Ecstatic Consent: An Interview with April Ranger
April Ranger is a playwright, poet, and teacher whose writing examines the intersections among bodies, hearts, spirits, justice, sex, and fruit, among other things. Several of her plays, including Bathsheba’s Psalms, Or A Woman Of Unusual Beauty Taking A Bath, which we spoke about recently, examine questions of consent. But in April’s work, consent isn’t a hot-button headline-ripped sensationalist-sentimentalist pre-digested topic for a programmatic dogmatic didacticism. Consent, April reminds us, means saying yes: yes to sex, yes to love, yes to sweat and stench and the sensuality of puncturing a ripe plum’s skin with your two front teeth and feeling the juice drip out. Consent is saying yes to life.
April’s plays are word-drunk – her characters are highly articulate, but they praise the midday sun in glorious, everyday speech. She makes ordinary words – and by extension, ordinary life – sing a holy song. April’s characters, like April, notice everything – which means that the glint of light on new spring moss may have equal importance to the woman struggling to keep the soup kitchen stocked with macaroni and hot dogs.
In her work and in her life, April is a heart-forward warrior for justice. But while the wounds she seeks to heal are world-encompassing, April has the particular gift of focusing on the particular. Her plays are always about people, never about concepts. And they get even smaller than people – they are about moments, words, sensations. It is perhaps for this reason that our discussion took the shape it did – I found myself asking April about overly large abstractions – power, prayer, anger – and again and again she would ground those concepts in stories, jokes, and clear, resonant language. I have never known her to speak of injustice or pain in anything but concrete terms. Yet while she does so, April remains grounded in her own particular subjectivity – notice how often she begins sentences with some variant on “to me” or “as a person.” She never forgets herself and her embodiment, even as she seeks to address a world far bigger than any individual.
As such, April is one of the most empathetic people I know. She doesn’t merely express concern for victims – she has the uncanny ability to put her skin in the game, to see violence against one as violence against all, including her. “Imagine what it would be like,” she once advised me, “if your family home were burned down, your uncle killed in front of your mother, and then somebody made a joke about it in a play, or made the perpetrators the sympathetic main characters or even ‘antiheroes.’” It is one thing to demand sensitivity. It is another to proffer the tools to live with more awareness.
I spoke with April several weeks ago, just as her latest play, Bathsheba’s Psalms, was opening. The vagaries of life have prevented me from publishing this interview until well after the show has closed, so while I can’t urge you to see it, I can say that it was a funny, soulful re-examination of the biblical story of Bathsheba. In April’s telling, Bathsheba is a poet, with psalms of her own – much more than a body bathing on a roof. The play has a radical feminism imbuing its every word and gesture, but like April, it does not advertise its politics – it lives them. April – in the play, as in our conversation – achieves the difficult, urgent task of making her emphatic, empathic feminism ordinary.
JL: Where did the play come from?
AR: I think this is just always something I’ve wanted to write about. When I was young, and I first read the story of Bathsheba in the Bible, I was really entranced by her. I felt really connected to who this person might be. And then, at the same time, the way that I remember being taught this story, was that it was about David. This was David’s big sin, adultery. And so Bathsheba was portrayed as kind of this temptress character. But it also feels like she’s just always been in the ether – she’s in paintings, she shows up in “Hallelujah”: I don’t remember a moment where she wasn’t in my brain. And since most of the Psalms are attributed to David, I’ve always wondered what psalms she would have written, or that she did write. I’ve always wondered what she would have said.
