A Late 20th Century Political Morality Tale
Although Charles Waxberg, Artistic Director of Theatre 9/12, always presents thought-provoking plays, enhanced by his inspirational direction and staging, his production of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, was by far the most stimulating play I have seen there. A whole library could be filled with discussions about the psychological issues, the class conflict and now since it is almost 30 years after it was written, the historical background.
The play opened off-Broadway in 1990, a year so significant, it hardly needs elaboration. On February 11 of that year, Nelson Mandela, head of the African National Congress (ANC) and future president of South Africa was released after 27 years in prison, by S.A. President F.W. DeKlerk. Through-out the 1980’s there had been movements all over the world, particularly in the U.K. and the U.S. by governments, charities, churches, institutions, individuals and especially universities to “divest” of any and all South African investments, in order to put external pressure on the government of S.A. to end apartheid.
For example, the U.S.’s first African-American president, Barak Obama, got his start in politics at Occidental College through his involvement in this movement. In the U.S. the perception was that the minority White South Africans, led by the Afrikaaner Nationalists, were so intransigent, that it would only lead to a very nasty civil war, immense bloodshed and the expulsion of all the whites from South Africa. Blessedly, it did not happen that way, but in 1990, and as the play opened, no one at the time knew that.
In those days, it really was not considered morally acceptable for anybody to do business with South Africa, at all. Even industries such as wine, which were not the most exploitive of the native African majority, were boycotted, but the gold industry was something else entirely.
The mining of diamonds and gold had made South Africa the country that it is. From ancient times to 1989, the South African mines produced more than 40% of all the gold that had ever been mined, in the world. However, as a result of certain geological factors, like having the world’s deepest mines, extracting gold in South Africa is much more labor intensive and costly than elsewhere, so that the only way it had ever been profitable was to ruthlessly exploit thousands of Native Africans, in horrendously unsafe conditions. Thus there is an important historical context as the play opens.
John Guare opens the play as an upper-East side dwelling Manhattan couple, are having a hissy fit because they have been the “victims” of an African American con-man. In this scene, as in others, they voice their inner monologues to the audience in between re-enacting the “scenes”.
Charles Waxberg had a stroke of genius because he chose to stage this play in the round; the actual “action” when the characters interacted with each other was done in a small inner circle in the middle of a larger circle. The characters voiced their inner monologues directly to the audience from the outer circle. It was a brilliant way to differentiate which spoken words were inner monologues and which were directed at the other characters. Also it allowed the actors to connect intimately with the whole audience, rather than just the front row, as would have happened, had the play been performed on a proscenium stage.
The couple, then re-enact what had happened to make them upset. Flan and Ouisa Kitteridge were busy getting ready to take, Geoffry, a South African “friend/business acquaintance,” (who just happens to be the owner of extensive gold mines with 70,000 employees) out to dinner hoping that he will put up $2 million (a lot of money in those days.) so that Flan, a high-end art dealer, can buy a Cézanne and re-sell it to the Japanese, thereby making a tidy profit for both of them. In other words Flan is directly helping to prop up the South African economy and apartheid, at a time when every right thinking person and institution was trying to dismantle it N.B. even Princess Diana visited Nelson Mandela in jail on Robben Island)
As they plot and explain to the audience that they really are NOT taking advantage of the friendship, while at the same time getting excited about pulling off the deal, the doorman brings in an attractive young African American, Paul, who appears to have just been stabbed, mugged and “divested” of his wallet and briefcase with his Harvard thesis etc.
In the ensuing panic, he claims to know the couple’s two children and various details about the family and their apartment. (like the Kandinsky hanging on the wall) In short, he plays them and the South African guest like a violin. With Paul’s help, Flan is able to pull off the loan and seal the deal.
However, it all ends badly, when they realize the next morning, that the money they have loaned him was spent on a gay tryst with a hustler and they begin to doubt that A) he really is Sidney Poitiers son and B) that he could really get them parts in
Poitiers next movie
When they learn that almost the exact same situation happened to other friends, they are able to track down the “connection” and take some action. However, the police won’t waste their time because no real crime was committed.
