Darcy, a woman who hasn't been touched in decades by a husband who's repelled by her because she had been burned in a stable fire. Or in Lawn Dogs when the young girl Devon asks her friend Trent to touch the scar down the center of her of chest. Can you talk about that?

NW: Yeah, well, I'm thinking about how there's so much that we do every day that's about sensuality but it's fulfilled in a very hollow way, like through buying, eating fast food, all this stuff, as though we're constantly filling ourselves. We have a great spiritual need but it's filled by things you can buy, things you can bet on. There is a way that we interact physically with the world, and touching is one of the things, that's how we live, through touching. We take the boxes off the shelves, we take the shirt to the cash register, but it's a kind of touching that can't be reciprocated by things, of course. Touching each other is a whole different thing because it's a living being, and there's the possibility of touching being returned.

In this culture we are sexualized in a certain way, not only to be heterosexual, but we are told there is one story of the body, and that is how you interact with the body. You know, the attention is put on the breasts or the groin and these other parts of the body are neglected, right? [laughs] But it's not so much just finding, "Oh, my toe is erotic," it's not about that, it's that if we're trying to re-imagine ourselves, then maybe we need to touch the world and what's out there in a different way, and grasp it in a different way. It's through making it strange to ourselves that we sometimes get into a new place, and then we can look at ourselves differently or look at our possibilities differently.

While I have also written about queer sexuality, I've mostly done what you're talking about in heterosexual relations in my plays because how heterosexuals touch and act out their sexuality is extremely overdetermined and restrictive. I've tried to break that down. The Trestle at Popelick Creek was an experiment in trying to write a heterosexual love story which is not dead at the gate in terms of being a site for change.

I do not believe that any sexuality is inherently liberatory or resistant. It depends on where it's sitting in history. So the challenge for me is how can I take a relationship between a boy and a girl and remake that desire in a way that they're not just a boy and a girl any more. They have to look at what it means to be a boy and a girl, how they are supposed to act, how they are supposed to touch and what they want to do with that knowledge. That's why a lot of folks have felt that it's a very queer play in that way. Because the sex that the boy and girl have is not your typical teenager sex when they finally get down to it. Because they are strangled by the norm, what they are allowed to do, what their choices are, which are so few. So it's a boy and a girl trying to break out of how they are meant to interact as young heterosexuals.

I think there's also a way of looking at the body, the way the body is so overused in this society in terms of selling it, or the way it labors, or the way the body is used up, by capitalism you could say, used and thrown out the back door. How we're these incredible bodies, with this enormous capacity to feel and desire, and how that's destroyed or how that's harnessed for other means, like channeling our desires into buying or consuming. So to try to relook at the body, and almost retrain our bodies to respond in a different way, or go to a different place than where the legal touch requires it to go. I've always been interested in that.

CJ: In The Trestle at Popelick Creek , Page's mother, Gin, has the blue hands. She's been poisoned at the factory, but those hands are luminous on stage and they seem to mean something else, in a kind of magic realist way, almost another possibility--

NW: Yeah, well there are certain beauties that capitalism creates. It may be horrific but at times there are these magical things that are created, like a tremendous landscape of smokestacks, it's frightening and breathtaking at the same time. Or you can walk down the streets and see all these lights for Christmas which can be hideous, but at a certain time of night can seem mystical. I think this is the attraction of capitalism, that on the surface it can be incredible looking, the things that it has created, the cities it has created. The blue hands are about this horrendous place she works, but the irony being she has blue hands now. There's something both frightening and gorgeous about it even though they're probably going to poison her.

I've also always been interested in how we try to separate what we do from who we are and how we live. For a lot of people, for most of the people in this world who must labor with their bodies still, how the body is damaged through labor intimately affects how you function in the rest of your life. Whether you can lift your children, and you can't because your back has gone out from work, or if you have carpal tunnel syndrome and you can't cut out little paper dolls with your grandson. The damage bodies receive is intimately connected with the quality of our lives. It's not just close your door on your work. That's a myth of the upper class in their business offices. Whether you even feel enough energy to have sex after working 14 hours, those things affect your personal relations. It's interconnected, what happens outside in the world, how we labor, and what happens inside us and in our relationship with others.

CJ: It comes out in an extreme way with the father, Dray, in Trestle . He doesn't have work, he can't even sell his labor power. And so in his own mind, he ceases to exist, he thinks people will walk right through him because he's invisible.

NW: Right. And he even says, which is true and not true, you are what you do. In one way that is true; on the other hand, he is trying to find something else in himself that is not just what he does, is not just a reflection of what he can earn. Dray has this incredible violence in him which he attempts to control.

CJ: By the ritual of throwing the dishes.

NW: Yes, the dishes, and the ripping of the shirt. These actions help him burn off a violence and despair that otherwise might come out sideways at those he loves.

CJ: The women and girls in your plays are always misbehaving. How do you think about that?

NW: They're breaking laws, both real and invisible. They're resisting against the ways they've been taught to be as women. I think no matter how much someone seems to be part of their own subjugation so to speak, there's always resistance there. I think we see it in children from the start, as we try to make girls into little girls and boys into little boys, there's always resistance there. It's as if we have to break the spirit of the child to get them to fully accept a `normative' way of being.

I have never tried to create role models in terms of women, I just try to write complicated women. Women are often simplified on stage, especially in terms of their biology. Women, and especially women of color, are often the resisters in my work. And of course historically women of all colors have been on the front lines in any major resistance or revolution or struggle.

CJ: Like the bourgeois commentator who remarked about the Paris Commune: "If France were a nation of women, what a terrible nation it would be" --because there were so many fierce women on the barricades.

