EDITH starts previews tomorrow, and we’re thinking about family. Staff members have been sending in sweet ’90s pictures of their home and family to use in our lobby display. It’s not too late to be included, too! Send your ’90s photos our way by Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #C1EdithFam.
As tech week begins, and everyone gathers his or her favorite snacks for the tech table, we’re reminded once again about how the idea of comfort food functions in the play. Other posts have discussed the importance of Filipino food as a connector for Edith and Kenny to their heritage and their late mother, but American comfort food plays an important role as well. Midwestern food, specifically, shows up to indicate the journey of the characters and how they’ve grown up and learned to accept parts of their identities that make them feel alien.
For example, Edith tells Kenny how Mrs. Osheyack taught her to make tuna salad sandwiches. Later, when Kenny needs to prove to Edith that he has learned to stop telling lies and using Mother’s stories to get his way, he brings her a tuna salad sandwich, using Edith’s recipe. Likewise, when Benji invites Kenny on a date to burger chain A&W, he significantly tells Kenny that he is partially inviting him out so Kenny can meet Benji’s dad. On their earlier date to Edith’s recital, Benji had shrunk away from Kenny’s attempt at a goodnight kiss in fear of his mother catching them.
Thinking of Midwestern food, hearty, “meat and potatoes” comfort dishes usually come to mind. Midwestern food tends to reflect the regional crops of the farm communities it feeds, so corn, potatoes, soybeans, and wild rice often play a pivotal role. Locally-grown fruit and vegetables often grace Midwestern tables; for example, Rey Pamatmat’s home state of Michigan is known for its blueberries, apples, and cherries. Dairy products and beef are especially prominent in Midwestern cattle-raising states like Indiana and Ohio. Often, Midwestern specialty dishes vary according to the immigrant populations who originally settled the land.
Here are some of our favorite Midwestern comfort food dishes mentioned in EDITH. Click on the pictures for recipes:
Though Benji loves the curly fries at A&W, the chain is more well-known for its root beer floats. (Unfortunately for Benji, curly fries are no longer available on the menu, though cheese fries and cheese curds are.)
And Bostonians hoping to recreate Benji and Kenny’s A&W date will have to travel out of state – the closest A&W is in Rhode Island!
KENNY He didn’t know it was possible to just go home, and that there would be people there, and it would be okay.
In the absence of their parents, Edith and Kenny close ranks to try to protect each other. Dad’s completely checked out, and toward the end of the play, the siblings realize that he may, in his own way, be mourning his wife by distancing his children. The home is a strong symbol of family in the play, and in the last scene, we see Kenny, Edith, and Benji go in to a family dinner without Dad. Unlike their father, the young people manage their grief and broken family by forming a new community and redefining their home and family on their own terms.
Even though EDITH shows the kids dealing positively with their loss, Dad’s grief-stricken situation is one not uncommon among Asian-Americans, especially those who have emigrated to America. C1 board member Elisa gave us a heads up on poet Julie Feng’s thought piece on how Asian-American communities are affected by mental health illnesses such as depression and the attendant stigmas attached to admitting to suffering. Julie links to studies that highlight connections between mental health disorders and factors like immigration, acculturation, assimiliation, and inter-generational trauma.
One interesting connection between these factors and the play is the way Rey plays with the characters’ isolation — Edith and Kenny, though geographically isolated, retain a strong connection to Mother and to their house, land, and Benji; Dad’s isolation keeps growing as he runs from his mistakes and is self-imposed. Feng aligns with Kenny and Edith, advocating connection and communication as ways to combat the stigmatization of mental illness and grief. She says,”Parents, guardians, spouses, siblings, friends, teachers, doctors, and counselors need to be vigilant. They need to believe the people in their lives. This is a problem than can be fixed – as long as we actively decide to do better.” Throughout EDITH, we see the kids strive against all odds to stay together and stay bonded — from Kenny and Benji surreptitiously passing notes in class to Edith breaking out of school to reunite with her brother.