Before I started really writing plays, I was dating somebody who told me that I should write this as a play. And I didn’t, because I just thought, who would care? But then when I took Mac Wellman’s pataphysics class, he had us make posters for plays that we hadn’t written yet – that was our only homework, to make this visual thing. And I was like, oh, of course, Bathsheba’s Psalms. And so I made this poster, which is all red on top, and then blue almost like an ocean, but abstracted. There’s a silhouette of a woman’s back, and instead of a sun there’s an eye. And then in our next session he was just like: go write the play. I had never written an adaptation, but I knew that I wanted to think about how she was seen. I was thinking about that poem by Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” so I gave myself an assignment to write thirteen ways of looking at Bathsheba. I wrote the play originally in thirteen scenes, and I tried to have each scene have something different about it. I thought the play would be called Thirteen Ways of Looking at Bathsheba, and that I would structure it that way, but I realized that that was more of a trick for me to actually write the scenes, because I had never written a play where somebody died. I had never even really written a play. So it was very liberating to have a set plot: since I know what happens, I don’t have to worry about what happens – I can just think about how they talk.
JL: So you went back and read the Bible story.
AR: Yeah from 2 Samuel. It’s in like three verses. I actually went back to it again recently, because I wanted to compare the length of her story versus the length of the Psalms. And it was fascinating, because one of the problems that I’ve come across in the play is that Bathsheba disappears from her own story. But when I went back to the Bible, I realized we only see her name three times in the text. And even then when they refer to her it’s always as “Uriah’s wife” and then later as “David’s wife” or “Solomon’s mother,” like we have to know what man she relates to. And so it felt satisfying to go back and see that I actually was really adhering to the structure of the original story. But how fucked up is it that this is her story, but even in the Bible, we veer off.
I’m pretty sure that the very first time I encountered the story was in the New Living Translation, where it calls her “a woman of unusual beauty.” That phrasing is just so fascinating to me. What does it mean? It was obviously really important for whoever translated it. We know so little about her, but this is the thing that we learn about her. It’s her subheading.
One of my big challenges going through life, that I learned very early, is that the way that I look may contain a kind of power. I remember walking through the Skowhegan Fair when I was thirteen, and interacting with this man in a way that I felt like I really had power over him, even though he was this older man. He sat down because I gave him a flirty look, or something like that. And I think that this is a way that I started to imagine that I had power that I didn’t actually have. Even through my early twenties, up to when I was thirty maybe, I accepted this power that I felt like was mine and that I used. I would use sexual power in order to get things, whether that was related to money, or safety, or whatever. And it’s been a very painful journey for me to figure out how to acknowledge that, and to acknowledge that it’s also not power, but that it’s an illusion of power, and that it’s something that was given to me in an exchange for something else, which was my own sense of individual power and autonomy.
The word power, I think, is often misused. I read somewhere Young Jean Lee talking about how those “The Future is Female” T-shirts piss her off so much. They make me really mad too, because it’s elevating one person’s gender to a place of power over other people. And I find that kind of feminism really troubling. And it’s confusing – that’s the goal? Somebody else in charge? “Now it’s us!” That’s just really fucked up to me.
JL: This is a ginormous question, but I’ll ask it anyway: what is power?
AR: I think that it’s so related to speech. It’s the ability to say who you are and what has happened to you. In the grand scheme of things, when we talk about power, people often mean the power to make decisions that affect people’s lives. But I think that having people listen to you is power. It’s probably the ultimate power – having people listen to you and acknowledge your true experience. Or at least that’s the beginning of power. The reason why somebody is able to legislate or dictate what happens is because other people listen to them. It’s really what it comes down to.
Earlier today I had to go into the police precinct to report this problem I’m having with my landlord – it’s a whole complicated thing not worth getting into – but when I walked in, the person there didn’t even ask me for ID until like ten minutes into it. With the set of privileges that I have, I just had faster access, because she was already listening to me.
So when I think about power, I’m asking – who is the person that most people are listening to, and why? You often hear theater makers saying they want to give a voice to this person or that person. I hate that phraseology. Because they have been speaking! The better question is, how can I listen more? Even though Bathsheba’s Psalms is about what Bathsheba’s finally saying, to me it’s also about who is listening, to her and to the play. That’s how the chorus members function – either they’re guiding one another to listen, or they’re reminding each other to listen.
