Imagine motherhood as a sainted occupation, writ large on a woman’s biological belly? Don’t kid yourself. Despite genetic mommy markers and centuries of guides-by-example, the Manhattan mother is faced with challenges and choices that are the antithesis of lullaby calm. In this city, divorce, rivaling careers, and sheer logistics make raising kids a messy, stress-at-high-speed concoction.
To help bring some spreadsheet organization, enter the nanny, that indulgence and necessity of the modern day urban familial gang. Often overlooked and voiceless, the nanny silently navigates a multitude of underpaid roles within her employer’s family—caregiver, confidant, immigrant—challenged to give equal play to all. And at her core, she struggles to maintain integrity toward her own yearnings as a woman.
Fortunately for theatergoers, these roles are explored with pristine wit and shockingly honest abandon by Brooklyn-based playwright/actress Lisa Ramirez in her solo show, Exit Cuckoo. Through a series of character-driven monologues in pitch-perfect tones of maternal analysis, Exit Cuckoo follows Ramirez’s own humorous, humanly harrowing experiences as a nanny in New York City. Along the way, she exposes the complex webs woven between mothers and the nannies that co-raise their kids. At the center is the can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her Ramirez herself and her own conflicted psyche about her maternal sacrifices for theatrical life, the influence of her own frustrated artiste of a mom, and her commitment to giving voice to an overlooked collective despite her desire to flee.
NANNY AS A
IN A STRANGE LAND
In Manhattan, the immigrant nanny is an intimate resident in cultural unfamiliarity. Parents perceive a nanny’s otherworldliness as either a fear-inducing, accented unknown or an asset to broaden a little one’s worldview. In Exit Cuckoo, Ms. Sinclair, a hyperactive nanny agency exec, illustrates this by playing down the first and heightening the second when inquiring what “type” of nanny to send her client: “Tibet was quite hot for a while there…but now, actually, NOW believe it or not, I’ve had a deluge of calls for the girls from CHINA! …the market going the way its going, all eyes are on China!” Nanny nationality is cachet.
While in New York, nannies struggle for cultural integrity and respect, and to know one’s place while desiring an identity. Perhaps best representing such in Exit Cuckoo is the dignified, spitfire of a caregiver Rosa. We meet her “sitting on this goddamn son-of-a-bitch bench” in the park, on Rosa’s last day on the nanny-train. Ramirez observes that “the park is like the United Nations, and the benches are spread out like countries.” In such a structure, one can spill out a soul.
Spill her fed-up soul Rosa does. Though presented with a dramatic punch to the social conscience, this is far from a fictitious tale. Like many in real-life nannydom, Rosa has left her own children and homeland after financial stability has been bled dry by corporate takeovers and government corruption. In her case, New York City dreams are born of desperation, enough to drive a woman to abandon her child to rear another’s. In Global Women: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy, Arlie Russell Hochschild writes of “an important and growing global trend: the importation of care and love from poor countries to rich ones.” This mother of an economic pattern begs the question—just how much do these women sacrifice to raise our children? Is the affluent American mom exploiting poverty or providing a much-needed means to earn a salary unheard of in a third-world environment? Is a mother betraying her child by raising another that isn’t her own in a faraway land, at the risk of submerging her true self and her maternal obligation?
Heavy stuff, to be sure, but Exit Cuckoo resists the urge to get all preachy on our theatrical hides, and instead provokes laughter at the truths we recognize in ourselves and those that raise our niños. The laid-bare production trusts that humor is the best ring in which to stage a maternal morality wrestling match. Easy platitudes and answers are never indulged. Even better, no character, be it nanny or mother, is a victim here. Knowledgeable and confident in her choices, yet still frustrated by her treatment, Rosa dreams of pouring a “brand new Grande Non-fat Double Decaffeinated Caramel Macchiato with the foam at the top” all over her employer’s head. She may resist that urge, but when we learn she will be returning the next day to her restored homeland, we applaud a long-overdue middle finger jab at injustice.
Within the nanny/mother/child triangle, the mother is at the center. She does, after all, call the economic shots. At best, mom gets to look on as her child gets a heart muscle workout through loving another. Her freedom is secured by the sacrifice of the “other woman”; she can tackle her own passions and drive and ambition, a powerful example to her child that motherhood is not an either/or of fulfillment, but rather an all/nothing.
