What does it mean to be an American?
Back in 2012, Katie Pearl and Lisa D’Amour found themselves exasperated but inspired by this question. On the radio, the pundits and interviews seemed to chant the same frustrating, falsely simplistic dualisms:
We are such a polarized country.
We don’t understand each other.
There seem to be two Americas.
So the two artists (D’Amour is a playwright and Pearl both a playwright and director) joined together once again under their longtime collaborative identity of PearlDamour and began brainstorming about how to explore this question in a nuanced, non-partisan way—how to come at it in a spirit of sincere and genuine inquiry. The result is their newest performance work, Milton.
At its fundamental core Milton it is a work for the stage: a stylized and theatricalized list of answers to a series of ever-evolving questions asked by Pearl and D’Amour of residents of five different geographically and demographically diverse towns named Milton across the United States—in North Carolina, Oregon, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Louisiana. This text is spoken, and at times enchantingly sung, to original music by the composer Brendan Connelly, by three professional actors—diverse in age, origin and experience—under projected panels of the five Milton skies, each shot over 24 hours by theater artist Jim Findlay.
In a description of the project on their website, PearlDamour writes, “We feel like we have, at best, a tenuous grasp on what it means to be an American.”
I asked Pearl and D’Amour about this. Were they really setting out to answer this elusive question in a stable once and for all sort of way? Or were they after something else?
“[It was] a broad enough question that allows for a meaningful context that wasn’t that limiting,” Pearl explains to me in a phone interview from on site in Milton-Freewater, Oregon. Jumping in, D’Amour adds, “The project was a stab in the dark. Five towns with the same name—demographic diversity.” The makers agree that the combination of randomness and constraint helped them find the aesthetic contours of what they wanted ultimately to make as they moved from Milton to Milton.
But as much as Milton is a work for performance—already seen in Milton, North Carolina (2014)—Pearl and D’Amour have more outreaching, inclusive ambitions for their project.
In addition to their collaboration with Findlay (whose videos can also be found on the website, SkyOverMilton.com) and Connelly, Pearl and D’Amour have been working with the theater maker and community engagement strategist Ashley Sparks, who has been arranging outreach work with community organizations in all five Miltons. They have also been collaborating with curious—and I imagine at times skeptical—Miltonians of all ages from across the country, collecting their stories while creating a record and repository, “an earth-bound constellation,” to use PearlDamour’s own language, of the multiplicity of ways one can be or feel American at this moment.
So Milton is also a website. It is community events. It is a conceptual and collaborative freeway system of art and civic engagement. In its fullness, with its many arms and legs, Milton is a project of metaphysical cartography, a spiritual surveying of the human experience across this land a hundred plus years into our manifest destiny hangover.
Sometimes Milton is simply going to the Cinco de Mayo festival on the first Saturday in May in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, where Milton (the show) is about to have its second run at the McLoughlin High School (Mac-Hi to locals) auditorium. Writing to me from the thick of it, Katie Pearl’s accounting of her experience at the festival is as much Milton as the performances themselves:
I could tell you about the parade, and watching what the middle school art teacher achieved and how surprised she was herself by that; I could tell you about the 3 little boys who took over our dream booth to become ‘dream guides,’ and how excited they were (and familiar with) the idea of working a shift, taking short breaks, taking on responsibility like that; the way the middle school students really stepped up and performed a great show and how the HS students didn’t; the realization the organizers had about if you bring younger kids to an event, their parents come too; hanging out with a 12 year old girl and then seeing her next at her family’s taco tent handling the big fryer of garbanzo beans for sale (and later she came by to give us the business card for the family business in case we could hire them at a later time); and the number of carne asada tacos I ate!
Over the last four years, Pearl and D’Amour have spent time immersed in the lives and rituals of all five Miltons. And they returned to Milton, North Carolina in the summer of 2014 to fine tune their script, lead workshops in the community, and ultimately rehearse and perform the show. As they began revising the text for this summer’s run to best serve, reflect, and engage the community of Milton-Freewater, Oregon—composed about evenly of monolingual English and Spanish speakers—Pearl and D’Amour realized new imperatives needed to guide revision. On the Milton website on September 3, 2015, Pearl and D’Amour posted a new question that emanated directly from the challenge they saw before them: “What’s the most effective or satisfying bilingual experience you’ve had?” Each point on the constellation further focuses the meaningful context through which they can engage that vexing original question. Now they are thinking as deeply and expansively about translation, about understanding and not understanding, as they were initially about what it means to be American. To go to the evolving text:
ROSE: Sometimes you’re invited to the Mayor’s house for lunch for sandwiches.
MOISES: …para comer bocadillos de la Sub Shop en la calle principal.
TODD: Or for dinner with vino made from uvas that grew dos millas away.