Something that’s been really funny for me to watch – which has been really weird for my ego as the playwright, but I’m trying to think of it as really an instruction – is that every single night I’ve seen at least one man fall asleep during this play. And oftentimes this man is accompanied by a woman. She is engrossed, and he is asleep. This has happened now I think three times. I don’t know what it means yet, but I think it relates to the content of the play. I’ll have to think about it more. But this question of power comes up – who are we listening to the most? And who are we not listening to, or are somehow unable to listen to, or fall asleep while they’re talking?
JL: It seems to me there’s an interesting difference between seeing Bathsheba and listening to Bathsheba. Maybe it’s similar to the difference between seeing and witnessing. I’m wondering if you can untangle that a little bit, how maybe ethically or aesthetically you are able to delineate those categories.
AR: I feel like you’re actually articulating a goal of mine that I hadn’t said in those exact words. Seeing is a one way experience – you’re watching something, it creates the sense of an object.
It was important to me to have two scenes of Bathsheba bathing. The first time we watch it we see her in the way that we expect – she’s on the roof, she’s in her bathtub – she’s seen. But then we see David see her. And the second time we see it, David is this buffoon with his stupid slingshot.
There was a moment with our sound designer that really taught me about the play, which is that Ito [Edoloyi, Lighting Designer] had created this visual element of the bathtub by creating this pool of light that’s shaped like a bath when she’s being seen. And then Caroline [Eng, Sound Designer] added the first chords of the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah.” And Christina [Roussos, Director] and I had this whole conversation, wondering if we wanted a 20th century song playing in the moment that she’s seen. Because it takes us to another place. And that’s exactly what I wanted. What it forces me to do is access part of my collective memory that is related to the things that I’ve heard about this person. And so to me, having that moment at the beginning of the play sets us up to be constantly not just listening to what’s happening in the play, but listening to our own memory – what are the ways that I have manifested an imagined version of this character? Even if you don’t know the story of Bathsheba, we all have seen an image of a woman that is quote unquote “beautiful,” or that a man would consider beautiful – it’s in advertisements, it’s everywhere.
What’s been interesting to me is the way that the audience leans in the most and feels the most engaged when Bathsheba talks. That’s the thing. That’s what pulls people in. When she’s able to talk and give her very private worldview, that’s the thing that shifts the way that we’re constantly seeing her.
To go back to those delineations, it reminds me of this thing the poet Danez Smith said about the difference between concern and care. I’ll do my best to paraphrase from memory: Concern is noticing that something’s happening and maybe wanting to do something about it. But care is thinking about how it’s truly affecting the people who are experiencing it, which includes your audience. Concern would be: I’m concerned about this issue and I want to make it known. But care is how you do it. We want to make a play where Bathsheba is front and center, but how do we do it in such a way that she’s in charge? So we give her the opening monologue, to make sure that the audience knows right up front that she is making this happen. She consents to being seen. The chorus members say “We are going to tell the story of Bathsheba. Chapter one: Bathsheba is seen.” And then she says, “okay, I am seen.” So we understand that, even though we’re about to see all these terrible things happen to her, the actor who is playing her is saying, “Yes, I am ready to go on this journey. I’m ready to share this story in service of what the story will do.” So then it’s not just about all the brutal things are going to happen.
The other tool is humor. In the story her husband dies in battle. But the battle scene in the play is ridiculous, and stupid, and makes fun of these language tropes that we’ve seen in Braveheart and a million other war movies. To me, war is such a horror that the naturalistic images that we see in these movies are the things that I think are really awful. So for me, getting to see a moment where this person is in battle spouting all of these patriotic things, and then they get an edible fruit bouquet – I’m trying to create enough distance for people to actually see the horror in a way that’s not affecting them, so that they can be removed enough that they’re not manipulated by the pain, the actual suffering of people fighting these battles.
JL: Uriah becomes this sort of patriotic clown.
