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Monday, March 29, 2010

"Revenge and Forgiveness in Laramie, Wyoming": Stephen Wang writes on TLP

How on earth does one person forgive another? And, in the face of terrible violence against the self, how does the individual (and a the community) find healing?  These are questions that lie at the heart of The Laramie Project, and questions that, apparently, at least one of the writers struggled with as they crafted their play. 

 Stephen Wang served as a draumaturge and writer for The Laramie Project in its various forms, and he has done some sophisticated thinking at a critical distance from the play about the nature of forgiveness.  This article appeared, along with three commentaries and a reply, in the journal Psychoanalytic Dialogues.  Looking at both the psychoanalytic tradition, the theatrical tradition, and even religious groundings for forgiveness, Wangh gives his readers a fascinating look inside The Laramie Project at the company's understanding of forgiveness and how that, in turn, crafted the play they all created.   What I really like about Wangh's approach is that he's extremely open about how Kaufman and the other writers approached their documentary material, and he's willing to be honest about where the members of Tectonic might respectfully disagree.  Definitely pick up this issue of Psychoanalytic Dialogues if you're at all interested in the The Laramie Project, the writing process, or its social impact.  I will probably be coming back to these articles at a later date because I want to read Frommer and Sandage's critiques to see what other insight they might give us.

On the one hand, Wangh thinks that The Laramie Project gets some things right: it dramatizes the need for a process of forgiveness and highlights the ways in which religious dialogue can both further and hinder that forgiveness from taking place.  It can also serve as a clear case study for thinking psychoanalytically about the nature of forgiveness.  On the other hand, he wonders openly whether or not The Laramie Project ultimately follows through on the painful revelations and release of victims' righteousness that forgiveness ultimately requires.   As he so eloquently puts it,
But this last step-- the state that The Tempest's Prospero attains when he frees Ariel and declares 'I'll drown my book"-- seems to be immensely difficult for human beings, because it requires that we tolerate two painful conditions.  The first is the finality of the death or injury that has occurred.  And the second, even more terrible is that we be willing to give up the righteousness which belongs to victimhood.  This second action is so difficult, says Olga Botcharova (2001), because it requires letting go of the "anger [that] may have served as the only source of energy for the victim" [p. 290].  (9) 
So, what does that kind of forgiveness look like, exactly?  The closest we probably get in The Laramie Project are the Shepards, but as Wangh points out, they're not a perfect match.   In fact, he wonders if Tectonic's portrayal of Shepard keeps the audience from from fulfilling these final, critical steps to forgiveness ("Reply," 55).  If we take a cue from Wangh and turn to South Africa, however, we can find some really good examples.  Wangh turns to Desmond Tutu (a personal hero of mine) as a good theorist for forgiveness; I would like to point to Cynthia Ngewu (left, another personal hero of mine) as its practitioner.  In the documentary Long Night's Journey Into Day, she, along with the families of six other murdered young men from Guguletu township, confront one of the killers of their children in an arranged meeting.  One of the murderers, Thapelo Mbelo, a policeman working for Vlakplaas, had asked for the meeting to apolotize personally and ask for their forgiveness.  After pouring out a palpably real stream of rage and grief at Mbelo, Ngewu manages to look her son's murderer in the eyes and say, "I forgive you, my child, and the reason I say I forgive you is that my child will never wake up again and it's pointless to hold this wound against you.  God will be the judge.... there is no place for throwing stones at you even though you did those things.  So Jesus told us when he was on the cross, forgive those who sin against you."  (Long Night's Journey).  She specifically calls their grief and righteous anger against him a "burden" that they all need to release in order to find peace.  In her understanding of Christian forgiveness, Ngewu both recognizes the finality of her son's death and gives up her right to hold her wrath against him; she tells him to go in peace, and with her blessing.  And, as Wangh might also point out, part of her ability to forgive is the consolation that judgment doesn't disappear; it lies with God.   

