Every Word Ever Written and One
Jason Grote’s 1001
Jason Grote’s 1001 is a story about stories—stories as identity, stories as culture, stories as survival, stories as everything: fantasy and reality, hope and despair, creation and annihilation (and so much more):
There is only one story. It has always ever been thus. The story is comprised of every word that has ever been or will ever be uttered. It is an elaborate maze, a trap from which there is no way to break free, for nothing exists outside of it. No story, no you.
1001 is a re-telling of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, but it’s also a re-telling of the legend’s re-tellings, and a poignant, sometimes goofy riff on a post-modern paradox: we are both freed and trapped by all the perspectives, analyses, ideas, theories and histories—all the stories—that surround us. We create them and they create us, and there is no bottom:
Wazir. What does this cloth remind you of?
China. Perhaps. Or the road on the mountains through the Hindoo/Kush-
It reminds me of death. My king. It reminds me of a blind and petulant child. Who is attempting to comfort himself with. Empty gestures and. Cheap consolation. Instead of peering into the void that has taken the place of his soul.
It doesn’t remind you of the desert sky at dusk?
Send it back and quarter the jackal who dared bring it to me. My orders were very specific, were they not? Blue like the desert sky at dusk. Not. Not cerulean, or…what is this? Cobalt? Periwinkle? It doesn’t remind me of the desert sky at dusk either. But it reminds me of. Something is not right. None of this is supposed to. What the fuck?!
As in the original Arabian Nights (if there ever was such a thing), 1001 features Shahriyar as a Persian despot bent on ridding his realm of infidelity. His solution? Marry a virgin every day, take her to his wedding bed and execute her the next morning before she can cheat on him. When his advisor—the Wazir—runs out of victims to marry to his king, his daughter, Scheherazade, steps in. A master storyteller, she marries Shahriyar and starts spinning tales, ending on a cliffhanger every night so Shahriyar wakes the next morning hungry for more. One tale weaves into the next and the next and the next, keeping Scheherazade alive and Shahriyar distracted from his murderous campaign.
But Jason’s Shahriyar isn’t distracted just by Scheherazade’s stories, he’s afflicted with a strange identity crisis—he seems to channel, in blips, a future world and a future self:
You have nothing to fear from me. You smell lovely. Of sandalwood and vanilla. Like that moisturizer she. But she said it was. Unscented.
Shahriyar stops short. Even he’s not sure what he’s talking about.
And this is where Jason’s 1001 leaves the standard tale behind. From Shahriyar’s mental spells and Scheherazade stories, we spin off into a real and imagined future, where “legendary” characters meet “real” people and everyone seems to be telling stories about everyone else until it’s impossible to pin down who’s telling who’s story and whether real vs. imaginary, present vs. past are distinctions worth clinging to:
You’re freaking me out, Jorge Luis Borges.
As usual I obscure more than I illuminate. Perhaps a story is in order. I wonder if we may posit a tale, my Sinbad, of a young couple in love, she an Arab, he a Jew, both struggling to create themselves and each other even as history writes its own narrative deep into them. Let us call this tale:
ALAN AND DAHNA IN PALESTINE
For Jason, the Arabian Nights was both an inspiration and a structural frame from which to illuminate, explore and skewer myriad subjects, from misogyny, to ethnic stereotyping to the cultural-political critique that has justified the Bush Administration’s policies toward the Middle East, the us vs. them view that Islam and Judaeo-Christianity can’t co-exist and that, eventually, one must vanquish the other.
“In a way, the play is a sort of rebuke of this clash of civilization model,” he says. “It’s much more accurate and much more interesting to me, the idea that different cultures actually exist on top of each other and cross-pollinate.”
But the cross-pollination in 1001 isn’t confined to modern-day ideas of culture, globalization, or even identity. The play moves swiftly through time and even through genres, with, for instance, a Djinn appearing in the midst of a realistic contemporary Manhattan love story, and powerful, dramatic scenes juxtaposed with scenes of seemingly-pure silliness:
Thire. I mutht thpeak with you. (this is hard for her) I can not do this. My Prince Yahya, they have told me who was this Maridah in whose image you have made me. This is a dream to go from a mere slave girl to the wife of a prince. But also this is a nightmare, to be made into your twin sister who also was your lover.
I shall hear nothing you say until you speak as Maridah.
Pleathe, Yahya. I can not be who it ith you want me to be.
Jason describes his play as “part parody, part adaptation, part critique,” and the process of 1001’s creation helps explain its protean nature. While the Arabian Nights was always central to Jason’s conception, 1001’s style, content and form derive from sources as disparate as Edward Said’s Orientalism, the unconventional plays of writers like Eric Overmyer and Len Jenkin, magic-realist authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino, and on to less literary sources such as The Tintin Adventures and the movie Casablanca.
“It was sort of going down that rabbit hole of ideas, assembling it one text at a time, and letting one text lead me to another text,” he says.
But 1001 is hardly a dry debate-play. While its foundation is intellectual (the script lists suggested readings), its rendering is often playful and cartoonish.
“We often have plays where characters are not portraying any emotion at all,” Jason says, “and I thought it would be really interesting to me to go in the entire opposite direction of that with characters that are ridiculously over the top and big and having these situations that are exaggerated and really melodramatic and kind’ve playing with that.”
Still, one of the dominant tales in 1001 is the modern, largely-realistic love story between Dahna, a Palestinian-American from Brooklyn, and Alan, a Jew from New Jersey. They are the inheritors of thousands of years of troubled history, and every choice they make is burdened by their hyper-awareness of context—of who they are, but also what they represent. That makes it hard to just be:
It’s. Is this Western idea of dating really liberating? Or is it hegemonic?
You want to talk about hegemony?
No, no. I mean, it would be one thing if I was living in Saudi Arabia or, but I’m not. I’m in New York. Where we’re free to choose whatever we want as long as it’s according to the dictates and the, uh, limits of the marketplace. But who’s to say that’s the best way?
What are you. You’re trying to tell me you want to leave me? Why don’t you just break up with me instead of, of couching it in this cultural studies bullshit about hegemony, what the fuck is that?
Is that what you want, to break up?
Of course not. I love you.
I’m just, this is fucking weird.
And in Dahna and Alan’s story—echoed by, and an echo of, the story of Shahriyar and Scheherazade—we see a contemporary iteration of the ageless struggle that pervades 1001—the fight to define ourselves and our world in the face of powers that want to thrust their definitions onto (and into) us. Description, in itself, is power, 1001 seems to say. History, culture and identity are stories we tell ourselves and others tell about us, and they will be spun forever. That’s as “true” as reality gets. Those that want to fix ideas in place, or define the world strictly, may be the least connected to reality of all.
1001 runs October 22 through November 17 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Ave. (between Lexington and Third Avenue, entrance on 25th Street). Visit www.1001nyc.com for more information.
Justin Boyd is a playwright, screenwriter and co-editor of the Theater section of the Rail.