Comparing Edith and Kenny’s continuing connection to their Mother to their fractious relationship with Dad makes this quote by Dr. Lourdes V. Lapuz, a psychiatrist from the University of the Philippines, stand out. Writing about the importance of mothers in Filipino culture, Dr. Lapuz said:
A person grows up in the Filipino culture with one paramount assumption: that he belongs to someone. When he presents his self to others, it is with his family that he is identified. He belongs to the family as a whole as well as to it’s members. Between the parents, there is a further choice as to whom one belongs. Almost always, it is the mother. The loyalty, allegiance and the sense of obligation are stronger with her than with father. One must never cause her hurt or displeasure. The greater attachment to the mother is, of course, inevitable not only because of biological circumstances, but also because of the prolonged intense emotional nurturing of received from her. Here is where to belong gains the meaning of to be loved, cared for, and protected.
Though Dad ends the play unreconciled with his children, Kenny and Edith seem to understand more about themselves and what brought them to this point as the play ends. Kenny leaves open the possibility that Dad will join the family again: “He’ll come in, eventually.”
One of the major arcs in EDITH is Kenny’s journey to recognize that his sister is growing up and to stop trying to use stories as white lies to soften the truth of the siblings’ situation. In the play, Rey questions how and to what end we use stories; in Act II, Kenny attempts to use one of Mother’s stories about a clever turtle and mean-spirited monkey to convince Edith to lay low at her new reform school.
This story, called “Ang Unggoy at ang Pagong” in Tagalog, comes from the Ilocano people of the Philippines and falls into the “animal trickster” tradition of children’s literature. These stories teach children the virtues of patience and cleverness over competition and selfishness. (Another classic example is “The Tortoise and the Hare.”)
“The Monkey and the Turtle” is a popular Filipino folk tale, and its most-recognized version is one written and illustrated by national hero Jose Rizal. Rizal was a polyglot, doctor, and activist who lived from 1861 to 1896. He tended to write manuscripts in several languages, including Spanish and German, which has made translations of his work into English and Tagalog slow to come. His most famous novel was written in Spanish — Noli Me Tangere (The Social Cancer) — and was a call for Filipino nationalism and rebellion against the Spanish government of the nineteenth-century Philippines. Rizal also translated German fairy tales into Tagalog for Filipino children. “Man is multiplied by the number of languages he possesses and speaks,” Rizal once wrote. Because of his outspoken anti-Spanish stance, he was arrested and executed in 1896 at the age of 35.
In this article, British-Filipino journalist, scholar, and comic writer Candy Gourlay details the relationship between colonialism and children’s literature in the Philippines, celebrating Rizal’s version of “The Monkey and The Turtle” as the “perfect picture book.” Her personal anecdote about being a smart, curious child who loved reading but found it hard to find stories that featured characters like herself also touches on themes in EDITH, where Kenny, Edith, and Benji struggle against adults who want to tell them what to do but refuse guidance on how to navigate a world where adults will (in Benji’s words) “throw us out, or throw us away,” instead of accepting who their children are.
Check out this video of Rizal’s story, with his artwork recreated and animated as a flipbook.
Though we never see peripheral characters like Benji’s Mom or Tom and Dina Osheyack, these characters have a life of their own in the descriptions we get from Kenny, Benji, and Edith. Of all these characters, none sums up classic ’90s mean girl like Jemma Lieber, the “brainless perpetual shopping machine” who Benji’s brother seduces to prove his own hetero-masculinity. Jemma also serves as an unseen foil to strong, capable Edith, who would never let a guy tell her what to do.
On this note, here’s arguably the most classic image of ’90s teen girl vapidity, from the 1995 film Clueless.
Though we hope Jemma, like Cher, has a smart, independent streak that she’s just waiting to let out! Benji’s brother? Who needs that guy!
EDITH Fergie. I wish mom was here. Now you sound like Kenny. I know she’s here, like that. But I wish she was here here. Like, not dead. So she could protect us, instead of me.
— For Mother
Today in rehearsal, we continued working on Act I, particularly the climactic moment where Edith shoots, thinking she’s aiming at Benji’s mother. Though it was ironic to think about Edith possibly shooting mothers as we rehearsed on Mother’s Day, the moment brought up thoughts about what Edith’s life will be like without her mother and how the characters in the play deal with Mother’s death, which lends the play a deep, but often unacknowledged, undercurrent of grief.
