No Worries / No War Zone: Theater of the Chill in Ben Gassman’s Independent Study

Photo by Asya Gorovits

A few weeks before seeing Ben Gassman’s Independent Study at The Tank, I was in an uber, cursing the MTA for shutting down the L and the M on the same night, and slouching in the passenger seat with my eyes closed to avoid getting interborough carsick, which I guess is a Jewish thing. The uber driver, oblivious to my nausea and endearingly persistent, pressed me for info, clearly wanting to have a conversation. I told him my name and said “Yours is….Md?” “Yes,” he said. “I’m studying to be a doctor.” “But Mohammad is also a common name in Bangladesh,” he added.

He was obviously an outgoing uber driver, effervescent even, but part of the reason he wanted to talk was to practice his english (he told me this.) I enjoyed talking to him. At one point I said the word crocodile. I tried to explain what it meant, and my friend Rachel (who was about to be dropped off in Bushwick) helped from the backseat: “It’s like a big green animal that lives in the water and has lots of teeth.”

Ok so, now I’m on my way home from seeing it (the play.) Though I’m not in an uber (the L train is running again) I think about how much that uber trip and the play remind me of each other, and not just because Bozo, brother of simultaneously energized and disillusioned college student GG (who I could call the play’s protagonist) laments his declining rating on the app for which he “drives.” Within the play’s first five minutes, Professor Mel stops GG, bemused, in the middle of an office-hours writing pitch, to ask what a roll-up is. “Uh, uh, to wrap, you know, weed,” GG responds, part distracted, part embarrassed, part exhilarated, unsure whether or not she’s “allowed” to write about drugs. “If it’s part of the story you’re telling. Why not,” Mel offers (before an actor who the script names “Serious Paper News Update,” enters the stage, delivers a news report into a descending bare lightbulb, and then leaves, the lightbulb swinging for a while after he’s gone.) From the second the LED lights on the disjointed exposed pipes illuminate the stage, Mel’s office is a space for an exchange of language & definitions that have to travel the enormous chasms of generational, cultural and class differences, and all inside a tiny office in which Ran Xia (director) has not even placed a chair for GG to sit in. As GG describes to Mel her experiences wearing forearm socks, who the Bishrevin colonel is, and why graffiti is political, I’m reminded of Md explaining to me, in halting english, how difficult it is to learn the arcane english versions of medical terms that he’s known as Bengali words for years. As Mel tells GG that literature is “discount storage space for the inappropriate,” recommends some, and encourages her to write, I’m reminded of, embarrassed, explaining to Md the word “embarrassed.” In both spaces, one person is paying to be there, one person is getting paid to be there, and the two can have a conversation, if they want. And they do.

There is faltering; there are breakthroughs. In one office-hours visit, GG soliloquies, grappling with her expression of religion, but stops herself to clarify a term.

GG
 I mean in my house, growing up, we were basically masharsh.
Sorry.
It means…

PROF
Chugrah.

GG
Huh?

PROF
We have the same concept.
Chugrah. Unclean. Unholy. Unbeliever.

GG
Yeah, so we basically were masharsh or chugrah or whatever, we didn’t follow any of the laws.
I mean we couldn’t like eat chicken in the house, my mom would get mad about

PROF
Not in mine either.

GG
The chicken?

PROF
Yeah, definitely no chicken.

While Rachel and I explain to Md the word “crocodile,” over and over again he asks “It means crying, right? Crying?” After we convince him that a crocodile is a big reptile that lives in the swamp, he explains: “In Bengali, there is a word that sounds very similar, and it means crying, like, crying, but not really crying.” Fake crying? Rachel and I ask. We agree that that’s a cool thing to have a word for. “I wish there was a word for that in english,” one of us says.

