A Damaged Interview with a Complete Freak Box
Eliza Bent wants you to know that her new one woman show, Aloha, Aloha, or When I Was Queen (Abrons Arts Center April 4-21, tickets $20) isn’t just another One Woman Show. Yes, there are childhood pictures from the 80s, maybe even a home movie or two. But downtown wunderkind Knud Adams is directing, and zany-brainy downtown darling Eliza Bent is writing and performing, so it’s gotta be more hip than all that, right? “I hate the word hip,” Eliza tells me when I suggest as much, “but yes.”
Still, it’s not just hipness that makes Aloha, Aloha more than just a One Woman Show. Nor is it simply Bent’s virtuosity as a performer, keen analytic mind, or playful sense of language and form (all on display in the last show of hers I had the pleasure of seeing). It’s the fact that Bent is using the One Woman Show, with its focus on personal narrative and introspection, to examine her own often face-palm-inducing history as a white person of privilege.
The canniness of this approach, to my eye, is that Bent has found a way to tackle her ethical questions as aesthetic questions. “How can we imagine in ways that are playful and respectful? How to draw the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation?” These are questions the play directly asks, but they can just as easily be conceived dramaturgically as ethically. By assigning herself the rather difficult task of making new the old One Woman Show form, Bent has found a sideways way to tackle the even more difficult, never-ending task of coming into awareness of her whiteness and class privilege.
Aloha, Aloha is a dramatization of that coming-into-awareness in all of its cringeyness and humility. Reading over the script, I’m struck by the deftness with which Bent is able to articulate the process of awareness rather than its fruits, and is able to do so without falling into the traps of self-congratulatory white guilt, racism denial, or prepackaged judgement on others that the field of race-discourse-from-a-white-person is so heavily riddled with.
Talking with Bent, as I did recently in a strange cafe in Park Slope (were all of the baristas drunk at 2pm or did it only seem that way?), I felt I was able to witness up close that which makes her such a compelling writer and performer. Bent is a master of disguise, and can don a mustache, silly wig, and even sillier accent with the best of them. But in the alchemy of her performance, humor and transformation become means not of hiding the self, but of revealing it. Bent’s sensitivity comes across perhaps most clearly when she stumbles on a juicy morsel of wordplay, or slips into that goofy Irish accent at just the right moment. She uses these tools not to undercut herself, but to dig deeper into herself, as she does both in her new play and in our conversation below.
Jerry Lieblich: Do you consider your self a playwright?
Eliza Bent: I… do…
JL: I won’t tell anyone.
EB: Don’t tell! (Laughs) I think it was always hard to claim being a playwright because I was and still am very interested in performing. And it feels like sometimes saying you’re one thing is negating another, in a very American way. Icelanders don’t have a problem with that. You can be a mechanic and a poet, and that’s great. Not to make a complete blanket statement about Iceland.
JL: Have you been to Iceland?
EB: I have. So I’m allowed to say that. (Laughs)
JL: Maybe that’s a good segue into talking about this play.
EB: (assuming a plucky Irish accent) Aye, blanket statements…
JL: Tell us a bit about it.
EB: The show is a three part piece. The first part is about this movie I made when I was a kid about the last remaining monarch of Hawaii, Queen Lili’uokalani. There’s a lot of reminiscing around that, not just about that film but about other little movies I made as a youth.
It’s interesting – it wasn’t until I wrote the play that I realized that that movie was actually one of the most important artistic experiences that I had as a young person. It was a deep collaboration with a friend. We were co-writing it together, and co-directing, co-starring, et cetera. And it was just amazing to brainstorm with someone who was just as interested and passionate about making the movie as I was.
So we made this movie, and we were so proud of it. Then a few years passed, and I heard that PBS was making a documentary about Queen Lili’uokalani. And I was like “well, I have to get them our version.”
JL: And you were how old?
EB: I made the movie when I was twelve or thirteen, the PBS documentary was when I was fifteen.
JL: Already had that entrepreneurial spirit.
EB: Already had that attitude of “lemme show them the ropes.” Just that innocence and hubris of a child. And I was convinced that they would play it, somehow, on the air. My friend was really skeptical, but I was like “no, we have to give them our video.” So my Mom, sweet woman that she is, drove me over to Cambridge, across from where I grew up, and we dropped the tape off at PBS. And then I watched the documentary. And over the course of watching the documentary I realized two things. First, that they were not in fact going to show my movie, and second, that I misunderstood and misrepresented some pretty major parts of history. We had made our movie funny, there were all kinds of jokes we had put into it, but also we had maybe not taken so seriously U.S. colonialism. I had portrayed the Queen as this villainous victim with this super annoying voice. So that was maybe my first lesson in dramaturgy and context.
But it wasn’t until last summer that I was like, “wait, I was a white person doing this.” I had never considered that. I had recognized that I had made the mistake about history, but hadn’t really ever considered the role that my race brought into the making of that movie. That realization – I realized it while I was telling the story to a group of white people at a dinner party, and sort of over the course of telling it I was like “oh…” – that realization led to me writing this play. And all of that stuff is part one.