The events of EDITH are contemporaneous with essayist Hope Edelman’s seminal study of grief in young women — her book Motherless Daughters was published in 1994. Like Edith, Edelman lost her mother to cancer when she was a young girl. The idea for the book grew out of her frustration with the lack of resources for young women dealing with an irrevocable loss. The thesis of the book stated that “losing one’s mother early shapes a woman’s emotional terrain for life.” Edelman wrote that motherless daughters like Edith have “a keen sense of isolation, a sharp awareness of our own mortality, …[and] the strong desire to give our children the kind of mothering we lost or never had. We look elsewhere for nurturing, but don’t know how to receive it. We tend to be hyper-independent, always braced for rejection and unable to ask for help.” Much of these descriptions apply to Edith, whose isolation is increased by her remote surroundings and whose hyper-independence is fed by her perceived need to prove to Kenny that he needs her so he will not abandon her like their father did following Mother’s death.
Each year on Mother’s Day, Edelman publishes an open letter to other motherless daughters. This section especially stood out as evocative of not only Edith’s relationship to her late mother, but as a description of her journey toward becoming a young woman and navigating that path without female role models:
Those of you whose mothers have recently died, who are still immersed in the necessary and normal stage of acute grief – for you, I know, it’s hard to believe that the pain you’re feeling will lessen over time. It takes up so much of you right now, I remember. It may even help you still feel close to your mothers. I remember that part too, and it was hard to let that go. But please, let it go when you’re ready. This sorrow won’t always define you. Mother loss will always be part of your story, but it does not have to be your story. Your story is a gorgeous, unique tale that’s going to be full of highs and lows and pain and happiness, all the things it means to be human. You just got a heavy dose of the hard part too young.
You may feel now that your life will never be the same again. I won’t try to tell you otherwise. You’re right. A mother-sized hole will always exist in your life. But as the author Abigail Thomas has said, eventually you get used to never getting used to it. You recognize it as part of what has made you, you, and then you’re ready to move forward with that part integrated into your beautiful, complicated whole. This is the highest form of acceptance, I think.
Edelman’s complete open letter can be read here.
American Theatre Magazine must love us because they talk about us all the time! Check out a profile of Rey and his new play AFTER ALL THE TERRIBLE THINGS I DO, which will make its New England premiere this month with our friends over at the Huntington Theatre Company. The article focuses on Rey’s use of storytelling in the play, and two things really stick out in relationship to EDITH.
“When you see plays by people of color or by people who are queer, a lot of times the play is about race or about sexuality—but in the stuff I write, it’s not that those elements are ever absent, but that’s just not usually what the play is about. It’s just a significant aspect of the action.”
First, this quote by Rey expresses much of what we find compelling about EDITH — that Edith, Kenny, and Benji happen to be many things (young, queer, neglected, Filipino, Midwestern, nerds, a crack shot) and that all these things are part of their identities without becoming their sole identity. This gives the characters a richness and authenticity that we love, but also sparks debate. For example, at our first vision meeting for EDITH, the artistic team discussed why we are drawn to Rey’s work. When discussing Kenny and Benji’s love story, some felt that the experience was especially true to modern teens and their emotions surrounding coming out. Others felt that the relationship was slightly unrealistic and rose-colored, arguing that two boys coming out in the ’90s in a rural area would probably experience much more difficulty and bullying than Kenny and Benji actually experience in the play. Both of these points of view are totally valid, and a strength of Rey’s writing is that he doesn’t ask us to choose sides but rather to be “open and earnest” and see the world through the young people’s eyes.
Second, the article pulls out Rey’s intricate storytelling in his work as well as his questioning of the stories people tell and how they impose narratives on their lives to make sense of events or emotions that they maybe don’t fully understand. One of the things that stands out to me when putting EDITH and AFTER ALL THE TERRIBLE THINGS… in conversation with each other is that the two plays explore very different ways of using stories. In EDITH, we watch Kenny, Benji, and Edith live out all the high, lows, and in-betweens of being kids figuring things out for the first time while they comfort themselves with stories of gnomes, flying girls, and shapeshifting comic book men; in AFTER ALL, we watch adult characters who have the benefit of hindsight try to make sense of their pasts and the experiences with which young people grapple.
