Yale School of Drama

Who is the subject of “Really,” a play from which Jackie Sibblies Drury ’03 read at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library on Thursday? It is a question without an obvious answer and one that the play deals with ironically.

In the first of two excerpts Drury read, one woman photographs another. The subject talks nervously as the artist shoots. Is the photographic subject also the theatrical subject? Perhaps. But we learn a great deal about the listener through the speaker,whose rambling is generated by those qualities in the other woman that make her self-conscious: the other’s youth, artistic ambition, blackness, aloofness.

Does holding a camera make one audience or performer? As Girlfriend adjusts Mother’s body, twisting her into awkward positions, she is no passive documenter of her surroundings. And soon, a third subject comes into focus: Calvin, recently dead. The young woman was his girlfriend, the older woman, his mother.

The two are differentiated by what they look for in a photograph. “Mother” explains that she expects to look pretty, but she’s anxiously aware that artists are after something different. She half-accepts this, saying, “that’s the difference between you and me.” Of course, she also throws up defenses: “I do believe,” she declares, “there’s nothing wrong with being pretty.” Elsewhere: “I like to be nice.”

But is nice enough? Did she settle for too little? She mutters about having needed, during her marriage, to “trick myself into believing I was in control.” Nice wasn’t enough for Calvin, an artist who chose Girlfriend over her. What did Calvin think of his mother? She is self-involved, after a long monologue asking, “How are you? Did I ask you that?” But soon she’s on the topic of her new gym.

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In the second excerpt, humor arises from a simple reversal: Mother holds the camera.

She can’t figure out how to look through it, though. Girlfriend coaches her: “You see a frame around what you see? And it’s all surrounded by black, right?”

The confused negotiation is a fast, elaborate, hilarious back-and-forth of the sort that suffuses Drury’s play “We are Proud to Present,” the 2017 Yale Dramatic Association Mainstage. Mother manages to take a picture, but “it’s so much harder than my point-and-shoot.” The basic mechanics of the conceit are obvious: The two see the world through different lenses. The older white woman finds looking through the younger black woman’s eyes bewildering, disorienting.

Finally, Girlfriend tells us how she feels. She’s torn between artistic self-involvement and her obligations to others, the giant set of moral concerns she wants to resolve but flounders in the face of. “It’s not an uncommon thing to be alone, to be unhappy,” she tentatively concludes. “To fail and fail and fail.”

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Ramón Saldívar GRD ’77, a Stanford English professor, spoke at Yale on Wednesday, presenting research from his lab, which fed a few novels into a software program, producing bizarre results that he struggled to interpret in convincing or compelling ways. The audience, in their questions, seemed unimpressed by this instantiation of the “digital humanities.” It seemed like another example of Palo Alto technologism: an effort to apprehend that most human of documents, the novel, with a clunky algorithm. Given the sway of the technological and the quantitative in our culture, its mixing with literary studies feels cynical or coerced. The humanities are bending with corporate winds.

Against this backdrop, even Drury’s brief introductory remarks were refreshing. She read long character descriptions for Mother and Girlfriend, explaining that, since the play’s dialogue is minimal, “I thought I could get wordy behind the scenes.” And the play itself, despite all the abstractions I’ve lain over it, is light-footed and spare, funny and quiet.

In a scene Drury didn’t read, Calvin appears, and the three wander across divisions of past and present, imagination and memory. In this sense, the work fits Saldívar’s thesis: Young writers are “reconceiving the way race affects formations of history” and “deforming realism discursively” in order to do so. But “Really” uses the resources of theater, not of any other enterprise. Its people are intimate with one another, insecure, dignified, by turns fast and slow to speak, sociable and inward-facing.

Contact Jacob Potash at jacob.potash@yale.edu .