But a woman in love, in love with a child or career or dream, is emotion to the highest degree. In the mommy/nanny twosome, jealousy and feelings of inadequacy arise unexpectedly. In Exit Cuckoo, the affluent Upper East Side mother-in-pearls Mrs. Johnson reveals her insecurities and reflects on her own abandoned artist‑of‑a‑life path. “I...uh…I used to live DOWNTOWN you know…I used to be a liberal,” she confides. Sacrificing the fulfillment of a bohemian lifestyle for stability, she marries into affluence and a maternal destiny. But the abandonment of dreams is never pretty, and Mrs. Johnson’s slight hysteria is borne of boredom to the extreme. She is mortified at being so fragile she cannot even comfort her slightly injured child—while on vacation, of all things. Ramirez takes this confession on the chin like a bargain-basement therapist, without compensation—or judgment.
As a society, however, we still struggle with the notion that any mother willing to have her child raised by another is self-absorbed, masculine, and cold. Another fine character fleshed out by Ramirez, the Bronx-transplanted, tell-it-like-it-is grandma Esther, voices such misgivings while waiting for a play date with her grandson and his nanny. Frustrated with the artificiality of such modern childrearing constructs, she explains the title of the play in an aghast monologue. “The only animal that does that is the cuckoo bird. It lays its eggs in other birds nests, says, ‘So long suckers!’ And the other birds raise little baby cuckoo as if it’s one of their own!” No matter their reasons, are all mothers with hired help to be perceived as similar brood parasites? Or admired for the ability to form an intimate human architecture that shelters both their dreams and their child’s development?
No woman is one thing and one thing only. In Ramirez’s case, she is both a nanny and an artist with authenticity, knocked up not with children but a demanding dose of compassion and integrity. With so much intimacy laid out like a feast, Ramirez uses her experiences to develop dramatic language that thwacks you in the gut and makes you hunger for more. Equal to her tales of the nanny struggle, Ramirez confesses her own journey as an artist-in-family-residence, and the complexities therein.
Part of the story of Exit Cuckoo is, after all, the journey of Ramirez, who immigrates, as it were, from San Francisco to NYC in a brazen quest for artistic fulfillment. Like many in the throes of ambitious pursuit within the dizzying Manhattan theater scene, she has conflicted demands on her time, strengths, and humanness. She sacrifices her acting classes, reads Clifford Odets to her infant charges, and mourns lost freedom to luxuriate in her craft.
Finding that this just-a-job morphs into just-a-life, Ramirez sought to leave the nannyhood. But as a self-described “failed waitress,” her options were limited. The feminist icon Eve Ensler proved a motivating force in Ramirez’s artistic quest, urging her to write the stories of these park bench board meetings as a theatrical activist manifesto. Thus Exit Cuckoo began, prompting Ramirez to discover that the at-first-perceived worst thing that ever happened to her may have proved the perfect sacrifice for artistic ritual.
Exit Cuckoo has been workshopped around New York, but finally flies home to Off-Broadway in this minimalist, suggestive staging. Each production piece, from the slick set design by Rachel Hauck to costuming by Raul Aktanov, supports this acting tour de force. No stranger to the solo performer is director Colman Domingo. Best known for his acting in Broadway’s Passing Strange, with his own solo show A Boy and His Soul slated for Off-Broadway next fall, Domingo is an actor’s director. By granting Ramirez permission to shine in a bare-bones production, he affords us the pleasure of watching her death-defying high-wire feats of acting prowess. By urging Ramirez to dangle precariously close to the edge of sentimentality, yet never tumble headfirst, Domingo clears a path toward audience empathy for her richly realized characters.
Exit Cuckoo is presented by the Working Theater, also to be credited for giving this nanny/artist her due. The company’s mission has been to produce new plays for and about working people, a perfect partner for the themes presented here.
A collection of multiple maternal misgivings and missions, Exit Cuckoo is ultimately about common ground. According to Ramirez, if she could just get mothers and nannies in the same room, she would say, “Talk. Tell her what you told me.” For those fortunate enough to see this heartfelt production, it is a privilege just to listen.
Exit Cuckoo runs April 17-May 17, 2009 at Theatre Row’s Clurman Theatre (410 West 42nd Street); Tuesdays at 7pm; Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8pm; Saturdays at 2pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $25. For reservations, contact www.ticketcentral.com or call 212-279-4200.
Mary Hilton is a writer who finds all things NYC fascinating, which takes up a lot of her time. You can find her at newbienyc.blogspot.com.