Do you remember when Michelle Obama cut her bangs? Of course you do. This inane conversation topic was part of our national dialogue for weeks. Did she look better with or without? What did it say about her femininity? And more important, her blackness?
Playwright Meridith Friedman finds this microscopic scrutiny absurd, which is part of the reason it became the perfect backdrop for her new play, The Firestorm, which opens at Kitchen Dog Theater Friday, May 22. Alhough it takes place in the context of a political campaign, Friedman says she actually wanted to write a play about relationships.
"I was interested in exploring why we hide in relationships and what happens when unpleasant and scary truths are forced out into the open," Friedman says. "Then I started thinking it would be interesting to explore this in a political context where there is such a need to manufacture who you are and emphasize certain things and push other things to the side."
Set in Ohio, Patrick Henderson (Cameron Cobb) is hot on the gubernatorial campaign trail with his Ivy League-educated, attorney wife, Gaby (Kenneisha Thompson). He's white, she's black. They're an interracial power couple who look good on paper and in photographs. But even in post-Obama America, their marriage is at once a selling point and a weak spot, according to their campaign manager, Leslie (Janielle Kastner). To complicate things, Patrick wasn't the most open-minded fraternity brother during his college years, and a prank from his past doesn't just threaten his campaign, but also his marriage.
If the plot reads like something pulled straight from the headlines, that's because Friedman did her research. She spent two months in Michigan reading everything she could get her hands on and interviewing political advisers and women who'd been in similar situations to Gaby.
"I was reading articles after Obama was elected and people were theorizing things like, What if he were married to a different woman? She's not even running for office but she was just as torn apart as he was," says Friedman, who found the situation to be more common than she expected. "I also wanted to look at how race plays out in politics."
This was a more complicated issue for her to tackle, because Friedman is white and she's never run for office. She says that during a Dramatist Guild fellowship, her mentor Diana Son (Stop Kiss) wouldn't allow her to toss The Firestorm out. "I kept trying to bring in new plays, and she would ask where this one was. I wanted to forget about it, and she kept telling me, no, you need to write this," Friedman says. She pauses, and then quotes Rainer Maria Rilke, "'Trust in the difficult,' trusting that if I'm feeling nervous, if I'm thinking it's too honest, too raw, then trusting that is the direction to go."
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For Friedman, that's part of the what makes theater such an important form of art: the ability to have open conversations about difficult topics. If the play is about hiding in relationships, she sees this as particularly problematic in conversations about race. "People push any thing that sounds like racism so far away, we're not really able to have any kind of open, frank conversations," Friedman says. "In the context of a theater it feels safe to say things that when you're out for drinks with friends you would not say or admit to, and sometimes when people admit to their own ignorance or privilege a more interesting conversation can happen."
In her emerging career, Friedman hasn't shied away from topics that are challenging. One of her first plays was about a poet who suffers semantic dementia, which Friedman says is probably her biggest fear as a writer, to lose the ability to remember or recognize the meaning of words. But as The Firestorm approaches opening night at Kitchen Dog, which hosts the play as part of the National New Play Network's rolling world premiere, Friedman also fears something else: her first review.
"You can't write a play that everyone is going to like. It's just not possible," Friedman says. Is she nervous? Absolutely. But that's how she likes it.
The Firestorm opens at Kitchen Dog Theater at 8 p.m. Friday, May 22, at The MAC, 3120 Mckinney Ave. Performances continue through June 27. Tickets start at $13. More at kitchendogtheater.org.