Forty-seven million Americans without health care coverage. Another 40 million with inadequate coverage. Two million medical bankruptcies per year. Soaring premiums and co-pays that can suck many thousands of dollars per year out of family budgets. The sheer enormity of our health care crisis can anesthetize us to the status quo.
For those who go to see Mercy Killers, a one-man play being staged this month by the labor union-backed Working Theater, any such indifference is swept away. The show returns health care to the level of the individual as Broadway veteran Michael Milligan plays Joe, a patriotic, blue-collar American whose pursuit of life, liberty and happiness is suddenly interrupted by his uninsured wife’s cancer diagnosis. Milligan is the play’s author, and healing of a different sort is also on his mind.
“We walk around with an existential experience that we’re ultimately alone if we get sick,” says Milligan. “We are traumatized and don’t know it.”
Ashley Marinaccio: What inspired you to create a piece on the American health care system?
Michael Milligan: Initially it was my own personal experience with the health care system and shepherding one of my dear friends through it after he had a mental breakdown and was homeless and needed medical care. It was astounding to me how difficult it was. Later when I was three weeks into being without health insurance for the first time in my adult life as a professional, I was in the middle of doing a play reading when I started passing kidney stones. I had to excuse myself at intermission. It was horrible. I did what I think a lot of people in America have been doing which is going on webmd.com, sticking in your symptoms and diagnosing yourself. My next Google search was how much it would cost me to go to the emergency room and get an ambulance and that number was around $8,000 for the trip and average emergency room visit for something like that. I stacked Tylenol and Ibuprofen. That night I thought, it’s time to write that play I’ve been thinking about.
I had an awakening experience participating in Occupy Wall Street. That experience was seeing other people who are similar to me, who are struggling and realizing how people get so consumed in their own struggle for survival, whether it’s because of a medical crisis or losing a job, that the idea of joining together in a larger movement doesn’t occur to us because we are just trying to keep our heads above water, and that’s a tragic irony because in many cases that’s what we need to do — is come together and address things as a community. I was arrested at Occupy Wall Street. It was unplanned.
AM: Mercy Killers takes place in an interrogation room. Did your arrest during Occupy inform where you chose to set the play?
MM: It didn’t, but while sitting in jail I had some extraordinary conversations with the other guys who were there — who represented a huge spectrum of people from very young to older, someone from Cape Cod, a special ed teacher from Brooklyn, a former Marine who had been stationed at Guantánamo for four years. Being in there, having conversations and experiencing the huge difference between the reality of Occupy Wall Street and how it was portrayed in the media was a huge awakening. That certainly informed this piece.
Through Occupy Wall Street I was connected to Occupy Town Hall in Central Park and the Health Care for the 99% working group. I met a lot of great people there from Healthcare-Now! and Physicians for a National Health Program and become involved in the organizations. They will be tabling at the show.
AM: What has your process been in creating the show from its inception to now? How has your background in classical theater informed your work?
MM: After Juilliard I took the more traditional path, which is to go do regional theater and audition and sit by the phone and I did have many extraordinary experiences from that. I’ve been writing plays since I was in school, but haven’t been able to get them produced. I was on the treadmill of when I’d be underemployed in NY, I’d do readings of my plays, but then I’d get a job in St. Louis or Charlotte and wasn’t able to properly follow through and create momentum for my writing. That felt unsatisfying. This piece was intentionally written as a one-man show so I could just do it as opposed to wait for someone to come along and do it. And that’s what I did. I’d call up health care activists in the city I was working in and come and do my show. I had such a good time.
AM: Why theater as opposed to TV, film or any other media that’s taken over the world? What do you think people get from theater that they may not from other methods of communication?
MM: I think of myself as a health care worker as there is something about artists that work in the health care of the soul. This play is a purgation of a social sickness that we have, that we’re unaware of. Americans are unaware of the sickness that lies in our psyche and our disregard for one another in how we are treated by the health care system. Things are changing. We walk around with an existential experience that we’re ultimately alone if we get sick. People in other countries don’t walk around like that and we’re completely unaware. I see this play as an exorcism of that deep psychic wound that we carry with us. We are traumatized and don’t know it.