What Wangh points out is that this kind of forgiveness is exceedingly rare (in the Western tradition, at least) and hard to accept, and its often religious setting can make it difficult to address from a secular perspective.  Wangh notes that The Laramie Project makes the Shepards' act of forgiveness the central point of the play, but it might not meet the standards mentioned above by skipping a couple of important steps.  Secondly, the play's hesitation about engaging forgiveness within the religious communities which they come into contact with might be a further limitation.  As he points out, the play clearly labels the words of The Baptist Minister as an example of a "seed of violence," to use Father Roger's term, but it might not also address religion's powerful role as a mediator of forgiveness.  He muses, "In retrospect, perhaps we playwrights of The Laramie Project should have asked ourselves if we were avoiding something uncomfortable by not pursuing further the religious stories in Laramie.  Did we avoid those stories because we were not ready to confront our own prejudices against this society's holy protagonists?"  (13).  He then gently asks the same question of psychoanalysis, which has been equally reluctant to enter the forgiveness debate.

The "Reply" article follows up on these very questions of how The Laramie Project, and also psychoanalysis, tried and (possibly) failed to address these dilemmas effectively.  He specifically dialogues with two other researchers about Dennis Shepard's act of forgiveness, how it is portrayed in TLP, and how a different portrayal might have changed the dynamic of forgiveness in the play.  He candidly points out that
As I look back at it now, it seems that my essay on The Laramie Project could be read as a case study of avoidance, an investigation of how a group of playwrights found a way to finesse a difficult writing problem, thus relieving themselves—and therefore their audience—of the most difficult part of the psychic metabolism of forgiveness. The possibility that our shortcuts may have misled our audience, making it difficult for them to experience a genuine cathartic experience, seems to be borne out in Frommer’s essay.  ("Reply" 49). 
In his response, he admits that, in the TLP depiction at the very least, Dennis Shepard doesn't seem to let go of his victim's right to anger.  That makes the jump to revenge to forgiveness seem too easy, and it short-circuits the forgiveness process.  For instance, he points out how Tectonic chose not to dramatize Judy Shepard's plea for the death penalty for Russell Henderson (49).  Wangh wonders if we lose a full disclosure of the process of forgiveness when the audience doesn't see the turbulent and painful process from revenge to forgiveness in action. From the play's perspective, the Shepards just jump easily from one state to the other when the process was much more arduous in reality. 

Anyhow,  Wangh is correct on one thing at the very least-- that the total, dramatic form of forgiveness we see in Cynthia Ngewu and may have missed in The Laramie Project is rare.  And wherever it pops up, we marvel at that forgiveness as an improbable beauty, like a sunflower growing in a junkyard.  That's what makes Ngewu's forgiveness so amazing to me.  Wangh is right-- one of the most wonderful places it can show up is within the religious community that Tectonic may have been unsure of how to approach.  The Baptist Church, for instance, has amazing stories of forgiveness inside.  I just wish that those stories weren't so sporadic or unpredictable at The Baptist Church, or, like that sunflower, that those stories weren't growing among so much other junk like intolerance or homophobia.  But I don't that finding forgiveness among other problems makes The Baptist Church all that different from the rest of the world.  It just makes the junk that much less attractive. 

Following on the heels of my personal interests, Wangh reveals an interesting personal exchange about Tectonic's memory of crucial events and their narrative of forgiveness.  Wangh explains how Kaufman directed the actor playing Dennis Shepard to break down a little in the final lines of his address to Aaron McKinney at the moment of the plea bargain to emphasize the act of mercy taking place; it's meant to show Dennis Shepard saying goodbye to his son ("Revenge," 6, 10).  Interestingly, neither Fondakowski nor McAddams, the actor who played Shepard in the original run, remembers the real event that  way; they were both in court that day, as was Kaufman, and neither of them remember Shepard breaking down.  Fondakowski's pointed comments to the author, in fact, paint a completely different view of Shepard and what she believed was happening during those moments in court.  So, their interpretation of Shepard at this crucial moment comes from a moment of confused memory about the actual events in the court-- and the result is an act of fiction that emphasizes the story truth of the moment in TLP over what may have factually driven the Shepards' decision to accept the plea.