NW: Yeah. [laughs]

CJ: Your plays always have objects that reappear like themes or old friends. I'm thinking about the ribbons and the roots and the root vegetables and the birds and the feathers.

In The Retreating World , the Iraqi man, Ali, has his books, and he does all these things with the books. He learns about the world from the books, he makes himself taller by standing on a book, he sells his books so he can eat, he even eats the book. What is it about the books?

NW: Books are my fellow beings. Reading and studying history is a lifeline for me. My own imagination pales next to what has actually happened in history. So any play that I write I research what was happening at the time. I know so little about other experiences that I need to do a lot of research and then just pray that my imagination can do the rest. I've never been to Iraq but when the play was done in London some Iraqi exiles came and they said, "How did you know that we are in love with books?" It was accidental, I mean I chose the books because I was impressed and saddened by people having to sell all their books, their most precious things, their Shakespeare in English and Arabic. Many Iraqis have told me that in their culture, books are the most important thing, knowledge and learning.

There's something sacred about the thingness of a book. It's a quiet, little square thing. But open it up and it can blast your ears off. A book on stage can become quite magical. I have two of them in my new play, Things of Dry Hours , the Bible and the Communist Manifesto. These books are picked up and laid down, and things are done with them throughout the play. I was always fascinated by books as a child because they're these silent things you hold in your hands, and then you open them up and there's this entire floating world in there and it can radically change the way you think in seconds. You sit down to read a book and if it's a good book when you stand up again, pieces of you are no longer the same.

CJ: Most artists who mean something to people are themselves deeply fascinated with the world and how things actually work. I was just reading a biography of John Coltrane who was an avid reader, he read about Africa and religion and philosophy and everything he could get his hands on about the theory of relativity. In looking at your life and work, I sense you have a strong compulsion to find out about the world, and the hidden relationships between things and people. You're not satisfied with some kind of eyesight analysis, and that to me is what makes your plays very deep.

There's actually an exchange on this between Page and Dalton, about how in school they only allow you to learn the names of things.

NW: Right, and that's the time he breaks the cup and then he holds a piece of it, and talks about how when we have a thing, we don't learn who made it, who suffered for making it, who paid for it, who designed it, who said this is the way it should be. Those hidden relationships are the economic relationships between people but you don't see them in the shoes or coat or toaster that you have daily contact with. There's nothing more intimate than drinking out of a cup you just bought. But how often do we think about the cup's creation?

CJ: In terms of the process of creation, you have an interesting way of going about it. You wrote about this in a piece published in The Guardian (UK) last year: "There is the fairly mainstream notion that ideas and political theory are limiting for writers, if not downright hostile to talent and the `real', and that truth springs from the individual, unencumbered by the blinkers of politicking. Only some superior `individual experience,' the tiresome argument goes, can provide the writer with authentic organic matter from which to draw words and images. I admit--and this is an unfashionable confession--I write from ideas. I do not start by drawing from the well of authentic experience uncontaminated by the dead carcass of `issues.' I write to explore theories."

NW: Yes. New writers are often forced into this sentimentalized view of their own creativity--that we need to go down deep into ourselves, and that's where we'll find some authentic voice, rather than going outward from ourselves and connecting with the world and people and other experiences, and that that is how our creativity will be forged. I can remember as a student being in playwright workshops at the University of Iowa and established playwrights, whose names shall remain unsaid, would come to teach us.

They would start out the class with writing exercises and say, "I want you to all close your eyes, and breathe deep, and imagine there's a door in your heart and you are going to open that door and look inside yourself. What are the portraits and whose faces do you see on the walls? Now, start writing!"

[we both burst out laughing]

Then Tony Kushner came out to Iowa and said, "I want each of you to write a political manifesto of what you believe about the world." I was like yes! I think half the class left and didn't return, or went to the office to complain.

But that was around the time that things were really beginning to change. I don't think it's just the playwrights, I think the audience, the public, is asking for a more engaged and political theater. It's a chicken and egg thing. It's not just that political writers have come forth and the audience has decided to go along with them. I think much of the public is hot for this kind of theater. It's very cold in American right now. Cold to the bone. At least on the surface. I think a lot of folks are looking for fire.


Some of the plays of Naomi Wallace:

The Trestle at Popelick Creek : Dalton and Pace, a young man andwoman stuck in a go-nowhere town during the Depression, battletogether to understand what has happened to them, and to find away out.

One Flea Spare is set in 1665 as the plague descends overLondon. A sailor (Bunce) and an orphaned servant girl(Morse) steal into the home of a wealthy couple, the Snelgraves,and all four get locked up together, under quarantine.

Mixing reality and dream, the radical and the mystic, Slaughter City is a searing drama about life in the meat-packing industry.

The War Boys , a three-man play about "the informal policing of theMexican border in Texas by screwed-up, sadistic vigilantes." ( Time Out )

Lawn Dogs , the film: Sam Rockwell plays 21-year-old Trent Burns,a poor laborer who mows lawns in Camelot Gardens, a suburbangated community in Louisville, Kentucky. He is treated like dirtby those who hire him. The only one to take his side and to findhim interesting is a 10-year-old girl, Devon Stockard (played by MischaBarton).__Where to find these works:In the Heart of America and Other Plays , by Naomi Wallace, NewYork: Theater Communications Group, 2001, available inbookstores and at:

The Retreating World , by Naomi Wallace, published in AmericanTheater magazine, along with essays from Naomi Wallace and otherUS. playwrights on their trip to Palestine in fall 2002. (See August 2003 and September 2003 issues,

Lawn Dogs , screenplay by Naomi Wallace, available atBlockbusters and other video stores.