INDIALOGUE

The Edge of Togetherness in Carla Ching

A cousin of mine and I discussed Christmas today. Well, “discussed.” We e-mailed back and forth a few times on how Christmas will never again be what it once was for us—and not in reference to the inevitability of growing older, nor to nostalgia. We referred instead to the ups and downs of family; how as the years pass, the inter-workings get so very complex. As with the rest of humanity, as it continues to grow and predictably separate, we find ourselves reaching out across time zones, through technological portals, and back through history just to get some sense of connection.

In the plays of Carla Ching, we are often met with characters who live right in the nucleus of this disconnect; they are often cautious and unsure if they even believe in reaching out anymore, for fear that across from them is nothing but further proof of their detachment. In Carla’s worlds, much of our society remains intact, but between us is a strange and warped reality, in which something is always imaginatively missing.

I first met Carla as we both were pursuing our M.F.A.s in playwriting from what is now the New School for Drama. And I still distinctly remember my first encounter with her writing:

There is a man onstage; nervously waiting. After a few weighted moments, a woman enters; the man bursts with relief. He asks if she is alright. She responds, “No, I’m not.” Another weighted silence. The man inquires further. She responds, “There’s been an accident.”

Her dialogue is often short, but poetic; it injects the audience with a paralyzing curiosity similar to that from Hitchcock or The Twilight Zone. In another of her works, Big Blind/Little Blind, we are introduced to a world where people in need of an organ transplant must play for it in a national poker tournament; in TBA, a reclusive writer refuses to leave his apartment and invents his own history; in Fast Company, a family of mistrusting grifters must collectively begin to believe one another for the sake of their ailing mother. In many of Carla’s works, people are so far apart from each other, only together in proximity or by way of force, never in the way people ought to be.

In her newest work, The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness, we see the remnants of a family who communicate via Twitter, via a home for troubled teens (aka the Sugar House), via the dead and buried, and via the silences we so often extend to the people we actually care about.

From the play, Baba, Chinese-American, 40, Keeper of the Sugar House, speaks to Greta, 17, her father Doc, 40, and his girlfriend Opal, 32:

BABA
Let’s imagine we’re at the dinner table and we’ve just sat down after a long day at work or school—

GRETA
I’m a writer. I’m better at the written word—

BABA
We need to work on your oral communication skills—

GRETA
There’s a clearer channel between my brain and my hands than my brain and my mouth—

BABA
Where have we come to in this world that young people would rather type into a keyboard than look someone in the eye and say something?

DOC
What if it’s not instead of, but in addition to?

OPAL
Sometimes I don’t want to pick up the phone and bear the awkward silences when I can just type something out—

DOC
Look, we’re writers, musicians, photographers. If we’re not as comfortable with—

BABA
We are going to talk to each other today. We are going to learn to look each other in the eye. Like people have done since the beginning of time. Because it was and always will be the golden standard.

 (Her own ferocity surprises her. The others just stare at her, a little stunned by her fervor.)

How many times do we have to remind or be reminded to make a phone call or pay a visit? How many times do we look at our phone as it vibrates and quickly shut it to still? How many times do we secretly respond via text even though we are perfectly able to call? How many times, when we actually do call, do we pray for voicemail? Sure, there are times for this, no doubt. An awkward or impending break up, a person from work; but how often do we pull this same behavior with people we care about, people whom we say we love?

In watching a past workshop of this play, as well as reading a more recent draft, I was hit with such sadness by how the communication amongst this particular family is damaged. So many wires are left on the floor, no longer connected. And as with so much of what is busted in our own lives, we are completely aware, but just do not bend down to pick up or fix what is broken.

From the The Sugar House, Doc speaks to his nephew Han, 16. Opal listens.

DOC
What’d you do?

HAN
Walked around.

DOC
Uh-huh.

HAN
Hit a Central Park Summerstage show.

DOC
Uh-huh.

HAN
You know.

DOC
She cute?

OPAL
Doc!

DOC
Just a question.

HAN
I guess.

DOC
Try to get in by 10 from now on, would you?

HAN
Huh, why? Curfew at home was 11.

DOC
Well, that was there and this is here. Got me?

HAN
I think I’m gonna go for a walk.

DOC
You got me?

HAN
I. Got. You.

OPAL
You don’t have to bolt. I mean, I could use some help peeling the shrimp, chopping the vegetables.

HAN
Just need some air. Leave the shrimp for me—

(And he’s gone.)

Too often it is our own awareness of our imperfections that keeps a constant line drawn in us, never allowing us to just jump to the other side of our bad decisions and walk a straighter path. Be it stubbornness, laziness, or just plain comfort; continually we say what we wish we hadn’t, we do what we know we shouldn’t, and we can never seem to stop ourselves beforehand. What Carla draws in characters is the person divided: somebody making a wrong turn, but with humiliation; people actually watching themselves make that wrong turn, and shaking their heads all the while.

On her writing, Carla says, “I think like most people, I have a question or problem that I must know the answer to. Why do people lie? Why are we failing our children? Then over the course of writing the play, I search around for how that question can be answered. But I also write to share with other people, so they can reflect, start their own conversation, and act on it. I write to activate people.”

Greta talks to a fellow resident of the Sugar House, Miles, 17, about giving in to Baba, the head of Sugar House:

GRETA It kills me. The idea of playing ball.

MILES
Why?

GRETA
My mother pulled me off the street, took me home when that was a dangerous act. She dared to have dangerous ideas, she dared to have a family when the government told her she wasn’t allowed to. What kind of person am I if I was saved in the spirit of rebellion and I say safe things or do safe things?

MILES
You won’t have to play forever though. Just long enough to get out of here.

GRETA
(beat) But if I do—

MILES
When you do—

GRETA
When I do, and I find him, I don’t know where we’ll go.

MILES
What do you mean? Home. You’ll go home.

GRETA
We don’t have one anymore.

MILES
This uncle of yours in the East Village. That girlfriend of his you don’t like. You got people. I got nothing, you see? No safety net. No unconditional…what not. And I got no choice in the matter. I just gotta go out there and build something beautiful anyhow. So, you kinda spit in my face, when you shrug off your home. Like it doesn’t matter. Like it’s a throwaway thing. All I ever been is trying to go home.

This moment in the play really sticks with me. Why do we need so much help? What is that seemingly innocuous thing that can trigger our awareness—a phrase, or song, or even the nostalgia of a particular time of year that allows us to realize the separation that’s built up in our lives? It’s almost as if we can’t initiate the confrontation on our own, we just don’t contain the strength. What gives me hope in Carla’s writing is that always there is this small, fucked up fragment of honesty being tossed around through the seeming emotional disconnect of her characters. Even in the more intense scenes of family or clinical discord, just beneath the surface is an ocean of connection that each character actually wishes they could dip their hand into. And we watch, wondering if they will, hoping that they do. 



The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness, by Carla Ching, directed by Daniella Topol, produced by Ma-Yi Theater Company, plays November 8 – December 4 at The Connelly Theater, 220 East Fourth Street, Manhattan. For tickets and more information, visit: http://www.ma-yitheatre.org/playing.

Contributor

Matthew Paul Olmos

MATTHEW PAUL OLMOS is the inaugural recipient of La MaMa ETC's Ellen Stewart Emerging Playwright Award, as selected by Sam Shepard; a Sundance Institute Time Warner Storytelling Fellow; two-time Mabou Mines/Suite Resident Artist; and an Artist in Residence at Brooklyn Arts Exchange. For more information, visit: www.matthewpaulolmos.com.

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