AR: One of my favorite lines is when Uriah says “I just want to be ethical. Because I’ve gotten really good at killing bad guys.” As a culture we’ve decided that certain wars are ethical and that certain wars aren’t – that’s a crazy idea to me. And so I was hoping we could laugh at that, and say that that sounds really stupid. Who is defining what wars are ethical and what wars are not? And who is defining that the task of being a soldier is ethical, especially when it relates to manhood or masculinity?
JL: The way you’re talking about this reminds me of a line in the play. One of the choristers says something like: “and it was a time when they referred to The Work and The Conversation with capital letters. And some people said The Work was The Conversation and The Conversation was The Work.” I love how unresolved that is – it’s unclear if you’re making fun of it or not, and I like that. As I know you, you have a heart very interested in justice, and a heart very interested in words. And so I’m interested in what the relationship is between Work and Conversation, especially as I consider what a play or a poem is. Because we call them “works of art.” Right? But they’re also discourse.
AR: I’m really pleased that you picked up on that because that’s the heart of one of the conflicts of this play. It’s my conflict, I think, as a person – I love language, and it’s not enough. I think that words hold so much power, and also they do nothing. It’s this incredible paradox, right? The language shifts the culture, but a word isn’t going to save somebody. I wrestle with that all the time, when I think about what my vocation is.
I really do believe that the way that we talk about things has a direct effect – I believe in words as almost like physical objects. For instance, there’s a line in the play where she’s talking about pussy and she’s like,” how do you take a word back?” I wrote that before Trump was elected, but after he’d said, the “grab the pussy” thing. But then for me watching this play emerge, that line could also be about the Women’s March people who are like “grab him by the pussy.” For somebody who uses the word pussy to describe their own pussy, if they hate those pink hats, the word has been stolen yet again. Language is constantly given to us, and then coopted. It’s wild to me that we think that words belong to us, and they don’t. Or they do but they don’t.
And so I think that for me, this thing about Work and Conversation, I think that language is so important and we have to really consider the words that we’re using, but I get so tired of people acting as though that’s enough. Words activate us, and they can really change the way that we think. And also it’s fucked up that people are like, “oh yeah, like, you know, it’s all part of the work.” Like what do you mean? If you’re not putting the actions to the words that you’re saying? I know I’m getting on a soapbox now, but I feel like I’m in a lot of art spaces where people sit around and they talk about ideas and they’re not following through and it pisses me off in a deep way.
And so I think that one of the questions for the play is: how do we really deeply consider the words that we’re using, and then follow through with that, instead of just patting ourselves on the back for having said the right thing?
JL: It makes me think about the relationship between words and bodies, which is a relationship I see in a lot of your work and in your thinking. You said something about how words are ours and not ours at the same time. Language is a communal, social object, that we also own and can change – we’re shareholders in it. And bodies are also interesting in that this one is mine, and that one is yours. Right? But they also exist as social objects. You see my body, we’re in a social space where my body is a part of that space. That feels like half a thought – I wonder if you can finish it.
AR: When I think about why I want to make theater instead of only writing poems, it’s that. It’s a negotiation of space. Seeing somebody talk in a room and hold space is very different than reading something privately. Seeing two people physically negotiate space together and what that does, whether that juxtaposes or corroborates the words that they’re speaking, for me it does something that helps me to consider the way that words and our bodies are related – I think it has something to do with breathing.
The climax of the play is when Bathsheba is kneeling down repeating “his name was Jude,” and then this chorus member repeats this long beautiful monologue about something that a woman had seen while walking through the park. My goal, which I think has been successful for some audience members that I’ve talked to, is that that is the most emotional moment of the play. The idea is that something that feels very small – like a person walking alone looking at birds and trees – is as enormous, and ecstatic, and as important, as having a baby, or dying.