Edith uses sci-fi stories to re-imagine herself as a kick-ass kid who doesn’t need adults to tell her what to do or to save the world for her. And lucky for her, the ’90s was somewhat of a golden age for sci-fi films and television. Den of Geek published this hilarious how-to list for parenting in the ’90s, as exemplified by its sci-fi cinema. Though the list is mostly light-hearted, this quote really sticks out when thinking about what draws Edith (and Kenny and Benji) to sci-fi:
How come sci-fi has such a connection with the issue of parenthood? Perhaps that’s natural, considering it deals with the future of humanity. But it’s worth bearing in mind that all science fiction is not so much about the unknown as the uncomfortable. It makes us view, with a fresh degree of objectivity, the problems that face us right now in the present time.
One of the threads running through our conversations around EDITH has been how the time period — the pre-Internet and cell phone ’90s — and Midwest setting of the play serve to isolate the characters. Left to fend for themselves on the abandoned farm, Edith and Kenny inhabit an even more insular world. Benji, who begins the play solidly in the care of a loving, over-protective mother, is fascinated by what he sees as the Tolentino siblings’ freedom. He marvels that Kenny can cook and frequently asks after the whereabouts of Kenny and Edith’s Dad, who we learn is a doctor.
This brings up the question of how did Kenny and Edith end up in a farm in the middle of nowhere? Little information is given about Dad and Mom, who remains present in the stories Kenny tells and meals he cooks for Edith. “[Mom] felt like he was distant … if you want proof that space cannot be traversed, he’s it….” is all Kenny has to say about Dad when he finally opens up to Benji about his own under-protected home life. Though Filipino families are generally tight-knit and stay connected across several generations, Edith and Kenny seem to have no extended family. An answer to their familial and geographical isolation may lie in the immigration patterns of Filipinos to America.
The migration is generally divided into four waves, starting when the Philippines were still under Spanish rule in the 1830s. In 1898, the United States and Spain engaged in conflict, which the U.S. won. As part of the settlement treaty, Spain sold the Philippines to America. The U.S. did not grant independence to the Philippines and instead occupied the country as a U.S. colony. Governor-general William Howard Taft (who became president in 1909) believed that educational cross-pollination was important in establishing a good relationship with Filipinos who resisted American rule. Thus, the U.S. sent teachers to the Philippines and subsidized the American education of almost 15,000 Filipino students, or pensionados, between 1903 and 1938. Because the Philippine islands were now a U.S. colony, Filipinos were allowed to travel to and settle in the States as American nationals. This second wave of immigration caused the Filipino population in America to skyrocket, and Filipinos became the third largest group of Asian immigrants in America. Many young Filipino men moved to Hawaii and California, seeking work as laborers and migrant workers on sugar and produce farms.
The status of Filipinos changed again in 1934, when the Philippines became a commonwealth under the Tydings-McDuffie Act. The Act paved the way for Philippine independence but reversed the status of prospective emigres, who were no longer considered American nationals. By law, only 50 Filipinos per year were allowed to move to the U.S.
World War II halted Filipino immigration to America almost altogether when Japan invaded and occupied the Philippines. Following WWII, however, the U.S. finally recognized the independence of the Philippines, and 100 Filipinos per year were granted leave to emigrate. Significantly, this count did not include Filipina spouses of U.S. servicemen, who were allowed to join their husbands without restriction. The post-WWII decade saw another important Educational Exchange Act pass in 1948. This act allowed foreign nurses to come to America for further professional training and study; better pay encouraged many of the Filipino nurses who took advantage of the law to stay in America, where a nursing shortage provided plenty of opportunities for work as medical professionals.
