"Radical" may not the first descriptor that most people would instinctively assign to the word "love," but it is precisely that pairing, in its multiplicity of meanings, that lies at the heart of Pillowtalk, by Chilean-born Korean playwright Kyoung H. Park, whose company Kyoung's Pacific Beat dedicates itself to promoting a culture of peace and serving as a conduit for marginalized voices. Pillowtalk, making its world premiere at the recently relocated and expanded The Tank as part of the Exponential festival, which showcases NY-based artists, delves deeply, fearlessly, and often hilariously into the marital life of crusading Asian-American journalist Buck (JP Moraga) and his African-American ex-athlete husband, Sam (Basit Shittu). Park, who also directs, provides the audience with a dramatic look at the specific relationship between two incisively drawn individuals while reminding us that the personal is even more political for some couples.
Sam was at one time an Olympic-hopeful swimmer, tokenized by the media as a black hope in a majority-white sport. Having developed addiction issues and lost his chance at an athletic career after a traumatic incident, Sam now at least claims to be satisfied with the steady paycheck that he earns working in a corporate, Republican environment. While Sam says that he sees the couple as having transitioned into some measure of stability, including an overpriced Brooklyn apartment, and playing the game of upward mobility, Buck maintains a driving desire to change the world, especially through his writing (not unlike a theater artists, perhaps). The problem is that Buck has just been fired from his job as a journalist, another casualty of the digital revolution -- and possibly more insidious factors. Another, maybe larger problem is that he can't quite bring himself to tell Sam.
The stress of Buck's humiliating firing and of his keeping it to himself rapidly helps to stoke discord between him and Sam, and their disagreements speak to larger themes as the two men engage in an intellectual and emotional push and pull long into the night. Their wide-ranging exchanges touch on issues from the current backsliding political climate, gentrification, the internalization and interconnectedness of modes of oppression, homonormativity, and the racial dynamics of (their) sex, even as they are always talking about their own relationship. Even arguments over domestic chores more clearly reveal their rootedness in social issues when the arguers have an awareness that to be married is itself an ideological action taken in the context of a particular, arguably repressive political structure. Sisyphus is introduced as a point of reference early on, and it applies equally to the constant struggles both of living as a marginalized person and of loving others, informing Sam and Buck's debates over their imagined future, whether to assimilate or resist, and whether to attempt to transform the world or merely survive in it. It informs too Sam's sense of exhaustion and questions about the role of suffering and, as one of the characters asks, whether love is not enough to consider a life to be successful.
The play is bookended with sections choreographed by Katy Price, Artistic Director of the Ballez dance company. In the opening segment, Buck performs a series of Sisyphean forward and upward movements that reappear in the closing segment. Significantly, however, both Sam and Buck dance together, sporting symbolically complementary costumes, in the latter section, which takes Buck's frustrated dream of being a ballet dancer as a jumping-off point to play with gendered dance tropes in what amounts to a condensed reenactment of the play itself. In doing so, it meta-theatrically works to remedy Buck's complaint that there are no gay ballet narratives for Asian men. It also embodies his contention that dance can communicate with the body what can't be said with words, and appropriately builds to a final clearing/stripping away.
The stage on which these physical and verbal communications play out is sparsely furnished, dominated by an upright bed and a pair of lighted frames parallel to the side walls, and composer and multi-instrumentalist Helen Yee provides live musical accompaniment to the action. Pillow talk manages regularly to be simultaneously self-aware and emotionally honest, and JP Moraga and Basit Shittu similarly balance tension with tenderness as they create a fully realized, lived-in interplay between Buck and Sam.
The interchange between Moraga and Shittu is great to watch, but audience members can also become part of the exchange themselves, by participating in the Long Table Conversation Series. Open to anyone with a ticket for any performance of Pillowtalk, these moderated discussions include guest speakers and take place following the play on January 13th (Marriage Equality Across Generations), January 18th (Queer and Transmagic in the Workplace), and January 25th (Love's Power/Microinvisibility). Sam tells Buck at one point that he can't blame himself for losing at a rigged game, but when a play such as Pillowtalk is as energizing and entertaining as it is smart and empathetic, you can blame yourself if you miss it. - Leah Richards and John Ziegler
Dr. Richards is an English professor in NYC, and spends her free time raising three cats and smashing the patriarchy.
When not writing reviews, Dr. Ziegler spends a lot of his time being an Assistant Professor of English in NYC and playing guitar in a death metal band.