Jason Tseng in response PILLOWTALK’s First Long-table Discussion
Editor’s Note: Jason Tseng attended a long-table discussion following a recent performance of Pillowtalk and provided the following response. Future long-tables will be held on January 18th and January 25th.
I have had the opportunity to track the development of Kyoung Park’s Pillowtalk – from its first public reading at Ma-Yi Theatre as well as its workshop production at BRIC in Brooklyn. This latest iteration, the play’s world premier as a part of The Tank’s Exponential Festival marks a striking journey from the play’s roots in intimate naturalism to its current shape: a complex and layered aesthetic which fuses theater, politics, and ballet into a magnificent chimeric creature. A quick summary: Sam and Buck, a recently married interracial couple, wrestle with their marriage’s political and personal significance.
In this age of entertainment qua metadata, Pillowtalk refuses to be made easily legible, embodying a Butlerian queer ethos in its constant mercuriality – at one moment a private confession, another moment a carefully deconstructed pas de deux – and always subverting the audience’s expectations of performance. One might call Park’s direction almost contrarian in his utter refusal to take the straight forward route in presentation. However, I found this approach elevated the text from a mere examination of the inflection point between the political ideals of queer liberation and the logistical realities of gay life to a broader conversation about the systems of meaning and power which we all are complicit in reenacting, as well as our struggle to find our own identity outside of the cookie cutter identities presented to us.
Like the traditional opening “I want” song of a musical, Park has a Kushner-esque knack for using the political manifesto as a window into his characters’ subconscious. Sam and Buck constantly betray their unspoken feelings by bemoaning their relationship with America’s conflicted political tapestry. In Pillowtalk, second-wave feminism’s slogan is inverted: the political is personal. Sam and Buck can’t help but interpret their relationship and the newfound right to marry through the kaleidoscopic gauntlet of LGBT rights, Marxist ideology, and racial justice movements. The fact that Sam and Buck are black and Asian, respectively, further nuances their multi-layered dance of identities, privilege, and power. Buck’s desire to reclaim his masculinity from the feminized Asian male eunuch stereotype conflicts directly with Sam’s refusal to bottom due to his desire to avoid being re-traumatized by past racialized sexual experiences. Park fundamentally questions the white gay neoliberal notion that gay marriage would be a panacea for the gay community’s sociological deficits. Marriage did not solve the fractures in the queer community, it magnified them.
The long table discussion after the performance, moderated by Geoffrey Jackson Scott, Creative Director of Peoplemovr, focused on the role of gay marriage through the generations and featured LGBT activist Ira Briones, psychologist and author Kevin Nadal, and actors Basit Shittu and JP Moraga, along with other members of the audience. Scott opened the conversation with a meditation on how marriage was the primary metaphor for which adults in his family were understood. This was made material in the collection of carefully arranged portraits of married couples in his extended family on his grandparents’ wall – a collection Scott aspired to join once he married his husband.
Many participants brought up the idealization and romanticization of marriage as children, as well as the tragic adolescent realization that access to this privileged institution would be beyond them. Marriage, for most in attendance, seemed to be a means to some kind of end. For some, it was familial validation, others it was a logistical decision to expedite immigration statuses. Few described their marriage in the typical heterosexual halo of tradition and sacrament– save for Park, himself, who detailed how his marriage served a ritualistic role with his families as a mark of passage into adulthood.
Another theme which dominated the conversation was how queer marriages defied the traditional mold. Kevin Nadal echoed a line in Pillowtalk which declared that all gay marriages were open. Nadal described the fact that a majority of gay male marriages are non-monogamous as an open secret, and pondered how much he wanted straight people to be privy of this, lest the moralizing hetrosexual masses diminish queer marriage for its hedonism: “Why do you even want to get married if you don’t even love each other?”
Others questioned the historicity of so-called “traditional” marriage. For the majority of the institution’s existence, it served mainly as a tool of the elite for consolidating wealth and securing lines of inheritance. The idea that marriage is about love, much less fidelity or even equality, is a decidedly modern convention. And even in this context, the majority of heterosexual marriages end in divorce, leading the panel to inquire if no marriage is truly “traditional” in that the idealized version of marriage is ultimately unobtainable and illusory.
The one topic that I felt the discussion neglected to address is the natural subsequent question to marriage: divorce. Divorce is brought up more than once in Pillowtalk, as Sam and Buck’s relationship buckles under the weight of their dysfunction. While it is clear the two love each other a great deal, they also are incapable of communicating with each other in a safe and productive way. In all the rosy discussions of marriages consummated and aspired for on the panel, no one confronted the very real possibility that the play’s protagonists may end as divorcés. The play is actually quite ambiguous as to whether or not Sam and Buck ever truly reconcile their differences. Given the amount of existential agita and self-imposed political weight the characters experience being in a marriage, one wonders what political self-recriminations might emerge from a gay divorce. Would they feel like political frauds for discarding the rights the community had fought so hard for them to be able to partake in? Would they be relieved to be able to return to the libertine hedonism of the pre-AIDS crisis sexual liberation made possible once again by PrEP? As the first generation of legally married queers matriculates, the inevitable first generation of divorced queers will need to find their place in a post-gay-marriage world. Perhaps a sequel is in order.