The fourth wave of Filipino immigration began in 1965, when the U.S. further relaxed immigration restrictions, giving preference to people re-uniting with family members already in the U.S. and people trained in high-skill jobs. Thousands of Filipinos already trained as doctors and nurses entered the U.S. post-1965 to take advantage of the continuing U.S. need for doctors and nurses. Because of the shortage, Filipino medical professionals were often recruited to work in rural areas of America that were most in need of doctors. Filipino immigration continued to climb after 1965, reaching its peak through the ’80s and ’90s. Today, Filipinos and Filipino-Americans still represent a high percentage of medical professionals; nearly 20% of the Filipina-American population in the U.S. works in the medical field, most often as nurses and nurse practitioners. Given this timeline, it is perhaps likely that Kenny and Edith’s parents were children of such highly-skilled immigrants, or even themselves part of the fourth wave of Filipinos to immigrate to America.
The possibility that Dad and Mom could have immigrated to America without the aid or support of family and friends adds a heartbreaking layer to Edith and Kenny’s story. The knowledge that Dad is a doctor who spends his time away from his own children caring for others colors the way the audience sees him all through the play — until the revelation in the final scene that Dad may be more than just the “interruption” that Kenny accuses him of being.
In rehearsals this week, we’ve been thinking about the moments when Edith sings a German opera aria that she is learning in school. Specifically, Edith sings “Ein Mannlein steht im Walde” from German composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera HANSEL AND GRETEL. The opera is based on the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, and Humperdinck wrote the music at the urging of his sister Adelheid, who had written songs based on the fairy tale for her children. Humperdinck completed HANSEL AND GRETEL in 1893, and it premiered on Christmas Eve at the German National Theater. Though usually performed by adults, the opera has been popular among children and remains a traditional Christmas-time entertainment.
The story of HANSEL AND GRETEL itself has several thematic resonances to EDITH, and the aria “Ein Mannlein steht im Walde” plays similar roles in both stories. In the opera, Gretel sings the aria at the top of Act II — she and her brother Hansel (also played by a woman in the opera) have been sent to the forest by their angry mother to collect strawberries for dinner after they have spilled a jug of milk. Gretel weaves a crown of flowers and sings the aria about “a little man in the forest” as she and Hansel stray into the darkening forest. The little man never appears, but serves as a comforting imaginary presence.
Edith uses the song in a similar fashion. She sings it when she is awake in the dark farmhouse, protecting Kenny, and tells him that she discovered she could “fly” from the rafters of the barn after coming there to vent her frustration through singing when Dad became angry that she was practising the song in the house. Kenny reminds her of their own imaginary presence when Edith refuses to dress nicely for her recital of the aria — their mother will be watching, he says, even though she isn’t physically there, so Edith has to look nice. Later, Edith uses the aria to prove how responsible she is to Kenny: ” I learned all that German for my choir solo. I can shoot an aluminum can from fifty feet away.”
Check back soon for more connections between EDITH and HANSEL AND GRETEL.
Watch Gretel sing the aria in SUNYPurchase Opera’s production. Like Edith, Gretel finds a high vantage point before she starts singing. (And with good reason — notice the witch lurking behind her.)
When you’re a teenager, sometimes the right song, book, or movie has the power to change your world. As Kenny and Benji begin to realize that they are more than just friends, they use the underground comic book SHADE THE CHANGING MAN as a touchstone for their burgeoning relationship.
SHADE is more than just a random comic book from the 1990s. This dark, subversive story was one of the first comic books to explore transgender issues and same-sex romance, and its story arcs surrounding creating your own family, struggling with identity, and traveling across an America rife with larger-than-life dangers resonate with EDITH.
Like EDITH, SHADE THE CHANGING MAN follows a trio of young people. The eponymous Shade is an alien from the planet Meta sent to America to battle the American Scream, a madness born out of consumerism and greed enveloping the country. As his name suggests, Shade can shift form, using a powerful garment called the M-Vest. Shade teams up with Kathy George, a young girl whose parents have been murdered by a deranged killer. Later, the two meet cool, collected Lenny. She serves as a protector and voice of reason for the fragile Kathy, and later, she and Kathy begin a relationship. The two try to keep their relationship a secret, but Shade discovers it in the issue that Kenny references, when Shade manifests as a blanket on which the two girls have sex. Later, needing a new body as host but also jealous of Lenny, Shade takes the shape of a woman, and manages to sleep with both women. Though his body is female, Shade still retains the mindset of a man. When Kathy discovers his deception, she abandons him, though the two eventually reconcile.
