“Could someone else be me?”: the Marvelous Theatrics of Cherry Lou Sy’s Possessed is a Verb

Photo by Manny Sy.

Cherry Lou Sy’s elegant, nimble, and emotional play, Possessed is a Verb, had its first two performances at the Wild Project in early March as part of SipFest, a brilliant new festival of work by women theater-makers organized by Charles Quittner.

I saw the first of these two performances, which featured a witty and gracious Ginna Le Vine; the subsequent performance featured Lea Mckenna-Garcia. Any subsequent performances will feature different performers—because each time the play is to be performed by a person who has never before read it, seen it, or even met the playwright.

Now weeks in the wake of the performance, I’m still thinking about Sy’s play, which—with only two chairs, a table, a box of tissues, a bottle of water, and one perfect stranger—helped recalibrate my notions of performance, possession, appropriation, and grace.

To begin, the sealed script is delivered onstage to the performer and the rules are explained. The actor is to read the script aloud in front of us, and to follow the stage directions in the text. Sy’s kind, gentle instructions to the performer (“don’t panic, this is a story, you are a human being, therefore you are perfect”) create space for the failures that must inevitably attend the play and which, indeed, are one of its subjects. For in telling the story of Sy’s childhood and young adulthood, in taking on—for the first time, in front of us—Sy’s words, the performer cannot help but fail. She’ll mispronounce the names of cities and even of Sy herself. She’ll trip up on sentences, she’ll be surprised, confused, and embarrassed, she’ll forget things, there will be things she won’t know.

Through this embrace of failure and ignorance, and in offering up her own story for the telling, Sy deconstructs the act of appropriation—or call it possession—that is the condition of most theater. Sy, the playwright, puts her words in the performer’s mouth. In doing so, she possesses the performer—speaks and moves through her. At the same time, the performer possesses Sy’s words—takes ownership of her story by speaking it, representing it as if it were her own.

The act of appropriation at the core of the theatrical encounter becomes, in Sy’s hands, a metaphor for and means of exploring other appropriative encounters and the difficult entanglement, in each, of empathy and violence. “I guess since the Playwright can’t speak right now,” the performer announces, “I will speak for the playwright.” It so happened that in the performance I saw, Sy’s story was voiced by a white woman. In consequence, a sentence that might otherwise be dismissed as merely an apt description of the theatrical contract also registered for me as a wry citation of Gayatri Spivak’s theory of the subaltern. In hearing Le Vine announce (per Sy’s instruction) that she would speak for Sy, I was reminded of the long history of white colonizers appropriating the voices of colonized peoples for their own use: I guess since (the person I’ve silenced) can’t speak right now, I will speak on their behalf.

Moments later, the script leads the performer into a recitation of the many and various ethnicities that strangers have tried to pin on Sy. But Sy—working deftly through her formal conceit—turns the trick. This act of ethnic naming cannot sit comfortably in the actress’s body, and as she (per Sy’s instructions) “show[s] face and body with flourish…stand[s] up and turn[s] around, smile[s],” the play enacts a marvelous doubling. We become attuned to the layering of two particular histories—the performer’s and Sy’s—and to the myriad other possible layers of difference that the play could one day—after six, twenty, one hundred performances—contain.

At the same time that Sy draws attention to the violence of cultural appropriation—to the way that white America has taken possession not only of the bodies, labor, and land of immigrant, Black, and Native American populations, but also of their stories—Sy also illuminates the uneasy, always-equivocal intimacy of that other kind of possession—the haunting, preoccupying influence that is the domain of art and faith. In thinking through the faith healing that Sy witnessed in the Philippines as a child, the Native American shamanism that she was drawn to as a young adult, and her own contemporary writing practice, Sy tenderly and gorgeously articulates art’s precarious relation to questions of ownership, control, domination, and violence.

Sy offers her story for someone else’s telling as other people have offered their stories for hers. In doing so, she violates the integrity of her story—that is, she refuses to allow its existence apart from other texts. “Stories often interrupt other stories,” Sy-as-performer-as-Sy asserts. “The word is intertextuality,” defined as “the shaping of meaning by another text…Stories are always shaped by other stories,” she writes (though her words are shaped by someone else). And it is in precisely in this shaping, in the mutuality of this and every act of possession—that Sy locates a resilient hope.

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