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Theater In Dialogue

Red Monkey in the Middle: Between Two Worlds with Catherine Filloux

Sue Cremin (Eve) and Alexis Camins (Sal/Red Monkey) in <i>Killing The Boss</i>. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Sue Cremin (Eve) and Alexis Camins (Sal/Red Monkey) in Killing The Boss. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

In Catherine Filloux’s Killing the Boss, an American writer, on a grant to work in an unnamed nuthouse of a country, decides out of fury, frustration, and addiction to her cause to buy a gun and kill the head of state...

Stryk: How much do you want to share about the autobiographical nature of Killing the Boss? I know you’ve written at least one other very personal play—Three Continents—about your immigrant parents. But this play seems to be using autobiography in a very different, less direct way. It’s a kind of autobiography of your psyche.

Filloux: Once I was talking with Dr. Richard Mollica, at Harvard, who worked with refugees and trauma. When I expressed my frustration at the legacy of genocide, which goes on for generations, he asked if I was willing to be a “patriot”. (He seemed to imply that I wasn’t.) In other words, a patriot goes the full distance for change. For twenty years I have written about Cambodia, P.T.S.D., genocide and trauma. People have exposed their pain to me. I have tried to understand how such violence can occur, how people can so bravely survive, and I felt the raw need to be honest about myself. Is it truly a good thing to harbor a dark obsession for the way dogs are pampered at the dog walk near my house? How can one rationalize the abyss between wealth and poverty in our world? It can make you crazy. To hold two opposing things in your hands at the same time and to balance them: I’m in that passage, trying to be Here and There. Last time I went to Cambodia, I felt for the first time I could be in two places at the same time, and not compare. That came from writing this play.

Stryk: There is a playwright at the center of this play. Does that make it about the intersection of art and politics? A metaphor for that? For your life, lived at this intersection?

Filloux: Absolutely. Art is the red monkey in the play. We as humans and artists leave beautiful cultural maps for our citizens. In repressive regimes art is vulnerable and so important. The talent to write the truth. At what cost? The red monkey picks up a tree, being made the promise that if he does, there will be peace. But the promise is broken and he falls from the weight. So what happens?

Stryk: Your work most often deals with very dark themes, the darkest on our planet, genocide and other human rights abuses, against women.

Filloux: The best kept secret in this world is violence against women, though it’s not even a secret. It doesn’t have to be. Women can be abused, stoned, buried, thrown in canals, raped again and again. Some of the plays that women wrote in my classes overseas slayed me, and the stories I heard—he perfect way to ignore violence is to simply deny it and to lie. It works like a charm.

Stryk: Your parents are from France and Algeria, and you grew up in California. Yet you’ve written a number of plays about Cambodia. I hate the word obsessed, but what would you call your constant return to Cambodia in your plays? Most writers drop a topic once they have written about it, worked it though for themselves. Why haven’t you? What does Cambodia and its history say for you about the things you care about? Or is it the country, itself?

Filloux: I have written Eyes of the Heart, Silence of God, Photographs From S-21 and the libretto for an opera Where Elephants Weep (with composer Him Sophy). But I don’t just write about Cambodia. Killing the Boss is about an unnamed country. I’ve written about Mary Todd Lincoln and my own family spread from Algeria to California, as well as the Amish and Transvestites stuck in a motel during a blizzard. And now I’ve written a play (The Breach) about Hurricane Katrina, in which a man has to swim from his wheelchair into the street, chased by Water, a lady who wants to make love to him and obliterate him. If we don’t stand up and respect human beings, we might as well let ourselves be taken out to sea. And would that be so bad? A tropical vacation? My work about Cambodia is a journey and a love story. I love Cambodia with a deep respect and joy. So let’s say Cambodia is one strain of my work and that Cambodia has given me the gift of beauty and depth. I have many Cambodian friends who inspire me. They are idiosyncratic. My love for Cambodia is set against the fact that the man I love has difficulty traveling so far and enduring heat, because of his disease, Multiple Sclerosis. We visited Angkor Wat together. What a magical trip.

Stryk: John Daggett, your husband, not only figures as a character in your play, he plays the character based on himself in this production.