SHADE was originally created for DC Comics in 1977 by Steve Ditko. The series only lasted eight issues — in that time, Shade was given new parents because his first set failed the parenting exam. At age 13, Shade was given an operation that made him a rational adult. These tidbits live on in Edith’s made-up story about her multi-parented home planet and battle with “evil, shape-changing aliens.” Perhaps Edith has copies of the original comic stashed away in the barn?
The Shade story arc that Kenny and Benji reference launched in 1990, when British comic writer Peter Milligan appropriated Ditko’s character, turning him into a much darker, tortured character. Shade’s M-Vest became the Madness Vest and gave Shade the power to warp reality as well as change shape. The original 1977 storyline was explained away as a story Shade made up to entertain himself while traveling to Earth. (We can see why Edith likes this guy!)
Milligan’s SHADE took on much edgier content. Shade required a human host for his travels on Earth, so he inhabited the body of recently-executed serial killer Troy Grenzer — the man who had killed Kathy George’s parents. Throughout the series, Kathy and Shade both struggle with madness and delusions because of their traumatic experiences, and this alternately bonds them and tests their relationship. Milligan used SHADE to critique what he saw as a vacuous, commercial American culture; The American Scream manifests as a skeleton dressed like Uncle Sam, and his victims’ private insanities are turned into reality. Benji’s Mom definitely wouldn’t want Benji reading about Shade’s adventures against the Scream, which include a re-enactment of the John F. Kennedy assassination; a battle against a possessed Hollywood film camera; a mission quieting the delusions of a man filling New York City with trash to protest “the Nameless” (homeless people and vagabonds); and the prevention of a man torturing those he sees as “abnormal” by running them through a horrific “normalcy machine.” A unique feature of Milligan’s comics, illustrated by Chris Bachalo, is the use of a bright, neon 90s color palette, despite the horror and violence of the stories.
Though SHADE remained a niche comic book, readers clearly had a taste for its dark, edgy content. In 1993, DC editor (and totally rad lady) Karen Berger created an imprint of DC called Vertigo, which featured comics geared toward mature readers that tackled heavy themes. The SHADE comics made the switch to the Vertigo brand in Issue #33 and were part of the “British invasion” that found a creative home with Vertigo. Other popular titles included the work of British writers Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, with SANDMAN and ANIMAL MAN, respectively, as well as the comics of American writer Alan Moore.
In the early 90s, Kenny would have had to go out of his way to find the SHADE comics. Even today, the seventy issues have not been collected into one volume, and it takes a bit of Internet digging to find all the issues in the series. The presence of the comic in EDITH speaks to its young characters’ determination to find a story that expresses who they are. Kenny shares his comics with Benji, and Benji shares his dictionary definitions with Kenny. Edith makes up her own stories. As we explore the stories that are important to Edith, Kenny, and Benji, we wonder what other stories and pop culture hit home with you growing up?
“NO GROWN-UPS!” insists the title page of EDITH. “The shadows in FOR MOTHER can be done with puppets, projections, or something else non-human.” Rey plays on childhood fears of the unknown, giving Edith, Kenny, and Benji dangers in the especially-theatrical shape of shadows, silences, and sound. Adults are talked about throughout the play, but never seen. This gives our production team a chance to work some theatrical magic for a climactic scene where Edith sharp-shoots the shadow of … someone … or something!
Simple lighting tricks and some magic with angles can turn anything into a dangerous looming shadow. Or turn household objects — even stuff that looks like junk — into a person, a ship, or a whole city. A shadow can tell a story, and we’re really excited to see what non-human elements our designers come up with for Edith’s targets.
Check out some shadow art below:
Our propsmaster Molly also introduced the EDITH team to the work of Manual Cinema, a Chicago-based troupe that uses shadow puppetry and live foley effects to tell stories and make short videos. Check them out!