Mieke D Responds To PILLOWTALK’s 2nd Long-Table: On Queer and TransMagic in the Werkplace

Photo credit Daniel Lim

Editor’s Note: Mieke D attended a long-table discussion following a recent performance of Pillowtalk and provided the following response. The final long-table will be held on January 25th. 

Not too long ago, I participated in a small workshop reading of a play in which all the characters are women. Each performer, however, had very different relationship to that identity – and to gender in general – which Kyoung Park (the writer of that play) invited into the process very actively. I saw this approach as a little bit of devising – working with what the actors were already bringing into the room with them – and also a queering, complicating, and questioning of what it means to tell “women’s stories” as a queer male playwright. The few times I have gotten the chance to work with Kyoung as an actor over the years, there’s one thing I have always appreciated: the way he captures contradiction and incongruity within his plays, the way he makes the space for his actors (and his characters) to be many things at once.

Contradiction and incongruity abound in PILLOWTALK as well, which plays at The Tank through this Sunday. Characters contradict themselves, each other, and the many incongruous expectations being piled on their bodies and their relationship as queer brown men. They try to speak plainly about their desires, the daily struggles they face and what to do about them. And, at the same time, their words divide, obscure.

They desperately try to speak their way back to understanding, even as language continues to fail them. “Poor word choice,” they repeat often, as they tumble into truths they would rather not confront, at least not tonight. PILLOWTALK takes place over the course of one, long night of processing between Buck, an Asian man, and Sam, a black man, who are in an open marriage. They are two queer brown people trying to love each other, and they also seem to be two sides of various arguments about how to get free as queer brown people. And work – ugh, work – continues to invade their space, as does the topic of white people, as they try to figure out how to be together in this world, in this moment.

After this performance of PILLOWTALK, the audience was invited to stick around for a long table discussion about Queer and TransMagic in the Werkplace. The discussion featured artist-activists Zavé Martohardjono, Azure D Osborne-Lee, Pauline Park, and members of the production: Kyoung, the two actors, JP Moraga and Basit Shittu, and Assistant Director Shannon Matesky. A couple audience members (including Kyoung’s husband, Danny Lim) joined the conversation later. Each of the special guests brought a different relationship to work: Zavé is an interdisciplinary performance artist and a Digital Campaign Manager at the ACLU; Azure is a grant-writer, a playwright, and a magic-worker; Pauline Park is a multi-talented activist-scholar with accolades on accolades on accolades (see them here).

Matesky, who also moderated, opened the discussion: “In your journey seeking fiscal security or sustainability, what has it gained you or cost you?” Very quickly, a theme of contradiction emerged, between ideals and practice, mission statements and lived realities. Zavé said, “I have seen small radical organizations do dirty by their employees in ways that mirror some of the worst corporations.” Another works at an organization committed to cultivating “safe spaces for youth,” while it remains an unsafe space for the adults who work there. One speaker shared a story of sexual harassment within an organizing space, in which all parties involved were queer people of color. “The harassers and the victims were both marginalized,” they explained. When the perpetrator isn’t a straight white man, someone with obvious structural power, the issue becomes “less convenient to address.” Pauline Park described her three careers: first in the corporate world (“very instructive”), then academia (“also instructive, and so far from its ideals”), and now as an activist and cultural worker. “[Once] you see how these social justice organizations actually work,” it is, so often, “nothing like [their] mission statements . . . No space is untouched by these behaviors.”

Taken all at once, these stories can be overwhelming – especially when coupled with my own experiences of hypocrisy, being pushed out of once-beloved jobs by unchecked power grabs, the pain of losing spaces that once seemed like an island of calm within the windstorm of intersecting oppressions. But “we are all embodied spirits,” Pauline reminded us. “It would be lovely if we were disembodied. But we have to eat, sleep,” and make compromises. “There’s no environment in which we escape all these things,” Zavé added. “There’s no other place that will be better.”

What tools, then, do we draw upon to navigate these never-ending contradictions? How do we learn to make reasonable compromises? What are reasonable compromises? Or, as Zavé asked, “Where do you want to put your energy?”  

Azure suggested, “If you’re the first to get fired, you have no choice but to follow your dreams, follow your path… You might as well do what you’re called to do.” And, “You need to know yourself and know your trade… and make a way, to imagine and discern what feels livable for you and what does not . . . I can’t tell you what your path is, because I can’t tell you what is livable – we are all different.” Pauline Park may not always make a living as a writer, but she doesn’t always have to answer to anyone when she writes either. A number of people mentioned this – the value of making money through non-artistic means – as a kind of freedom. In other words, give what you have and keep more for yourself. “If I wanted to make that guy’s salary” – a younger, less skilled, and white new hire making more than most of his superiors  – ”I would have to sacrifice my art career.” Then again, as Zavé remarked earlier, no one’s going to pick up the tab. “Too big in either direction, and something would have to give.”

So, “Money is not the root of all evil. The love of money is the root of all evil.” We need money, but money is not the only way to define our value. We have to know our worth and value, and ask for it. But we also need to cut “our addiction to the capitalist sense of value.” We need to recognize that value is relational and positional. One possible model: charging more to work with organizations with greater access to wealth and economic power. Expecting less in terms of economic gain – but more in terms of connection, relationships, and community power – for making your own artwork, or working with a community-based organization, led by people of color. “That’s the magic,” said Danny Lim. “Knowing our worth and value and asking for it.”

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