It’s not until weeks later; in fact, on my way to midtown to see this play, that I realize we do have an english word for it, a phrase rather: crocodile tears. Md was right, crocodile can mean crying after all. I’m shook; this can’t be a coincidence. Surely we use that phrase because of the Bengali word? I look it up on my phone; nope, according to “The Phrase Finder,” the origin of the phrase is “the allusion to the ancient notion that crocodiles weep while devouring their prey.” I try to read on, but I’m suddenly congratulated for being “selected as a Lucky users for the $1000 Amazon Giftcard, iPhone X 256G or Samsun Galaxy S8!” and have to close the window. I type “google.com” into my phone’s default yahoo browser bar, because I want some on-point search results. I find out that the Bengali word for fake crying is “Jāla kānnākāti” and I press the cartoon megaphone icon to hear it out loud, even though I’m on the subway and I don’t have headphones. I’m a little disappointed. “Kānnākāti” doesn’t sound THAT much like “crocodile,” although they start with the same sound and both have four syllables. Still, I’m humbled that Md taught me something about english while I thought I was teaching him, and I’m agog that we use such similar sounds for the same concept. I return to yahoo. Wordhippo.com tells me the Bengali word for “weeping” (Krandita), “important” (Biśēsa gurūtara), and “exquisite, unbearable, terrible, flagrant, flaming” (Nidārūna.) I learn from Answers.com that the origin of the phrase “crocodile tears” is “actually in terms of theater. When an actor/actress is supposed to cry in a particular scene they use the term ‘To make Crocodile Tears.’ Since crocodiles can’t cry, it’s sort of an inside slang between people of the theater.”

As I walk home to my apartment in rapidly gentrifying Ridgewood, carrying the falafel over rice and sun chips that I bought from the bodega outside my L train stop, I reflect on GG’s speech to Professor Mel in which she threatens to leave the country, because “it never made room for my family.” A child of immigrants from an “imaginary” region, which I locate as Palestine (though worth noting that it’s defined only by our associations), GG is threatened with xenophobic violence, which throughout the play arrives in the form of rocks thrown through her window, leaving a haunting chalky residue on the wall of the theater. What does it do to the modernist play, the living room drama, I wonder, when there is no living room, when there’s no home at all? Where does the play go? To the internet, where 4chan trolls (in this production, literally stomping, brawling, and climbing on top of each other) meet their hate? To the office, where, when alone, Professor Mel appears to nearly always be catatonically depressed, asleep, or somewhere between the two? What if your office is your car, in which you get paid to drive people around, and what if 90% of the cars on the city’s streets are offices? I mention the living room drama at all because Ben (Gassman, the playwright) does actually, heroically, give these anti-canonical characters Aristotelian arcs, inside of a narrative that forces them to argue, spit, fight, and change. If 19th century physics is to quantum physics, then the living room drama (where each character tidily represents a differing ideology), is to the particle theory drama, where ideologies, characters, homes, and the internet buzz about in constantly changing relationship to one another.

As I pass by the enormous Jewish cemeteries a few blocks from my house and consider opening my bag of sun chips, I think about how what inspires me most about Independent Study is that it’s not a fly on the wall, it doesn’t skewer people for satire, it’s not embedded in one character’s point of view; instead, it places us in a room with people we could easily judge but just as easily be judged by. Again and again, characters model how to learn from one another. “Empty phrases like that make your intelligence look hollow, GG” Professor Mel says, but then corrects herself: “I’m sorry. Let’s backtrack. That was an irresponsible reaction. Why does that phrase attract you?” The play encourages us to think like an activist or an academic – roles that, to some degree, GG and Mel respectively inhabit, creating the two, opposing?, poles at the center of the play’s magnetic field. At a very close distance, we watch characters change. After GG’s brother is killed, because, in her words, he was a terrorist, GG and Bozo (her other brother) have this exchange:

GG
Maybe he was really facing it. Facing it forward. Like facing it like how we are completely afraid to actually face it. Like maybe he was just not seeing bullshit at all. Like not being stopped by the bullshit of what we’re supposed to do everyday to keep it poorly functioning.

BOZO
Killing. Just killing random people? That’s a way to get through bullshit?

GG
I dunno.

GG
I could never punch someone I love in the face.

BOZO
I don’t think you would.

GG
But maybe I could kill people I don’t know. I don’t know about for a particular cause.
But just cause.