Filloux: There are people in your life who save you. Without whom there would be no breath and no pulse. His disease is brutal. He’s a class act and has the disposition of a saint. Well, not really, but almost. And he says my lines so clearly you can hear them all. What else can a playwright ask for?

Stryk: Killing The Boss is a daring, startling and cruelly funny, even hallucinogenic play. The playwright character goes on a mission to assassinate a dictator. Is this aspect of the play based on your own fantasy/nightmares?

Filloux: It is totally based on my own nightmares. I hear stories often that I’m not supposed to repeat because they’re secret and personal about how violence has destroyed people. The silence is there to protect, and yet what do you do with all these stories? They’re buried. Let’s say a survivor commits suicide because the pain is just too deep. Let’s say the strongest woman I know tells me the saddest story about another woman who just couldn’t stay healthy. And you look in that strong woman’s eyes and you see the pain in her eyes as deep as a bottomless lake. Sinking. And you know that the struggle is noble and you also know about the bottomless lake, where she is swimming.

Stryk: None of this is funny.

Filloux: Killing the Boss is funny because maybe pain explodes sometimes, and that explosion is liberating. Todd London, Artistic Director of New Dramatists, called the play a “caustic party popper”. I wrote a lot of it in the middle of the night in long furtive dark streams. “Oh, I think I’ll add some lunchboxes, a blue jean factory that turns hands blue, let’s dance here and let’s sing.” I won’t tell you what I listened to in terms of loud music in the middle of the night on my earphones, it’s too embarrassing and pathetic. Nonetheless, the song “Lady in Red” makes a bold Karaoke moment in the play.

Stryk: It feels like the nightmare of not only a political activist but of a theater person. You’ve talked about feeling like a pest—a quality that defines Lemkin, the author of the word “genocide,” and the central figure of your play, Lemkin’s House. Can you talk about that feeling as a person working in the theater climate of today? What stops you from giving up? Or what keeps you going?

Filloux: The rehearsal process through the years and working (such as in Lemkin’s House) to create what I have written on the page on the stage—let it emerge in the air—through my generous collaborators’ common visions, particularly Jean Randich. That makes Theater a living and breathing aesthetic.

But, yes the word is pest. People must be so sick of me. What’s that girl writing about violence again for?

Stryk: So what are you writing about violence again for?

Filloux: Actually the play is about corruption and violence.

Stryk: So what are you writing about corruption and violence again for?

Filloux: Killing the Boss is about a “passage” for me. The passage from being overwhelmed by lack of change to forgiving oneself. It is about love and seeing what is in front of your eyes. It is about the pain of violence, disease and injustice.

Stryk: For me, it’s about living with the paradox of finding joy and love in a world where genocide and the most awful forms of violence are being conducted at every moment.

Filloux: And never forgetting, but allowing yourself to find hope in everyday miracles and in the great humor, absurdity and the theater that is modern life.

Okay, the answer to what I was listening to in the middle of the night when I wrote KTB? Ouch.

Matchbox Twenty.

Excerpt from the play can be found here

Killing the Boss runs February 6-23 at The Studio at Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street, near 7th Avenue, between Bedford and Barrow Streets) Tuesdays-Saturdays at 7pm, with matinees Saturdays at 1pm. Tickets: $18 at 212-239-6200 or


Lydia Stryk

Lydia Stryk is the author of over a dozen plays including Monte Carlo, The House of Lily, The Glamour House, American Tet, and An Accident produced at, among others, Denver Center Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Victory Gardens, the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, Magic Theatre, and in Germany at Schauspiel Essen, Theaterhaus Stuttgart and the English Theater Berlin. She lives between Berlin and New York.

Catherine Filloux

CATHERINE FILLOUX is an award-winning playwright who has been writing about genocide, human rights, and social justice for the past twenty years. Her plays have been produced in New York and around the world. She is the librettist for two produced operas: The Floating Box: A Story in Chinatown (CD New World Records) and Where Elephants Weep (to premiere in Cambodia later this year.) She is an alumna of New Dramatists and a co-founder of Theatre Without Borders.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2008

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