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Never Go Hungry

In “Saturn” — the third of six movements in  Voyagers —  Helen and her daughter Joanna find themselves at NASA Fast Food, a pho place in Houston.

In “Saturn” — the third of six movements in Voyagers — Helen and her daughter Joanna find themselves at NASA Fast Food, a pho place in Houston.

Voyagers is a play about NASA and discovery and science! It’s a play about the first photos of Jupiter and the songs that make up The Golden Record and the disembodied optimism of Carl Sagan and every ounce of energy that female scientists and engineers have put into the space program over the last 40 years.

It’s also a play where women repeatedly and deliberately eat in front of each other for more than 200 pages of text.

I’m only 42 pages into this rewrite, but already there’s a hamburger and two bowls of pho for these badass women in STEM to consume. (You’re welcome.) We live in a toxic patriarchal society, one that congratulates women for being small, dropping full dress sizes, eating less and less and less until there’s no strength left to give.

My director, Maureen, calls me the Queen of Subtlety.

So it’s probably a betrayal of my title to even blog about this topic. But it’s important to me. It’s important that I show these smart, driven, women eating incredible and comforting food. And why not? Food is incredible. It gives us energy, it provides a conduit to share culture and family history, and it’s how some of us share our love. There’s so much potential for incredible conversation over a meal — home cooked or otherwise. And the timing of our meals communicate volumes, especially when we’re eating over our desk at work. When I put a meal in a play, I do it because the meal says so much more than any line of dialogue ever could.

Production photo from the 2012 Playwrights Horizons production of The Big Meal by Dan LeFranc — a play that, as far as I can remember — doesn’t actually have any food on stage.

Production photo from the 2012 Playwrights Horizons production of The Big Meal by Dan LeFranc — a play that, as far as I can remember — doesn’t actually have any food on stage.

Men eat on stage all the time.

There’s an incredible scene in Angels in America where two key characters, Louis and Joe, are eating hot dogs outside the Hall of Justice in Brooklyn. It’s an incredible scene between two would be strangers, a slow bonding over their mutual gravitation to and shared disgust of the hot dogs they’re sharing. “I can’t help myself,” Louis says. Food becomes common ground for these two and, in time, they talk about exes dying of AIDS and the trapped feeling they feel whenever they’re at work. In more time, they fall in love, lust, whatever you want to call it.

In Voyagers, I use food to communicate relationship. Helen visits her daughter Joanna for her birthday and, because Joanna’s on a I-just-changed-my-career budget and Helen doesn’t know the area, the two end up at a fast casual restaurant called NASA Fast Food. (It’s a real place. You can Google it.) They eat pho. You only eat pho with someone you absolutely trust — all that slurping and those too large vegetables.

In the previous movement, a section of the play that I’m calling “Jupiter,” their colleague Bobbie eats a hamburger at her desk while talking with Grace on the phone. I don’t dictate it in the text, but in my mind the burger is from the McDonald’s next door, a detail that comes up over and over again in my JPL research. Eating while on the phone with someone is a whole other level of intimacy. Detached from the visual, the sound of chewing and smacking lips is disgusting, endearing. It can be the rudest thing you ever subject someone to or, in the case of this scene, a testament of love.

Production photo from the 2015 Center Theatre Group production of Women Laughing Alone With Salad by Sheila Callaghan.

Production photo from the 2015 Center Theatre Group production of Women Laughing Alone With Salad by Sheila Callaghan.

I can’t think of another play that allows women to eat on stage.

I mean, other than Sheila Callaghan’s Women Laughing Alone With Salad, which is in itself a commentary on stock photos of blissful women eating salads. (God knows I want to see a production of this play here in the Pacific Northwest, but it’s not the same.) I’ve been racking my brain, desperate to prove myself wrong, but I’m coming up short. The one example I could think of, a scene between a man and a woman and a stray piece of food that is comically and romantically wiped away, ended up being something I wrote two years ago — from an old draft of Voyagers. There’s something about this play and food, even in its abandoned form.

So I’ll keep writing.

Because someone has to shift the tide. Someone has to subtly say “fuck you” to our oppressors and let women eat. It’s a stage manager’s worst nightmare, I know. But think of the actors; think of the audience.