My grandma, Tom Stoppard, and the gray

So this is a big one, and I’m hesitant to even do a blog post on it. Sometimes in order to muster up the courage to even begin a complex conversation – I have to be able to give myself permission to just “scratch the surface.”  So here’s my “made from scratch” blog post for a conversation that I will inevitably be having with myself and others for the rest of my life – hopefully it’s not too nails-on-a- chalkboard scratching.

I was struck by the September 7th New York Times article about Tom Stoppard’s latest play Leopoldstadt which opens on Broadway on Oct. 2. The title of the article and tagline read: Tom Stoppard Finally Looks Into His Shadow After years of living “as if without history,” the playwright belatedly reckons with his Jewish roots, and his guilt, in “Leopoldstadt,” his most autobiographical play.

I realize I’m no Tom Stoppard. (Yet!) And to my knowledge, I did not lose any family members in the Holocaust.  What resonates here for me is the creative mirror of identity and family history.  A mirror that all artists must seemingly address at some point in their creative lives, and the tug and pull of this history upon creatives –  to either write against the mirror image – to blur and deflect, or to sit with that reflection and look deeper for clarity.  I think both responses can create significant and important artwork for artists and audiences. 

For 20 years theater colleagues have asked me to write about my Mennonite upbringing.  Those who knew me well enough to know my background, that is.  For a very long time, it wasn’t something that I shared openly. I didn’t find it relevant or I was worried that it would diminish me, and my intelligence and work, into a kind of “curiosity” among theater professionals. 

And quite honestly, I also couldn’t quite see my image in the mirror. I was too close to it.  The mirror was pressed up against the end of my nose.  I could only make out an eye or part of an eye brow. I needed distance to be able to stand back and see my whole self,  the edges and outlines, to gain some perspective on that face in the mirror.

I only really started writing about “my Mennonite-ness” in a direct way in 2019.  But I realize that all of my work before that has been about it in some way. My perceptions of mainstream culture – viewed from the eyes and experiences of the subculture in which I was raised and lived and loved and struggled –  color every work that I’ve created. 

Stoppard says in the article, “I think there’s a way of being consciously in denial, I guess, but also there’s a way of being unconsciously in denial,” Stoppard said. “You don’t know that you’re in denial, so you’re quite happy about being in denial. 

The production photos I’ve seen of Leopoldstadt feature a lush period room in a Vienna home, with characters lit luxuriantly by an opulent chandelier overhead.  It’s beautiful, but also a little dim.  It reminds me of this photo I have of my grandmother studying her Bible in the kitchen of her parent’s farmhouse.  I believe she is studying by candlelight.  You can see the kitchen dry sink behind her.  

I don’t know why this photo was taken or who took it.  (A dear aunt added the Biblical inscription.) It’s true that Mennonites are often weary of photographs, especially during the time that this photo was taken.  I don’t know the details.  It’s part of what makes all of this looking in and looking back on our family histories, the ones that aren’t clearly lit, so difficult.   Sometimes, the edges are blurry.  Most times, it’s complicated. But you are still left with the image and your connections to it in that mirror in front of you –  your eyes reflecting back at you – looking for insights. 

From the article: His cousin Nathan tries to get through to Leo, speaking what Stoppard says is the essential line in the play: “You live as if without history, as if you throw no shadow behind you.”

I often say that people who live with “black and white certainties” are often afraid of the gray in their own shadows.  So cheers to the gray! To carrying our personal candles with us into the dark, and being courageous enough to explore our histories, and the shadows they cast in our lives and in our art.

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