Return of the Repressed: Clare Barron’s I’LL NEVER LOVE AGAIN at The Bushwick Starr
I can’t think of many topics harder to render in a fresh, moving, and non-after-school-special way than female adolescence, body image, and sexuality. But Clare Barron digs into her diaries, and I’ll Never Love Again sings of all-consuming, world-shattering first love. While deeply personal, it dodges worn clichés of adolescent angst as well as the pitfalls of self-indulgence. And, in a surprising twist, the piece transcends one woman’s story to become a kind of inter-generational love letter to the fleeting intensity of adolescence and the lives we led before our skins solidified into patterns made by love, loss, and time.
Last summer I shared a stage with Barron, Kate Benson, and, in her auspicious debut, rising 8th grader Oona Montandon, as part of a Target Margin performance led by INLA producer and friend of mine, John Del Gaudio. So, no matter how much critical distance I muster, bias here is inevitable. On top of that, Barron’s raw evocation of the exuberant vulnerability of adolescence collapses any distance we may wish to put between our adult and kid selves. The play artfully renders the electricity of that precipice moment between bike riding with boys and making out with them in basements. At turns hilarious and heartbreaking, it’s impossible not to resurrect our own hot-faced memories of growing up: the “naked people” book, the sex talk, the devastating break-ups.
Many may recognize her “Joshua Wilson” – the long-time crush marked with epic highs, ambiguous attentions, and revelatory firsts. Described as a chamber piece, INLA opens with a monologue on the grossness of kissing delivered by actress and co-founder of the National Asian American Theater Company, Mia Katigbak. Others, also wearing purple and gold choir robes, join her on the risers and Clare’s teenaged confessions are prismatically refracted through eleven bodies ranging in age, sex, race, and ethnicity. “Clare” here is at once Asian, Black, young, old, and a bearded White guy. The multi-generational chorus lends a certain universality to even the most idiosyncratic moments of Clare’s story. And, hearing middle school’s high drama sing out more experienced adult mouths (“I’m sorry but Mr. Penis is not exactly a pretty sight. Why I’m supposed to be attracted to a lumpy, hairy, fleshy cucumber, I’ll never know.”) makes it both a funny and poignant embodiment of the physical and psychic chasms between then and now. All the while, the actual playwright Clare stands silently onstage, in a choir robe.
In one of the performance’s significant tonal shifts, Clare steps out from the sidelines in flared jeans to play her teenaged self, negotiating a more advanced sexual encounter with a post-Josh guy. The show’s energy teeters on the precarious tightrope of her conflicting desires for pleasure and to please her parents; the looming power of boys’ bodies and gazes keeps the audience on edge with the persistent threat of sexual violation. To the whirr of a vintage overhead projector, she ends up naked from the waist down as an eager guy gets as far as he can with his fingers. Diary doodles of contorted bodies and genitals appear on screen. In a cringe-inducing, real-time performance, a fearful, if consenting Clare periodically interrupts his relentless pursuit with esoteric questions about the nature of heaven and his beliefs in the Mayan Apocalypse. Barron viscerally conjures the moment when the edges, excesses, lacks, and bumps of our once wildly un-self-conscious bodies become outlined and revalued through other eyes: “And for the first time I think: my body is not good enough. My body is not as good as other bodies. My breasts are not good enough.” Ironically, this self-defeat happens alongside winning all of the awards at the school assembly.
I’ll Never Love Again would have been entirely successful if it ended in the lava-lamp lit space of teenaged doubt and desire. But then, Carolyn Mraz’s set unfolds like elegant origami into a flash-forward 2012 corporate break room, complete with Keurig coffee maker and a disembodied printer spitting out pages. It’s the eve of the prophesized Mayan Apocalypse. We’re shocked into a fluorescent-lit, emotionally tamped-down adult world of 26 year-old Clare, now played by one black actress from the choir (Nana Mensah). Whereas the diverse choir contributed to a sense of universality, as well as accentuated the particular whiteness of Clare’s Wisconsin coming-of-age, here the casting operates in another subtly important way. The annual Oscar’s race debate revolves around the routine and flagrant lack of black nominees. Often, embedded in that critique is an assumption that a) black artists inevitably represent Black experience and b) works made by black artists are a necessary additive, or antidote, to the pervasive ‘norms’ of white Hollywood. The dearth of black experiences on stage and screen persists, but it’s also rare that we see non-white bodies on stage in ways that are not explicitly about the supposed ‘otherness’ of those bodies. The multiple embodiments of Clare underscore the volatile malleability of our body images, and gesture to the differential power dynamics that come to shape them.
Grown-up Clare sits in the middle of the floor and squeakily redacts lines from a thick binder with a permanent marker. If young Clare was all polyvocal confession and compiling complications, here adults quietly edit, reduce, and simplify. But, it’s not that simple; echoes of sexual threat and past trauma bubble-up through the banter. Clare’s boss (Kate Benson) and a co-worker, Roger, swap stories such as accidentally throwing a pet hamster into a fan and an off-hand mention of a college assault and rape. Still candid, but they’ve processed, normalized, and are trying to contain the kinds of narratives that threatened to make or break young Clare. Later, the first choral Clare (Katigbak) returns to the stage, alone. Her monologue is brutal, an account of loneliness, sexual exploits, and coming to complex terms with the past, the state of the world, and her body: “I formed a tender and strange affection for the very things that used to haunt me.”
And then Oona (Oona Montandon) ambles on stage to meet-up with Roger, her step dad. While she waits, Clare tries to make small and big talk with her, offering office snacks and unsolicited advice about high school. Politely taciturn, Oona responds as if Clare is yet another know-it-all adult to endure. Roger picks up where Clare left off, pressing Oona on who she thinks she is, and what she wants, as if not divulging her wishes means she has none. And then she bursts, not into tears or a tantrum, but an assured proclamation of bold desires: “The Only Thing I Know/ Is that I love soccer! […] And color!/ And passion!/ And risks!/ And devouring life!/ And dreaming and really believing with every/ ounce it could come true!” She ends her speech— and the play—with a conductor’s flourish.
I recently read a surprising statistic that one-quarter of the world’s population is between age 10 and 24. INLA is at once an elegy to those madly aspirational and anxious lives we’ve long since repressed, and a loving shout-out to the mysterious inner lives of that growing sector of humanity all around us – young, resilient, and, thankfully, dreaming up their futures.