When we stop honoring cackling birds or a man walking his bicycle up the hill is when we stop honoring people. And that to me is what is related and what’s going on in that moment in the play – the play pauses, and we’re kind of suspended in time, and our breathing is affected, possibly, by the lighting and how it feels like, “oh, I’m in this beautiful day.” And then it ends because some shitty dude said something.
The word micro-aggression is used a lot, but I think that what people don’t understand is that when you experience something like that, it doesn’t just like fuck up your day. If you’re in a very emotional, vulnerable place, it can really affect your sense of who you are, deeply, in your gut.
JL: I’m glad you used the word ecstatic. When I was talking with you after the play the other day, I mentioned Alan Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl.” The thing I feel in common between you and him, in addition to a deep concern with bodies and sex, is a sense of the ecstatic, which is an old religious tradition – everything is holy, everything is important. There’s something very inhuman about that view, that says that the texture of moss is as important as a person: it is inhuman in that it is divine. To see something from an infinite remove makes the world non-hierarchical – it is all creation, which means it is all important, and it’s all holy. And there’s something revolutionary about that, in that it’s so Other. The way you’re describing how a micro-aggression can puncture that experience, it’s like the temporal world with its shitty power structures sticks the knife in and says “no, no, no, this is carved out, and this is more important than that, and this person is more important than that person, this thing is more important than this person, or vice versa.” I’m reflecting back what I’m hearing, but it’s interesting to me that you’re finding a politics of looking, and a politics of appreciation of detail and texture and life. Does that resonate with you?
AR: Absolutely. That section we’re talking about came late in the writing. I had this idea of a person who is just looking, and I thought – this feels like it’s the same story. It’s a person who’s trying to live their life and see what is beautiful, but then someone interrupts that because they see that person as something to consume. Which is the experience of so many women and queer people I know. And I think that’s actually a larger experience for everybody. Anybody can ask the question: “what is it that punctures me?” But I think that when it comes down to it, I imagine Bathsheba as somebody who wanted to love the world as best as she could. And, I mean – that’s me.
JL: That’s a good thing to try to do. Good luck with it.
AR: It’s funny that you asked me about bodies, and the play is so much about sex, but I didn’t talk about sex at all.
JL: We can talk about sex.
AR: Okay, good.
JL: Ok. Let’s talk about sex. I don’t know – tell me about sex.
AR: [Laughs] I feel like I was born a sexual person. I think that being raised in a strictly religious, fundamental upbringing, there was a way that sex just felt so wrong. And so to me, I think one of my big constant ideas is that sex and the divine are related. It feels thrilling to me to get to see somebody praise sex in a way that feels religious, ecstatic, or divine. Truly, what the body is capable of is so amazing – how could sex not be the holiest thing? When we did the play in Florida, there were a lot of really religiously Christian people in the audience, but they were really into it. And I thought that was really cool. I didn’t think that that was going to be a part of the target audience.
JL: Sex hardly plays any role on my writing, and I feel okay with that right now. So I’m interested in what it feels like for you to write about sex. Does it feel risky? Natural? Somewhere in between?
AR: I think I’ve just always written about sex. It honestly just feels like the thing that I have to say. I mean, I think about it a lot! [Laughs] I do! It’s a really big part of my life, as I think it is for a few people. And so I think that it’s fun for me to write about because I think about it a lot. [Laughs]
JL: I want to talk about then the other side of that coin, then, which is prayer. There are prayers in this play. I find prayer very interesting. What is prayer? What does it mean to write a prayer? To perform a prayer? And what is prayer in this play?
AR: I’m no longer religious, but I do pray. So what does that mean? I think that it relates to what you were asking me about the difference between seeing and witnessing. To me, the people in my life who I know who pray, who seem to really truly pray, regardless of religion, their prayer is an act of witness, even when it’s supplication: I know this person is suffering, can you help? This sunset, truly, is so beautiful – thank you God for your creation. So whether it’s gratitude or supplication, it’s an act of truly seeing, as opposed to like, “I need this.” It’s one thing to say “bless our food.” But somebody who’s really praying will really be thinking about the food itself and where it came from, the people who prepared it. I remember that something my grandfather would always say is “thank you for the hands that have prepared this food. Please bless those who are not with us, watch over and guide them.” There was a way that people were accounted for.