JL: How does it feel to watch that movie now?
EB: Oh my god. It’s so cringey, and it’s so funny. I mean, the video is hilarious. When I watched it with my friend, we had tears streaming down our faces. Mostly because it’s me. I don’t expect it to be as funny to somebody else. But there are some pretty good bits – to show how the Queen died we had a baseball bat, and on the bat it said “Old Age”, and we hit me and I fell back on the bed. But we had also put some kind of filter on the camera, so as I fall back the footage goes to red and green filter and negative space filter in this really spooky twelve-year-old-girl-does-David-Lynch way. It’s also so fun to remember what a weirdo you were at that age. Like, a complete freak box. It can be hard to try to be gentle with that, to let some of that thrive in today’s freak box.
JL: So all of that’s part one.
EB: Right. Part two is a hop-scotching expressionistic chronology of memories from my childhood and early adulthood, marking moments of learning what it is to be a white person, learning what it is to be a woman, learning that class is a thing. So we go on this picaresque journey about my race and class and gender consciousness.
And then in the third section of the show, I talk about a more recent dust-up in which I got something wrong and messed up. It’s both owning up to the messing up and looking at it in relation to the first section, looking at the different levels of messing up that we get to do as people and artists.
At this point, dear readers, technology got the best of me (was Mercury in retrograde?), and my phone failed to record the subsequent forty-five minutes of our conversation. There is a way in which such a lacuna in the record seems appropriate for a piece about whiteness, whiteness itself being a field of erasure. Still, I regret the loss of Eliza’s exact words, particularly the pointed way in which she told stories of repeated experiences with white theater gate-keepers who said to her wretched, racially charged statements in lightly-coded language, statements they almost certainly wouldn’t have said in the company of an artist of color. It is an experience I, too, have repeatedly had, but perhaps not been courageous or wise enough to point to it, and Eliza’s language for it was particularly elegant.
Thinking back on what it was we talked about, I seem to remember repeatedly trying to pin Eliza down to some kind of moral or message, to get her to articulate to me exactly what it was she learned about being a white person, about how to be – these words of hers I do remember – “a little less shitty.”
Thinking on those questions now, having read the script to Aloha, Aloha, I see that I was perhaps missing the point. I wanted answers from Eliza because I wanted (and still want) answers about my own whiteness, about my own class-consciousness. I want to know how to be a little less shitty. I also wanted to pigeonhole her play as a play “about race,” and therefore demand of it (and of Eliza) that which the (generally speaking white) American theater normally demands of plays “about race” – a clean, ready-to-hand moral praxis. Theaters seem to ask of our plays “about race” that they teach the (usually conceived as white) audience about that which perhaps it already knows but is too self-deluded to admit, which is that the very concept of whiteness is a disease, and racism is an insidious, omnipresent horror.
But what Eliza is doing is far more subtle than all that. Bent is too skillful an artist (and intelligent a person) to pretend for a second that she has even a provisional answer to the problems of race in America, let alone her (or my) personal psyche. Instead, she is doing what artists do – making art out of her particular experience, not for the sake of teaching a lesson, but to create a complicated object upon which an engaged viewer might be able to reflect and ruminate and, perhaps, discover something about their own subjectivity and/or the subjectivity of the freak box speaking to us from the stage.
But Eliza can, and does, put it better than I. Towards the end of our conversation, after discovering that my phone had failed to record any of the previous forty-five minutes, I turned my recorder back on and asked her one final question:
JL: How didactic do you feel the piece is?
EB: Zero. I assume that the audience that sees this piece will not think of themselves as racist, Abrons tends to attract a woke crowd. So it’s not my job to educate audiences how to not be racist. Rather, my job is to show the ways in which we have all participated in racism and racist structures, wittingly and unwittingly, and and ask how can we do better. I’m starting with myself: How can I wrestle my past and trying to learn from my errors to be a better white person in present and the future? All of us white people can strive to do a better job of wrestling both with our past, and trying to learn from those errors to be better white people in the present and the future. It’s an invitation to the audience to think about times that they’ve messed up, and also to think about how they might react to the coded gross stuff that other white people might say to them.
I’d say the most important investigation for me has been really trying to look at my past with a clear eye from the present day. To describe what these moments were on the picaresque journey, to say what it was without the judgement, because the audience will do it anyway. I mean, it’s really easy for me to judge other people, and their whiteness. I do it all the time. I think all of us do. But where I’ve messed up is harder to talk about. I find as an artist there’s a certain amount of messing up that I do that I know I do. I’m cognizant of messing up, but I do it anyway, because I think it might make an interesting piece.
I hope a lot of the play will be funny. But I think a lot of people will be holding back from laughing, for reasons that are really complicated. Is it ok for me to laugh at that really bad mistake you made? Is it ok for me to laugh at that because I’m white and you’re white? Or is it more on me not to laugh, to show I disagree with what you did? And for people of color who see the show there’s a whole other matrix, I’m sure, that will dictate what is and isn’t funny to them. I think many parts of the show may be complicated, but I don’t think any part of the show is going to be truly offensive to anyone. Heh, famous last words.