The first thing I noticed when walking to the HERE Art Center in Tribeca last month—besides the fact that I was beginning to break a sweat in February—was a crowd of mostly white, middle-aged, New York literati types. This may seem like an irrelevant detail in the context of a theater review, but given the meta-textual experiment that is Travis Russ’ America is Hard to See, the audience is as much a part of the play as the actors and the set. In his latest production from Life Jacket Theater Company, the plot has a clever way of entangling us into a world we would much rather keep at a safe geographical and mental distance, while simultaneously laying bare our perverse cultural appetite for the spectacle of criminality.
Based on hours of transcribed interviews compiled by a team of artists-turned-researchers, this piece of documentary playwriting provides a complicated–and at times sympathetic–glimpse into the lives of one of the most loathed groups in American society: registered sex offenders. In a remote rural community in southern Florida, unironically named Miracle Village, we encounter what appears on the surface to be Anytown USA, a place as remarkable as it is ordinary. That is until you remember that the actors are based on real people who have been convicted of real sex crimes.
The set is minimal, comprised of nothing more than an empty stage and a few chairs and musical instruments that weave in and out of the scenes to accompany old church hymns and folksy original songs from Priscilla Holbrook. Likewise, the troupe is small (just six actors deep) yet packed with formidable talent.
After opening with a brief description of the mundane aspects of life in small-town America–the characters laugh, for instance, when they tell us, “There’s only one stoplight in the whole town!”–we start to slowly get bits and pieces of the characters’ backstories. Each of the men interviewed for the play has already served time behind bars in different parts of the country. Now that they’re out, life beyond prison walls isn’t exactly free. State and local laws placing residency restrictions on the distance convicted sex offenders can live from a school, for example, means that the men of Miracle Village are sentenced to a decade of banishment in this secluded town, during which time they are forced to wear GPS tracking devices on their ankles and are prohibited from crossing the county line.
While all of the town’s inhabitants face the same punishment, the crimes which have brought them to this point are as different as the characters are from each other. There is Chris (David Spadora), for example, a handsome 22-year-old who, although he may be an adult in the eyes of the law, still carries himself with the awkwardness of a teenager. We learn that he was caught having sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend in the back of his car. Although he claims the couple had the blessing of the girl’s parents and that he thought she was older, there is no room for moral ambiguity when it comes to statutory rape.
When sitting next to Thomas (John Carlin) during court-mandated weekly therapy sessions–a man who admits to sexually molesting his step-granddaughter when she was a small child–you get the sense that the two men do not belong in the same room together. Is there room for nuance in a penal system that has lumped these vastly different situations into the same category?–you start to wonder.
That we are a culture obsessed with crime stories, and with sex crimes more specifically, is no secret.
Arguably the most tragic of the characters, however, is Chad, expertly portrayed by Ken Barnett. In an irresistibly charming Southern drawl, he walks us through his past as a high school choir teacher. His passion for music and drive to impart that gift to students is immediately obvious in the way his eyes light up when he talks about teaching. Then as soon as he starts talking about one male student, in particular, his zealousness quickly turns into something else, something intensely felt yet forbidden.
When the student’s father discovers the affair, he confronts Chad and threatens to go to the authorities if he doesn’t resign immediately. Coming from a staunchly conservative Christian community, he decides that the only logical thing to do is give it the old vice-presidential go and check into a gay conversion therapy program. Chad’s own naiveté–that there is any future for his illicit love for the student; that praying-the-gay-away could ever effectively rechannel his uncontrollable desires; or, most ignorantly, that honesty was the best policy at the ex-gay facility–is what ultimately lands him in prison and condemns him to a life on the sex offender registry.
As the drama unfolds, each character unwittingly draws you into his world. The effect of their nuanced portrayals allows for a momentary suspension of disbelief, carrying you along with the spell of good acting. But Russ’s script doesn’t let you revel in the charm for long. A hyperawareness of the audience permeates the play, and just as you start to settle in and get comfortable, characters interrupt the action to address the audience directly–calling out all of us New York literati types for our intrusive demand to know every gruesome detail of their private lives. “Is all of this going to go into the play?” one character asks nervously. The effect is disarming, leaving you feeling more of an accomplice than a spectator.