That is until Paul fleeces a more economically vulnerable couple with horrendous consequences. Paul has picked the wrong couple because the woman is not as easily emotionally manipulated, has some boundaries and has had to actually work hard for the money her boyfriend gave Paul.
In the end, Ouisa, knowing that she has been taken advantage of, knowing that Paul has done some dastardly things, still tries to help him and reveals her own vulnerabilities. She is emotionally disconnected from everyone around her, her husband, her nasty overly privileged children and herself. From the beginning she seems to have been functioning on a starvation diet of spiritual and emotional self-worth. So she was an easy target for a psychopath, and compared to the young couple, she got off lightly.
The whole personal dynamics of Flan and Ouisa moral lapses in taking tainted money from an exploiting South African gold-mine owner, allowed them to be prey for another kind of exploitation. Paul, the con-man is probably a psychopath or someone who has no moral conscience. Flan and Ouisa, in contrast are probably sociopaths; that is to say, they have consciences, but their inner Jimminy Crickets are not as strong as their greed and need for self-aggrandizement.
In a monologue at the end, Ouisa discusses what is called Network Theory by mathematicians, physicists and sociologists. Originally set out by Frigyes Karinthy in 1929, it is the idea that all living things and everything else in the world is six or fewer steps away from each other so that a chain of “a friend of a friend” statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps.
Paul’s connection to the first two couples he fleeces is an illustration of Network Theory because they discover that it was one of their daughter’s high school classmates, who had divulged all the information to Paul, illustrating less than six degrees of separation, when the connection looked random.
Network Theory might just as easily be called six degrees of connection; indeed Guare’s play is really a tango of connection and separation. The Kittredges children are “connected” to them biologically, financially and physically but so separated emotionally, that Ouisa, their mother, has to turn to a total psychopath for ersatz emotional connection. Pathetically, she is so emotionally starved that she is willing to settle for that.
Another historically interesting thing about the play Six Degrees of Separation is the timing of the premier. 1990 was also the “premier” of the world wide web, which irrevocably changed the concept of Network Theory because it and its progency, facebook etc. tightened the connections between people all over the world.
Speaking of the world wide web and the electronic communication revolution, watching this play in 2017, is a bit like watching Mad Men, one cannot avoid noticing how differently this situation would play out today. Nowadays, the parents would have just texted their children and said-do you know this guy, should we let him in? They would have been able to look up Sydney Poitier on Wikipedia and identify this stranger.
John Guare as a wordsmith is to be congratulated, and given the number of awards this play has received I’m sure he has. Both the dialogue and the inner monologues are witty, funny and catch all the quirky characteristics of New Yorkers. Under Charles Waxberg’s excellent direction, the superb cast knew exactly how to make the script come alive, and how to engage the audience. As a matter of fact, my curmudgeonly companion that evening asked me how Charles Waxberg could get so many good actors into just one play. Indeed!
The two leads, Terese Diekhans and Michael Oaks were more than up to the task as they portrayed very uptight but malleable prey. Dmitri Woods as Paul, the conman was extremely good, but needs to work on his diction, working in the round is difficult at the best of times and at times he mumbled or spoke too fast. However, his Holden Caufield monologue was delivered well.
J. Samuel Cowan delivered the most stunning monologue as Rick, the male half of the young couple fleeced by Paul the con-man. Cowan was able to convey the emotional tangle the con-man had tied him in.
Credit goes to Charles Waxberg, his directorial touches were everywhere, from the simple yet elegant set, to the decision to stage it in the round, the quick pacing of the dialogue, the honesty of the actors and of course the choice of an interesting thought-provoking play. As an extra bonus, the price is right, pay what you can!!!!!
Six Degrees of Separation. Theatre 9/12. 609-8th Ave. Trinity Episcopal Church, Seattle ( First Hill, corner of 8th and James) Fri, Sat 8 pm. Sun 2 pm. Thru, Feb 19 Tickets: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2724302, to reserve a Pay What You Can Ticket. www.Theatre9/12.org