GG is a true Aristotelian hero: she grapples with right and wrong, she combats her fatal flaw (idealism?), she is surrounded by violence, she considers violence herself. There’s even a greek chorus influencing her: an internet “hate chorus,” who Ran Xia sneaks into the action in disarmingly seamless ways, so that we’re often not sure if they’re in the same space as the other characters or not. But GG, Aristotelian though she may be, is an Aristotelian hero with no place to call home. What would GG even think of Aristotle?; she’d probably tell Professor Mel that he’s bullshit. As she is pushed further into hysteria (or is it action?) her dialogue with Mel becomes less stable.

PROF
I think what we’re in follows us. To hold our ground and work in small ways against it is the least, least…

GG
Least? Least what?

PROF
Sucky.

GG
This is bullshit.

PROF
It is. Maybe I’m just too masharsh to lose my health insurance.

After we drop Rachel off, my conversation with Md becomes more tense. I try to explain that the person we dropped off 20 minutes ago is my boyfriend; he laughs for what seems like a full minute, he thinks it’s funny that I felt the need to clarify that my friend is a boy. “Never trust a woman completely,” he warns me, and I get mad at him. Eventually, after many translation-related hiccups, I’m able to explain to Md that “when I grow up” I “want to marry a boy not a girl.” He’s shocked, doesn’t understand, but after a few minutes he lets it go, gives me a high five, and accidentally runs a red light, almost killing us both. When he drops me off, I leave the car queasy from the motion and a little shaky; I confess to myself that I even was scared of Md for a second, although I’m embarrassed to admit it.

Again, I’m reminded of the play, one of my favorite moments in it: “I let one dude suck another dude’s dick in the back of the car last week,” Bozo says. “I don’t give a fuck. Turned the radio up. We got to the club they were going to and I didn’t want to look back again so I just waited, just sat there, waited like two more fuckin songs, till I heard one mumble thank you and hand me a twenty.” “That’s nasty,” GG says. “Those dudes gave me five stars,” Bozo replies, unphased.  

It’s not exactly utopia, but for me this is one of the most comforting and optimistic moments of the play. It’s something that seems achievable: a world where people can say “I can’t imagine anyone more different than you and me, but whatever. I don’t give a fuck. You gave me a $20 bill, I gave you your privacy. We’re good.” No crocodile tears here. We’re too chill for all that.

I want to take a second to examine that word, “chill.” I think it is actually a helpful dramaturgical word through which to look at the play. The word holds gendered and cultural connotations and roots; it is not a word a “domcult” (a colloquialism among the characters in the play that abbreviates “dominant culture”) person would use, at least not before appropriation. Within the play, it promotes a radical kind of listening. How chill can you be? How hard can you listen? How much can you see? “Chill” also dissolves some familiar boundaries, the boundaries that might exist between an uber driver and their uptight passenger. I’m reminded of when my iphone autocorrects “no worries” to “no war zone.”

In one scene, Bozo’s friend Boppo wears a black shirt with a blinding faux-mural of a subway car on it; the mural wraps around his entire shirt. In this theater where internet trolls, uber drivers, and youtube news reporters share a physical location, this subway car is as real a space as any. I stare at it; it compresses, expands, changes shape as the actor moves around. I imagine that if I walked into the folds of the shirt, through the subway doors, I’d find all the characters in the play inside, hands reaching for poles, earbuds in, heads nodding to music. Chill. Of course, “chill” is also the word I’d use to describe what falls over the audience when the hate chorus storms the stage, spewing isolationist anger. A very different kind of “chill.”

As I watch the dynamic, compassionate Andrea Negrete onstage as GG, I think about my 10th grade student, T., who’s Muslim and the child of immigrants; I tutor him in Algebra. I can hear in T.’s voice that he has, inspiringly, learned what is means to be “american” not from the “domcult,” but from his classmates at his public school in Brooklyn, primarily kids of color. Like GG, he says “nah” and “word” and “deadass.” I’m fascinated by this flow of language, a flow that Ben, a jewish kid from Queens, always seems interested in, in love with. In one particularly satisfying moment in Independent Study, Professor Mel uses a slang word that she has presumably learned from GG – in fact, beautifully, it’s the word “word” itself. ” “Word,” she says, before GG asks “Why you always go deep?” and Mel counters “Why you keep stopping by to talk?” “Word,” GG says. Word.

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