Enemies in the Age of Noise

07.11.18 | Homepage | by The Rev. Ryan Pollock

    Last night at the Second Thought Theatre, I enjoyed the play Enemies/People, “loosely adapted” from Henrick Ibsen’s 1882 An Enemy of the People for the social media age. The fourth wall is broken throughout, with the audience treated like they’re playing townspeople at city hall meetings - a fun twist. The set is minimalist, the focus on the very human, very contemporary conflict, even if it digresses a little too often into shouting matchings to show us the characters are angry - my throat felt sore on their behalf!

    I want to focus on just one part in particular. Spoilers to follow.

    From the Theatre’s description,

    Tom, an intrepid urban planner, suspects that a new city-sponsored hot springs project may be more dangerous than the local government is willing to admit. But when Tom speaks out against the project, he is met with resistance from several unexpected sources. The divide between right and wrong proves to be anything but black and white, and Tom finds himself risking everything for a town that doesn’t seem to want his help…a timely world-premiere about the search for truth in the age of alternative facts.

    The ending is really what we need to talk about. It’s completely different from Ibsen’s original, getting all meta and textual on us.

    Tom (Alex Organ) is at his wits-end, having lost his job, credibility, and even perhaps his wife, Kat (Allison Pistorius) whose been sleeping with his best friend Michael (Jovane Caameno) in his absence. Tom’s spent all of his time and energy trying to convince his town about the dangers of something they don’t believe in. Even those who do believe him find him hard to believe, he’s a self-loathing, vitriolic, absentee dad trying to prove his wealth and privilege haven’t sidetracked his motives.

    Tom’s taken up drinking at 10am and lying around in his bathrobe. Kat tells him that she needs a respite from all the “noise” - the incoherent, hateful partisan vehemence between Tom, his brother Peter (Gregory Lush), and their constituencies. Here the audience sympathizes, we know what that’s like.

    Then Tom picks up the script from the original, 1882 play and reads it with sarcasm and contempt, as he’s reunited with the whole cast on stage. Gazing into the horizon, he smugly says his character’s original, final lines, “I have made a great discovery: the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.”

    He and the rest of the cast chuckle and smirk. Tom is certainly alone, but he isn’t strong. The story can’t end like this. Instead, they say, let’s take it again from the top, and this time, Billie (Sasha Maya Ada) will play the role of Tom. She looks confidently down the center aisle, says something like, “Let’s do this,” and the lights go out.

    Billie has from the beginning been a minor character on the margins of the story. She’s a Social Justice major who wears t-shirts emblazoned with “iWoke” in Coca-Cola font (is Apple woke, now? Is Coke woke? Is she just naïve?).[1] Her political radicalism and the nebulousness of her post-graduate trajectory is frequently mocked by the other characters: Tom wants the hot springs resort to fail, but not at the cost of his personal comforts; city official Mercedes (Christie Vela), thinks herself a radical like Billie, but defaults to pragmatism and working the system. Billie’s marginalization takes a literal turn while Tom is reading his hatemail: she sits just offstage and narrates the messages aloud to the audience.

    But at the end of the play, it’s Billie who will begin things again, the young, black woman, social justice-y anarchist. Dismissive no longer, they’ll start the whole thing over with her in the lead role. Peter’s big business, aw-shucks cowboy pandering and Tom’s justice-conscious but repellant elitism must give way to the vibrant energy of Billie, who’s been telling them all along to “just burn the whole thing down.”

    There was once a certain first-century Jew from Nazareth who came from common poverty and a seemingly unremarkable family. He made radical claims about the destruction of the Temple, his relationship to God, and his ultimate destiny. His closest friends will misunderstand him, his enemies will swiftly change their feelings about him - from marginalizing to murderous.

    And yet it’s through his recapitulation: playing the lead role for his people in their place, that their salvation will be wrought.

    In him the whole drama will begin again, but this time, things will be different…

    [1] Is she Konnor from your high school who wore Hot Topic’s Anarchy shirts?