A disenchanted anti-war movement splinters into squabbling factions. Bombs go off. A liberal presidential candidate is felled. U.S. society is left reeling. Echoes of the late 1960s? Perhaps … For Lauren Ferebee, this is the setting for Somewhere Safer, her play that explores the inner lives of nine people from across the contemporary worlds of politics, media and activism who are affected by an act of political violence. Well-received during August’s New York International Fringe Festival, the play also offers competing understandings of the individual’s responsibility to society without taking sides.
“When you get to a place where you feel like you know the answer, and you’re just putting your solution onstage, there’s nothing interesting there,” said the Texas-born, Brooklyn-based playwright. Ferebee recently spoke with The Indypendent about the thinking that went into Somewhere Safer, what she’s working on next and the competing influences of art and activism in her life.
David Meadow: What were some elements you drew on to create the world and characters of Somewhere Safer?
Lauren Ferebee: After the debt-ceiling crisis [of 2011], which kind of sparked the whole play, I was just really, really angry, I would say. I thought, ‘We have a country that is in crisis, and they’re getting paid to not do their jobs — and we elected them.’ At that moment, I thought, ‘This is a watershed moment in government, where we now have definitive proof that our government does not represent our best interests.’
Then there was the Occupy movement. I was very inspired by a lot of the people that I met and practices like the human microphone, which was empowering for people, no matter what they were saying, to know that whether other participants agreed with them or not, that they were listening and cared about what the speaker was saying.
The third thing that influenced the play was a feature article I read in Time online about 20-somethings in the Obama administration. The article played into a kind of liberal glamorization of young, very privileged kids who have become entrenched in the Washington political system and are able to party until late at night and wake up at four in the morning to start working from their Blackberries. There’s an unreality of being able to live that life, because there’s an extreme privilege at work there — wanting to project an image that you are superhuman, that you can do anything.
DM: The unthinking acceptance of privilege can take its toll on progressive social movements as well.
LF: It doesn’t work for someone who already has a tremendous amount of privilege, to decide that they are the mouthpiece for people that have less privilege — that don’t have a voice in society. Just as it doesn’t work for me to sit here and be the voice of all women everywhere — because I’m not, and I don’t know what a lot of women go through, and I have a certain level of privilege myself being white and having gone to a liberal arts college.
DM: When you produce a work of art that embraces political themes, how do you avoid making it feel preachy or didactic?
LF: The thing that I try most to do is make sure that I’m not just representing one side of any issue. In Somewhere Safer, it was really important to me that it wasn’t just a bunch of liberal people who were really intelligent, and no one else. For example, The Newsroom comes across as being really preachy and didactic to me, because it’s essentially someone — Aaron Sorkin — saying, “This is what I would have done if I were in the position to do something about this.” When you get to a place where you feel like you know the answer, and you’re just putting your solution onstage, there’s nothing interesting there.
DM: What advice do you have for those on the Left who want to examine right-wing media and keep it interesting?
LF: Don’t limit yourself to just what’s mainstream. If you just watch Jon Stewart, and your understanding of right-wing media is the clips that he’s pulling from Fox, you’re never going to understand why right-wing people believe what they believe. I would say to really educate yourself — not just with people now, but with the history of what conservatism is — on what the right wing has been. Actually, “Up, Simba!” which is an essay by David Foster Wallace about McCain’s primary campaign in 2000, is a fascinating look into how conservatives think. McCain was super, super conservative — he still is — but a lot of us forget that conservatives were much more excited about him in 2000.
DM: I once saw an interview with Noam Chomsky where he expressed fascination with the people who call in to Rush Limbaugh and say, “I’ve done everything right. I’ve played by the rules, I’ve worked hard, and my life is going to shit.” He said the message is very consistent.
LF: Yeah, a lot of people feel that way, and they’re not all right-wing people. I was just reading in The New York Times this morning that something like 6 percent of normal people feel like, economically, the country’s gotten better since 2008 while 40 percent of people in the top 1 percent of wealth believe things have improved.
DM: How do you balance purely political work with art?
LF: When you have urgent situations like fracking, and income inequality, and cities going bankrupt, I question myself about whether art is an efficient or effective way of dealing with any of those situations. Still, I would definitely say I am more of an artist than an activist.
In theater, you can enter into a world with someone and sympathize with them in a way that if someone talked to you about that person from a political perspective, you might not ever engage with them. When I walk into a play, I’m ready to sit there and sympathize with people on stage, whether they’re foreign to me, or whether I know them as characters very well. Art has the ability to change people’s minds in a way that politics — just — doesn’t.
DM: What are you working on now?
LF: I’m working on a play called Blood Quantum. It’s a reference to the minimum amount of ancestry required to qualify as a member of the Cherokee nation. According to a story in our family, we have ancestry among some of the Cherokee who live in East Texas. I’m going to be going there soon for research, to talk to the local people and see how we might create something with the goal of putting on a production there.
DM: Tell me more about the process you’re going through now as you write your next play.
LF: I keep journals and stuff — research journals — when I’m working on things, and a lot of times, when I start doing something I don’t know why. I like to work with clues and hints at what will turn out, like a mystery novel, because it’s more interesting to me. I enter a generative phase where I collect photographs and images, go see exhibits, talk to people, read books, and then I’ll write something and then I’ll go back to doing that generative phase again. It’s hard, because sometimes you feel like you’re getting off-course. And you’re like, “I should be sitting down to write!”
DM: I take it that when you have this profound nagging in you to pursue a particular direction, you kind of have to trust that.
LF: Yeah, it leads you sometimes to strange places. You’ll put something in a play and just be, like, “I don’t know — I just think that that belongs in there” — and then it’ll take a while to connect the dots and understand it. But then, in the end, it all seems to work out somehow.
For more, see laurenferebee.com.