Mercy Killers is being performed through February 2 at the Stella Adler Studio Theater at 31 West 27th St., 2nd Fl. It is also being performed at the United Federation of Teachers Bronx Borough Office February 5-7, 9 and at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 headquarters in Flushing, Queens February 11–16. More information here.
JANUARY/FEBRUARY THEATER LISTINGS
Fire This Time Festival
Featuring New Plays by Emerging African-American Playwrights
Presented by Horse Trade Theater Group
Now in its fifth year, this festival provides a platform for talented early-career playwrights of African and African-American descent to explore new voices, styles and challenging new directions for 21st century performing arts in order to move beyond common misconceptions of what’s possible in “black theater.”
Jan. 20–Feb. 3
The Kraine Theater
85 E 4th St b/w Second Ave & Bowery
Tickets & showtimes are available at horseTRADE.info
Written by Barbara Kahn & Noelle LuSane
Directed by Robert Gonzales, Jr.
Presented by Theater for the New City
Before Orange Is the New Black, women in 1927 were incarcerated in the Women’s Penitentiary on Welfare Island. On what is now Roosevelt Island, the prison became a revolving door for many women from varying ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds who found themselves on the wrong side of the law. A newly-graduated social worker comes face to face with her own biases while she gets to know the prisoners.
Thu–Sat, 8pm; Sun, 3pm
Theater for the New City
155 First Ave
Tickets: $12, available at theaterforthenewcity.net
Written by Mary Kathryn Nagle
Directed by Madeline Sayet
Presented by Amerinda, Inc.
After just one semester away from college, Katie is forced to return home to the Tri-State Mining area to grapple with a debilitating illness. Just as she is diagnosed with a crippling auto-immune disease, the Environmental Protection Agency arrives at her home and finds the yard has high levels of lead. Her father, head of the Tri-State Mining Company, refuses to allow the EPA to remove the contaminated soil. While in the hospital, Katie meets a member of the Quapaw Tribe, forcing her to reconcile her dismissal of her own Native roots. She learns that her illness, as well as her identity, is inextricably woven into the soil of the land.
Tue–Thu, 7:15pm; Fri–Sat, 8:15pm; Sun, 3:15pm
59 E 59th St
Tickets: $18 ($12.60 for 59E59 members), available at 59e59.org or from Ticket Central at 212-279-4200
A Brief History of the Soviet Union
Written by Vladimir Zelevinsky
Directed by Jacques Stewart
Presented by The Hive Theatre
The entire lifespan of the world’s largest country! The mysteries of Lenin’s tomb! The secret of Stalin’s death! The spying techniques of the KGB! All shall be revealed! 100 years of history in 100 minutes! Four actors navigate between an array of juxtaposed Soviets who are living in the thick of some of the most pivotal moments of the past century. Farcical, approachable, sometimes sentimental and always hilarious, A Brief History explores how similar people really are, regardless of how their regime may want them to live.
Jan. 16–Feb. 1
Wed, 8pm; Thu & Fri, 8pm; Sat, 3pm & 8pm; Sun, 3pm
Dorothy Strelsin Theatre
312 W 36th St, 1st Fl
Tickets: $18, available at hivetheatre.brownpapertickets.com or 800-838-3006
Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington
Written by Clare Coss
Directed by Gabrielle L. Kurlander
Presented by Castillo Theatre
Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington captures the two esteemed founders of the NAACP in a moment of crisis in 1915—when Du Bois submits his letter of resignation. Du Bois, educator, human rights activist, African-American visionary leader, and Ovington, a white Unitarian, granddaughter of abolitionists and outspoken justice advocate, spar, flirt, clash, reveal secrets, and compete to save their vital work.
Jan. 17–Feb. 16
Thu–Sat, 7:30pm; Sat & Sun, 2pm
543 W. 42nd St
Tickets: $25 ($20 students/seniors), available at castillo.org
— Listings provided by Robert Gonyo and the Go See A Show! podcast