The most uncomfortable moment comes when a background narrator reads from a police transcript detailing the lurid sex acts Chad allegedly committed. Growing more distressed and pleading with the researcher to turn off the recorder, he yells “Stop! Stop! Just stop!” The moment leaves you squirming in your seat as Chad’s shame is projected onto the audience and the lines of consent are inexorably blurred. If this were an ethnographer conducting research in the field, an Internal Review Board would guard against such gross ethical infractions, but Russ’ indifferent narrator continues undeterred by Chad’s public humiliation. The quasi-inmate status of Chad and the other characters demands a certain performance of pain and remorse. In this way, the artistic license Russ and company take with the play’s hostage subjects turns us all into the predators we have paid to entertain us.
This play of yours, it’s filled with… what do you call it? Unreliable narrators.
The “sex offender” is a recent socio-legal construct. The Wetterling Act and Megan’s Law, which both helped create the conditions for the emergence of Miracle Village and other communities like it, date back to the wave of criminal justice reform measures adopted by Congress in 1994. Since that time, a number of laws passed at both the state and local levels have cast a wider net encompassing an increasingly larger group of people under the sex offender category. The consequences, according to Roger Lancaster, an anthropology and cultural studies professor and author of Sex Panic and the Punitive State, have been devastating. “Such provisions were promoted as applying to the ‘worst of the worst’ like child rapists and violent repeat offenders,” he writes in an op-ed for The New York Times. “In practice, they turn expansive classes of people into pariah outcasts who can never be reintegrated back into society.”
That we are a culture obsessed with crime stories–and with sex crimes in particular–is no secret. Dateline’s long-running series To Catch a Predator and Fox News host Nancy Grace are but two examples of the sex panic genre that quickly come to mind. Fueled by sensationalized media reports, such knee-jerk legislation not only fails to combat sexual violence but also has been shown, ironically enough, to encourage recidivism. With no hopes of re-entering society post-conviction, registered sex offenders have nothing to lose.
The omniscient narrator of America is Hard to See, absent throughout the play, fills in as the public’s moral compass—one that by the closing scene is exposed as glaringly bankrupt. Despite his thorny relationship to the ethics of documenting real life, Russ brilliantly questions the artificial divide between fiction and reality, participant and observer, and indeed, between lies and the truth itself. “This play of yours, it’s filled with… What do you call it? Unreliable narrators,” the town’s court-appointed social worker interrupts during a particularly intense group therapy session. Is this drama or investigative journalism, entertainment or another example of “fake news”? And how can anyone tell the difference?
The audience cannot walk away from this piece without feeling incredibly uncomfortable and morally compromised on so many levels. Either this is a testament to the brilliance of the play or an indictment of its lack of accountability to its subjects. Whatever the case may be, the questions it ultimately poses and stubbornly refuses to answer provide a necessary antidote to the moral posturing characterizing the landscape of American politics today.
In her classic essay written in 1984, ((Rubin, Gayle. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. edited by Carole S. Vance, Routledge, 1984.)) feminist scholar Gayle Rubin presciently warned, “Moral panics rarely alleviate any real problem because they are aimed at chimeras and signifiers.” In this heartbreaking piece, Travis Russ puts the spotlight directly on the chimeras and simultaneously obfuscates what exactly they signify. That is the real driving force behind the play, a force not easily forgotten after the curtain is drawn and our eyes look away from the stage. America, it seems, is indeed very hard to see.
America is Hard to See ran from January 30 to February 24, 2018, at the HERE Art Center in New York City. Still thirsty for more? Click here for an interview from NPR with the director and cast.
A version of this article appeared on the Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide blog on March 26, 2018, under the title: “A Play About America’s Most Loathed Group.”
© 2018 ZACH SHULTZ ALL RIGHTS RESERVED