I wanted to be in a play, which partly explains how I ended up surrounded by scattered bits of Chex Mix and sticky tomato seeds on the floor of the JE Theater, wearing only a large red turtleneck, pretending to be dead.
One of my favorite parts about Yale is that any student, regardless of experience or externally determined talent, can put on a show. Every residential college offers Creative and Performing Arts (CPA) Awards to fund the presentation of your folk-rap opera, or your reimagined “Macbeth,” or the four-hour play you wrote and can’t bear to edit. And some of the best theater I’ve ever seen was presented by students, in the halls of Calhoun and Trumbull, with the help of the CPA Awards. The whole point of funding college theater is to give students the chance to take risks and experiment on stage. I’m a big fan of that mission, particularly after being in a play that took experimentation to a whole new level.
“Osama Play” was meant to be an anti-capitalist, anti-hegemonic, queer, class-conscious musing on consumption, toothpaste, texting and other things. According to the director, everyone in the audience should become aware of their place in society while watching the show.
I was cast in “Osama Play” as “Tomato et al.” At our first read-through, I learned that the Tomato should be the “consumer object, personified.” I’m totally down with personifying consumer objects. As I read aloud my two long monologues, I tried to think about how I might feel if someone was trying to buy me off a purple cardboard container at Stop and Shop. At one point Tomato says, “And it is understandable to me that on this walk, I am a walk.” And later: “I love to mystify in front of a burrito and ponder terrorism critically.” I asked the playwright what Tomato’s story was. Did I have a family? Did I have a background or a future? No one could tell me who I was.
Still, there was a lot of action in the play. Most notably, every character made out with at least one other character. I was supposed to lock lips with a character named “Twinkie.” It was unclear whether Tomato loved Twinkie or if our characters were just drawn to each other because we were both consumer objects personified.
We practiced and practiced. We talked about whether this was a play or a poem or a flame of brilliant light. The playwright told me I should say all my lines without taking a breath between the words. The artistic director asked if she could film me squirting ketchup into my mouth so she could play the tape behind my monologues and I said no.
And then, it was time for the show.
The house was packed for each of our performances. Two of my friends couldn’t get a seat inside the theater and had to watch the entire play (which was only about half an hour long) through the window to the left of the lighting booth.
The character of Osama starts the play by screaming, “There is toothpaste here, and I love it!” at the top of his lungs as he strides down the stairs. For my first monologue, I took real tomatoes and tore them apart, throwing the pulpy red chunks against the wall and across the floor as the audience looked on. Then we chanted and threw carnations at the audience and watched a cowboy/child try to build a house out of chairs; at the end, we got shot, crumpled to the ground and stayed there until the entire audience left.
On the last day, as I lay on the floor, my arms splayed to both sides and my red turtleneck Tomato costume riding up my thighs, I wondered what I had done. One of my housemates had already started referring to me exclusively as “little tomato,” and I guessed it wouldn’t be long until other people followed suit.
But, as I waited for the last of my baffled friends to leave the theater so I could stand up and pick the tomato pieces out of my hair, I found myself being grateful for that CPA Award. Experimenting is a good thing, even if it leaves you on the floor, wondering what it means to be in a play.