Dominating the Landscape: The TEAM’s RoosevElvis

MAR 31, 2016


ANN: I hated middle school.
BRENDA: Who didn’t?
ANN: There were definitely people I knew who liked it.
BRENDA: Yeah, and none of them are doing anything interesting now.

It’s a heart-breaking moment of insensitivity, for Ann’s life is far from interesting. The quiet, working-class butch is lonely in the middle of South Dakota, and has invited Brenda, the adventurous queer hipster, to visit her, hoping for love, or at least some kind of connection. But Brenda is rude and dismissive. She laughs in Ann’s face, prods her with accusatory questions about Ann’s lot in life, shaming her for her own sadness, her own isolation. If cosmopolitan, feminine Brenda could empathize with gender non-conforming, isolated Ann, she would see that not every gay kid flees their hometown, or finds happiness, confidence, and freedom. Not every queer child grows up to be a defiant hero. Not everyone can conquer their own lives. Brenda is “It Gets Better” incarnate, unwilling to face the grim reality: for some people, It Stays Bad.

These questions of self-determination, power and courage propel the TEAM’s RoosevElvis into absurd, rambunctious scenarios and deeply-felt moments of authentic pain. As we watch Ann grapple with Brenda’s instigations, the specters of Teddy Roosevelt and Elvis Presley (played, respectively, by the same actresses who play the two women) guide us (and Ann) through meditations on ambition, tenacity, and greatness. These buoyantly-rendered historical caricatures help us see Ann’s crises in a global context, and urge us to think more broadly about who gets to be great, who gets to succeed, who gets to be “king.”

Cleverly, the TEAM sets up a constellation of imagery that questions its own dramatic weight. Set in the plains, near “contested La- kota territory,” and starring Teddy Roosevelt (arguably the greatest American imperialist) and Elvis (arguably the greatest appropriator of Black culture), we are constantly reminded of the long history of white people stealing from people of color. So even as we burrow into the scarred, wretched psyche of Ann, the butch white factory worker who has no means to articulate her gender identity or ascend beyond her boring life, we know that even she is more privileged than many. And even Elvis, her working class hero, could not have become king without the same sense of white entitlement that won South Dakota for the United States. (As Mos Def says, “Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul / Chuck Berry is rock n’ roll.”)

At one point, Brenda says to Ann, “You’re remarkably unbrave.” Later, the same actress (as Teddy Roosevelt) tells Elvis, “I’m sorry if my superiority offends you!” What I love about this piece is that this same perspective has equal moments of credibility and cartoon. In one moment, a character will convince you that you should try harder, strive higher, and achieve tremendous things for your own legacy; then the play turns on a dime and makes people who do such things seem like ridiculous, over-compensating fools. And between those poles, we see the real meat of ambition, and the real questions that haunt a yearning soul: How can I speak for myself? Do I deserve what I want? Does my success require another person’s failure?

With an appropriately ambitious range of emotional lenses and theatrical conceits, RoosevElvis offers to us, as striving humans in various states of success and failure, what Brenda cannot easily offer Ann: kindness, warmth, and, ultimately, empathy.

Article by Dan Fishback, a playwright from New York City, and director of the Helix Queer Performance Network. Time Out New York called his play The Material World “the best downtown musical in years,” and one of the Top 10 Plays of 2012. He is currently working on a new album with his band Cheese On Bread and a new play about a Jewish American family trying to reconcile its political dispute over Israel/Palestine. 

This article originally appeared in the A.R.T. Guide, published by the American Repertory Theater.

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