Theater at Fatima is going better than I dared to hope and about as well as I couldn’t help but fantasize. I’ve done a lot of reflecting lately on the word “underprivileged” and where it fits into our cultural consciousness. I am a part of history’s top .00001% (the number of zeros is arbitrary, but you get the idea), in terms of privilege. My parents are educated professionals, whom I thank for holding my education in a position of utmost humanistic and practical importance. Consequently, I am a Yale student, and so the iterated equation of privilege compounds itself. The students at Fatima, as the personal testimonials they wrote for my theater class attest, come from the opposite side of the coin. Whereas for me a million subtle messages written all over my upbringing told me, “you’re worth it; you can become something,” for them the same whispers said, “sorry you’re not in control and the road is rocky.” I am in no position to conceive of the effect of this disparity on them or me (even my last sentence might be viewed as overstepping the bounds of my understanding).
The world of privilege has a very well-developed picture of underprivilege worked out. So much so that the paradigm can be caricatured into a joke: An orphan walks on broken glass everyday to a school with no walls where his teacher is the village’s one goat. Along with this image, we often feel that we know what the underprivileged need and that we have that to offer, if the generosity strikes us: education, better parents, food. All this is true in the abstract sense, but here in Mauritius, especially at Fatima, we are looking underprivileged young people—basically our age—in the eye, and when I consider that those organs are just as perceptive as my own, I realize that an attitude of “these kids lack what I have, and I am here to offer that” will be counterproductive. When dealing with tangible commodities, of course, the case is different. If I have six pairs of shoes and someone else has none, giving one pair away is an admirable redistribution. But education does not work that way. In order to teach someone a lesson, the teacher must understand what it would be to lack that lesson and consequently why the lesson is valuable. That is teaching from an empathetic position. The effects of the disparity in upbringing between me and the Fatima students goes inscrutably deep into both of our subconscious pasts, so I have no lessons to teach.
That is why I have designed my theater classes with the object in mind of letting the students speak without my interference. I went into this project planning to encourage the students to talk about the difficulties in their lives. Because that’s what you do with third world art projects, right? The students did, indeed, have a lot to say in this regard, but their improvisations have generally veered towards comedy. So, to hold true to my intention to let the students speak, I decided that the play needed some comedy. If you sit down and tell someone, “write a comedy,” you will get a blank stare at best. Creativity needs a seed from which to flower. My challenge was to find that seed for a group of students so different from me.
Today, our human commonalities became emphatically evident to me. After class, some of the boys were punching a ply-wood board, and they called me over and coaxed me to join in. Now the ring finger knuckle on my right hand is about twice as big as on my left (they were impressed). Testosterone runs through every man’s veins and it leads to swollen knuckles. It is in this same realm of commonality that I searched for the seed, but to do so, I deferred to one of history’s greatest finders of commonalities—Shakespeare. One of Shakespeare’s favorite comic elements was juxtaposition of different types of couples. “Much Ado about Nothing” and “Twelfth Night” provide good examples. With this in mind, I decided that the comic relief in the Fatima play would work in the same way. I started developing this material today with a classic comic couple type—the controlling woman and submissive man.
Vedant pointed me to a Mauritian TV series in which this sort of relationship is portrayed, and I showed the students a clip. Then I told them the story from “The Taming of the Shrew,” in which Petrucchio and Katherine leave the house in which Katherine has been “broken” and step into a beautiful day. When Petrucchio says it’s actually night time and calls the sun the moon, Katherine agrees whole-heartedly. When the couple comes across an old-man, and Petrucchio greets him as though he were a young woman, Katherine calls him “young budding virgin.” I had the students adapt this scenario of absolute acquiescence, only with the woman in control. Some hilarious improvising came out. Next, I had them play out the same sort of relationship, only as little children, and some of the portrayals of childish love were incredible. One boy, Brian, brought in a blade of grass, and when his beloved demanded a rose, started crying and said, “I only have fifty cents in my pocket.” Everyone laughed at each other’s skits, and the mood was great. I am going to adapt their improvisations into a script depicting a controlling woman-submissive man relationship in childhood, teenagerdom, middle age, and old age.