Milton is about adaptation of all sorts, about being multiple, being resourceful:
ROSE: Sometimes the tire repair shop is also the diner.
TODD: ?La tienda de llantas tambien es un restaurante?
ROSE: Sí, in Milton, North Carolina. Y el museo también es donde pagas la cuenta del agua.
TODD: And the museum is where you also pay your water bill.
MOISES: A veces conoces a un hombre que se mudó al Este de Oregon desde Nigeria para ser pastor de la Iglesia Católica y los miembros de su parroquia son mayormente latinos.
ROSE: Sometimes you watch a grown woman blush when you ask her where the mystery is in her life.
But how to explain the translation of pure text to theatrical experience? Pearl explains the atmosphere of the show in terms of Brendan’s music, about his genius for “translating the cadence and rhythm of spoken word and conversation into scored composition.”
“We use that strategy throughout the show,” she tells me. “The text moves seamlessly between speaking and singing, which can be surreal and awesome for the audience: one moment, the actor sitting next to you is telling you (for example) about being taken to places in town, like Simco’s in Mattapan for friend clams; then before you know it, they've slipped into an almost operatic mode, singing but still sharing the somewhat banal and idiosyncratic facts of where they’ve gone on the driving tour.”
Watching video of the North Carolina performances I recognize exactly what Pearl is getting at. There is a way Connelly’s music works to conjoin banal particulars and universal experiences. The effect is about participation and engagement, about smoothing translation and inducing community. Connelly’s music, like Findlay’s sky, helps transport and ground audience at the same time; it sculpts shared space, shaping the text into an elegant and perpetually flipping hourglass of the idiosyncratically specific and the rippling symbolic.
Whether or not audience members walk out of this experience with a firmer grasp on what it means to be an American, Pearl, D’Amour, and their collaborators seem to be pushing them towards a reckoning with all corners of community, towards a fuller more cosmopolitan sense of what it means to be a Miltonian.
For those unable to attend the performances in Milton-Freewater (now at least—a NYC performance is part of the ultimate plan for the project) we can delve into the ethos of the project online. Not only can we see the skies over the multiple Miltons, we can offer answers to the questions Pearl and D’Amour post, and meet some of the contributing Miltonians.
Late one night at the end of my own semester of teaching here in NYC, I found myself following the spidery strands of the website, meeting some of the voices engaged in the project. I stumbled upon a poem that started with soup. I love soup. So I kept reading.
I come from
Warm star soup taking the brightness
of space upon itself
in a bowl
too hot, too spicy
Enjoy the dinner with your family
around the table
add some lime
I come from
listening to music in my room
the battery on my laptop is 38%
38% dead, 38% alive
Sandra Peyreda’s poem ends like this:
I come from
It’s in every wrinkle of my brain.
Grading my students’ final essays, “homework/ in every wrinkle of my brain,” Peyreda’s words resonated, offered solace, gave me the specific language for the overwhelming tired at the end of a teaching year. Why had I never heard of Peyreda? Because she is a high school student from Milton-Freewater. This poem would never have reached me, I would never have heard her voice, without this project. And suddenly, my students felt a bit more like me, my country felt a bit smaller, a bit more comprehensible as a coherent whole.
What PearlDamour is offering Miltonians—and to a degree the rest of us, via Sky Over Milton—is at once a deconstructed Our Town and a reconstituted experience of America, where we can lay down our rhetorical shields and listen for the fundamental goodness (or well-intendedness, at the very least) in those we perceive as other, as enemies, or at least as the problem with this country—the reason we aren’t, it isn’t, what it in fact can be.
ACTOR 2: You believe that we live in a big country that was built for people to live side by side, and live out many points of view.
ACTOR 3: But you don’t want to be in the room with all of them.
ACTOR 1: You believe that we live in a big country that was built for people to live side by side, and live out many points of view.
ACTOR 2: But you don’t know how to be in the room with all of them.
ACTOR 3: You believe that we live in a big country that was built for people to live side by side, and live out many points of view.
ACTOR 1: But you are afraid to be in the room with all of them.
Or, to quote the question Pearl posed to me when I inquired about the spine of the project: “How do we share the space without ignoring or fighting each other?”
At least for an hour or so, in the Mac-Lo High School Auditorium, maybe just hearing the music under our neighbors’ words and looking up at the sky we share will make it possible.
The new performances of Milton will be June 16 – 19 at 7pm and June 18 and 19 at 2pm at the McLoughlin High School Auditorium (120 S. Main Street) in Milton-Freewater, Oregon. There will be a free community barbecue at 5pm on Saturday, and childcare is available during the Sunday matinee. For more information and engagement with the project, visit www.SkyOverMilton.com.
BEN GASSMAN is a playwright from Queens.