In fact, Judy Shepard's statements in the new play suggest that Fondakowski's version is correct: it wasn't necessarily an act of forgiveness or "letting Matt go" in the courtroom.  The Shepards wanted to avoid the unpleasantness of the defense stragegy penalty phase and that life in prison was a pretty horrible punishment in itself (10).   It's interesting to me that Kaufman feels a need to force the dramatic resolution at this point by creating an act of release where Fondakowski, McAdddams and Wangh suggest it runs afoul of factual reality. 

Another interesting point is his discussion of the role of religion in forgiveness and Tectonic's engagement with the issue.  While it may seem obvious, Wangh points out that the company's decision to highlight religious tension as a major reason that Aaron McKinney turned into a murder, that emphasis came at the expense of other influences-- like his childhood abuse, or the death of his mother and absent father ("Revenge," 10; "Reply" 49).  We hear nothing of these issues in the play, something that apparently drew a little bit of dialogue between Wangh and Kaufman at one point ("Revenge," 10-11).  When religion becomes such a powerful "vector" for negative emotions in the play, he specifically fears that perhaps it has become a scapegoat for the audience's anger.  "We tried to write a play in which anger could be forgiven," he muses,  "but perhaps what we did in the end was to write a play in which the anger was  simply displaced"  ("Reply" 51).   Wang correctly suggests that this is a a universal, specifically human failing-- that people fear losing control over our views of good and evil (52).  It's this failing that drives The Baptist Minister and makes us condemn him; it's also one that seemingly dogged Wangh and the rest of Tectonic.  Getting to peek over Wangh's shoulder to look in on this discussion is incredibly insightful. 

Anyhow, in short: the two articles are a definite must-read.  Wangh shows himself to be a sensitive reader, a gifted writer, and especially willing to talk in a candid and frank manner about the personal difficulties of addressing such a hard topic in a theatrical setting.  I really appreciated his honesty and insight here.

Ultimately, the piece isn't about whether or not Tectonic "got it right."  Wangh is interested in something much larger: the nature of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is incredibly difficult to understand for two reasons: one is that runs across the grain of human nature in so many ways.  The other is because it is difficult to address it head on.  Wangh shows how theater can be a fascinating machine to put forgiveness through its paces and understand how it works, but even theater can be cramped, limited by our human frailties and fear of addressing it. And we see Stephen Wangh caught up in all these questions, trying to puzzle them out among the other writers of The Laramie Project as they craft their play. 


Cynthia Ngewu (one of the Guguletu 7 mothers) testifying at the TRC hearing. Photo: IRIS FILMS


Bocharova, O.  "Implementation of Track Two Diplomacy: Developing a Model of Forgiveness.  Forgiveness and Reconcilliation: Religion, Public Policy, and Conflict Transformation.  Ed. R. Helmick and R. Petersen.  Philadelphia, PA: Templeton, Foundation P, 2001.  269-294.

Iris Film Collective.  Long Night's Journey into Day: South Africa's Search for Truth and Reconciliation.  Iris Films, 2000.  

Wangh, Stephen. "Reply to Commentaries." Psychoanalytic Dialogues 15.1 (2005): 47-56.

---. "Revenge and Forgiveness in Laramie, Wyoming." Psychoanalytic Dialogues 15.1 (2005): 1-16.

1 comment:

  1. I'm being sparing in my commenting here, partly to avoid overwhelming a busy grad student and partially because Chrome and Blogger often don't play well together. (Seriously, Google, WUWT??)

    But once again I find that you've anticipated much of my thought process years ago, and in greater depth and detail. I'm still mulling over several submissions for you, one of them very definitely about forgiveness, mercy, and the distinction between them. It'll probably take a bit -- I have a lot to catch up on now that our production has closed -- but thank you yet again for some very nourishing food for thought.