One of the most prominent discussions in the teaching of literature in high school is what makes a work worthy of review, thought, and criticism. In other words, why study To Kill a Mockingbird instead of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (or whichever)? The more I engage with good literature and even-better scholars of that literature, the more I begin to think it has to do with the questions we ask about people. While I will admit to the all-night read-a-thon that would happen when a new Harry Potter novel hit the shelves, I will also admit that there is nothing surprising or even intriguing about the characters and the choices they make. I can still remember reading the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and thinking (spoiler alert; although, at this point, really?) Harry, you do not need to dump Ginny simply because you are the hero. It was about as close to blatant formula as one can get. On the Mockingbird side of things, people are still mystified at the existence of non-racists in a town, community, or family of them; what makes people like Atticus rise above prejudice to do his best for a man whose social status has not changed that much since slavery?
This aspect of characters who puzzle us leads me to what I have recently decided must be my number one criterion for a novel, play, or poem to be considered worthy of critical reflection: does it make me ask questions that I could only answer in the span of a lifetime (and, if I am honest, multiple lifetimes)? I had the privilege recently of seeing a new theatrical piece at the Atlas theatre in Washington, D.C.: Caleen Sinette Jennings's Not Enuf Lifetimes. Before I go any further, here is what the website for The Welders, a DC playwriting collective with an excellent mission, says about the play:
It’s 2004, and Frank Riley—a well-meaning, white 50-something car mechanic—can’t understand why his son Ian dropped out of medical school to live and work in what he considers the ghetto. When Ian disappears, Frank must enter Ian’s world in order to find him. He must learn to communicate with Dante, Ian’s black roommate, and Manjit, Ian’s South Asian girlfriend. He must figure out whether Ronnie Holmes, Ian’s black protégé from the projects, could also be Ian’s killer. Most importantly, Frank must figure out why the child of his heart walked away from the life Frank worked so hard to give him. This exploration of rifts and potential bridges between the Boomer and Hip Hop generations features a hip hop-inspired structure with rhymes and music.The play says one thing outright: Caleen Sinette Jennings loves people. In her profile on the The Welder's website, she declares that she is a Welder because "a welder doesn't talk a lot. A welder looks and listens." The people that exist on the stage truly do exist; they have so many facets and contradictions of being that build into the beautiful complications of their relationships. Few of the characters are likable from the start, much like we all are. But as the layers are peeled away, not one character exists as a type. There are moments when characters seem headed for the territory of stereotype, but then Jennings's words transform them in the space of a single utterance.
And those utterances can carry a power that seems unlikely given their brevity. There is a line from Dante, Ian's successful programmer roommate, about the type of hip-hop heard popularly. In response to Frank's denigration of the form, focused on all of the worst aspects of gangster rap, Dante simply replies that that type of hip-hop plays to something in the popular culture, creating greater divisions and keeping the money in the same pockets that have always had it (I am not quoting this line because my paraphrase is far clunkier than the way it came out on stage). It was one of those instances where a line comes out that so pithily synthesizes something you knew but could not articulate.
Even more powerful are the lyrics of Ronnie Holmes, the young father who works hard to take care of his mother and daughter while he tries to survive the Glendale projects. The lines he spits with Ian from his composition book reveal a man yearning to live his dreams, but dealing with the disappointment of failing to realize them. The frustration and righteous anger come through in each syllable, providing an interesting counterpoint to the manically optimistic Ian.
As the play closed, I found myself invested in the futures these characters might have ahead of them (which is no small feat in a show with no intermission). I could easily imagine teaching this play for the questions it was already generating as I left the theatre: What does it mean to love one's children? How can we best teach our children to live in the world? How can they best teach us to do the same? Where is the line between patronizing and supporting? My head just kept spinning. What I could say for certain is that this play taught me, again, the value of love over all other concerns. What is a better message than this with which to send students out into the world? Another very good question.
Not Enuf Lifetimes is still on stage and I would encourage you to go and see it if you can. Click the link here to get details.