When I think about what prayer is, it’s a communion with something, whether it’s a divine spirit or a higher power or a way of being in the world. There’s a two-way-ness to it. There’s a listening component involved.
When I think about what’s not prayer – I watched a video recently of the woman from the 80s who got a fruit pie in her face because she was anti-gay. She was against the Equal Rights Amendment, and an activist threw a pie in her face and then she in front of everyone was like, “dear God, please bless my enemies.” And that felt like such a non-prayer. Because prayer is not a performance. Which I guess might feel contradictory in this play because we see Bathsheba pray, and it’s a performed version of that. But we decided to have Tanyamaria say these prayers to audience members because she’s not talking to God. She’s talking to people. Because I think of prayer as something that is built together. You might say a prayer alone, but the energy of prayer is connected to who you are directing the prayer toward or what it is about. And if it’s not, if the language is isolated and it’s about you, then it’s not prayer.
JL: You called prayer a two-way thing. I wonder what’s on the other end of that road.
AR: When I think about the people in my life who do have actual faith, there’s an idea that you’re praying to God. And you don’t see God or hear God, but you know that that being is there. For someone maybe who doesn’t have faith, I still think there’s a similar kind of humility to it.
When T and I were first dating, they had just broken their toe. And they had named their toe. And they one day in front of me thanked their toe, for trying to heal. And to me, that’s an act of prayer. I don’t think T would say that, but to me that’s what it is. Maybe the toe doesn’t hear you, but you are treating the toe as though it can hear you. And the thing is is that you don’t get a response. That’s not what it’s about. When I thank my cup of coffee, it it’s not reciprocal. I’m taking the time to witness and express gratitude – not to you that I have a cup of coffee, but to the actual cup of coffee. And the coffee doesn’t talk back.
I guess in a weird way when I think about it, that’s also what theater is. When I start to panic and worry about how the play is landing with people I don’t know, well – that’s it. The act of making art is also like a prayer. You’re giving it away and you don’t know what comes back.
JL: I’m interested in anger. You said that part of the play came out of anger and I’ve heard you talk about anger. I know there’s that essay, “The Uses of Anger” that you like quite a bit. But you don’t seem to me to be an angry person. Where is anger, in your life and in your work?
AR: As a person, I tend to try to reserve my anger for the things that matter. I’m so angry about a lot of the things that are in this play. And the only way that made sense for me to deal with it is through humor.
I think that I hold tight to my anger so that I don’t lose sight of the things that make me angry, because they fuel me. But I try to be mindful about the way that I express it, so that it doesn’t amp up the people who already have access to that anger and that pain.
Anger is also a very physical, very embodied emotion. So when I’m feeling a lot of anger, I try to sit with it and try to see what is possibly in me as well. If I’m angry at somebody else, oftentimes I’m seeing something reflected back that relates to me. So I try to investigate my anger before acting on it, so that I can parse out if there’s something instructive for me, to make sure that I learn from it.
JL: I don’t really want to end on anger, so let’s talk about joy. What’s bringing you joy right now?
AR: Oh my gosh, it’s been so fun working with T. I think I was really nervous about working together, even though we had worked on this play before – but it was before we started dating . So I think that I was just feeling nervous about what it would feel like to collaborate with somebody who I’m in love with. But it’s been really awesome. It’s fun! We wake up, we go to work together, we talk about it. What I thought was going to be nerve-wracking has been so not stressful. It’s definitely made us closer as people, and that feels really beautiful.
A P.S. from April: I owe a lot of my poetics & thoughts on the ecstatic to poet Angel Nafis – here is a link to an awesome interview with her where she talks about observation and the ecstatic tradition: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/podcasts/146966/angel-nafis-vs-observation