Do it to it, Rita. You’re on:
Quincy Long’s new "comedy with songs" opens on members of a middle-America school board singing the pledge of allegiance, a gesture filled with the lofty political and philosophical scope of words like "Republic," "Liberty," and "Justice." Lest we hover too long in those elevated concepts, however, the play pulls us quickly back to earth with an exchange that smacks of the rote procedure, tenuous civility and petty infighting that seem always to accompany official political action:
MESNER: Please be seated.
(All Sit. Schuler raises his hand.)
SCHULER: Point of order.
MESNER: Mr. Schuler’s objection to the words ‘Under God’ in the flag salute will be entered in the record forthwith.
SCHULER: Thank you.
MESNER: Clerk’ll call the roll, please.
Welcome to the world of People Be Heard, where the debate about the origins of life meets…well, us. Sure, we muse learnedly whether we developed from a primeval biochemical soup or were dropped here by God or aliens. But we’re just as likely to study bus schedules as we are the likelihood of a divine provenance. We’d love to ponder the fundamental questions of where we came from and why we’re here, but our lives—our right-now, knocking-at-our-door, stepping-on-our-toes lives—often make it difficult to devote to those questions the attention they deserve.
This is the dilemma for the heroine of People Be Heard, Rita Dell Delaney, when she’s called upon to fill a seat on the school board after one of its members dies of a "pulmonary of the lung." She doesn’t mind serving her community, and that undeniably is her signature saying she agreed to be second alternate to the board seat (although she didn’t know what she was signing at the time). But her real problem is that the board meets Monday nights and that’s when she’s scheduled to strip every week at the Wiggle Room, a gig that pays a lot better than her former job at the bank.
Not surprisingly, this obstacle is overcome and soul-searching, argument and hilarity ensue, with Rita ultimately casting the crucial vote about whether or not creationism/intelligent design should be taught alongside evolutionary theory in the county’s public schools. So much for plot.
That Quincy makes Rita the heroine of People Be Heard points to the play’s real preoccupations and is his answer to the challenges of writing a topical play that could easily have devolved into stale political debate. While the play contains the current controversy about teaching the origins of human life in public schools (even hinting that aliens might be involved), that discussion is secondary to Rita’s journey from fence-sitter to voter, from isolated individual to community participant. "It’s a play about a person who moves from self-isolation into a group," Quincy says, "and what happens when one person joins a group of people and becomes part of it."
As the fifth member of a five-member board, Rita inevitably influences the direction of school policy, but, more important to the play, her participation on the board expands her world. In one scene, Rita stages a strip-routine with dancers dressed as Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. The two bemoan the downside of "big ideas":
STRIPPER 2 (Darwin): I had me a big idea this morning.
STRIPPER 1 (Lincoln): Yeah? What’s that Charles?
STRIPPER 2: There ain’t no God.
STRIPPER 1: No.
STRIPPER 2: Yeah too, and your great great granddad’s a big baboon.
STRIPPER 1: Jesus, you mean to say the Bible ain’t nothin’ but a big old fairy tale?
STRIPPER 2: Looks like.
STRIPPER 1: Woooeee. Pope’ll be mad as hell.
STRIPPER 2: Wish I’d never went and had that big idea.
STRIPPER 1: What we gonna do, Charles?
STRIPPER 2: I surely don’t know, Abe.
Fittingly, given the context, the answer is a striptease. But Quincy doesn’t include it merely for comedic value; it has thematic impact as well. "There’s a big idea in the play of trying to live with what you don’t know and not being able to resolve issues that are important to you," he says. Dancing, the play suggests, is one of the ways to cope with the maddening nature of debate about subjects about which there can be no clear answer, for which there can be no ultimate expert to set things straight (it occurred to this humanist writer, incidentally, that the only way evolution stands a chance of persuading the truly devout is if God appears and says, "I didn’t do it."). On one level—reason—dancing is a completely unsatisfying answer to the debate about the origins of life. On another—the spiritual level—it’s perfect. With or without a firm answer about your origins, the play seems to say, you still have to live the life you’ve got, and dancing—and singing, tickling, laughter, sex, etc.—are far from the worst ways to get by.
This spiritual, sort of Bacchanalian-lite, component is a hallmark of many of Quincy’s plays—unemployed lumberjacks crusading madly on behalf of a silent, helpless stranger in The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite; and a male marine who gives birth in The Virgin Molly, to name two. As for People Be Heard, it was partially the discovery that Rita was a stripper that allowed Quincy to find his way into the play. The play was written on a commission from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which commissions plays to promote wider understanding of science and technology. The treatment Quincy developed for the application contained the basic elements of the current play: the story of a woman who joins a school board facing a decision about the inclusion of ideas about creationism/intelligent design in its science classes. But this was only enough to write the treatment, Quincy says, not enough to fuel the writing of the play. "The way I got into it was tough," he says.
The realization that Rita was a stripper was a big step on that journey, Quincy says; another was discovering the individual voices of the school board members. "I’d been a reporter and sat in on a lot of these endless meetings—zoning, planning, council meetings, small town shit," he says. "You can become a kind of connoisseur of those things after a while because they’re so boring that you’re watching the little fights and interactions and the way they talk, the music. I just love the music of it."
The play’s songs (see sidebar) were another means to open up the play and have fun with the dry content of its ostensible subject. Music and singing—mainstays of Quincy’s recent plays—broaden the impact of People Be Heard, and all plays, in a way that dialogue alone can’t, he says. "They elevate the experience somehow, and put it on another level, give it a lift," he says. "I just enjoy it, and I love to hear people sing. It’s fun."
And fun is what, as a comedy, People Be Heard is ultimately about. So what if the subject is the debatable existence of God? No matter what answers we come to, or which way the votes go, the play suggests, we—as limited, loveable humans—still won’t have answered the basic questions about where we come from and why we’re here. And without those answers, all possibilities are open. Could be God. Could be science. Could be aliens. Could be anything. So? Sing, dance, take a seat on your local school board. Might as well make the best of it.
People Be Heard runs Aug. 31–Oct. 10 at Playwrights&Mac226; Horizons, 416 West 42nd St. (between 9th/10th). Tickets: $55, call (212) 279-4200. Limited discount tix: under 30, $25 at the door (ID required, one per ID); students: $12 at door (one per ID).
Quincy Long’s recent musical, Horse Opera, (book) is scheduled to premiere in fall 2005 at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington, D.C. This fall, Quincy will develop Exxon Butterfly, a joint project with director and dramaturge Kathleen Dimmick and students from Bennington College.
Justin Boyd recently graduated from the Professional Playwriting Program at Ohio University and moved to New York. He lives in Brooklyn.
Excerpt from People Be Heard
Fish become mammals
They climb onto Land
They do it from nature
They don’t understand
They don’t understand
The whales and the fruit flies
And Apes into man
Kids and their mommas
Cath as catch can
according to plan
Patience my darlin’
My little man
You’re just a Danny
Not yet a Dan
You see what’s behind you
Not what’s ahead
’Cause you ain’t the leader
My luttle mosquiter
You are the led
So go on to bed
(DANNY kisses RITA and EXITS.)
I see what’s behind me
Not what’s ahead
’Cause I ain’t the leader
I’m only Rita
And I am the led
I am the led
Justin Boyd is a playwright, screenwriter and co-editor of the Theater section of the Rail.