I wrote my new play Clay Warrior knowing it was unlikely to be produced in the Philadelphia area. After all, its story is based on Penn State’s child sex abuse scandal of a few years back. Proud Nittany Lions can get defensive when the terrible episode is raised, so I can't imagine a local theater company — even a brave one — courting that kind of potential blowback and controversy. But when I write a play, I simply move toward what I'm drawn to, regardless of presumed sensitivities. It's not a wholly conscious decision.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely
As a 1980s Temple University grad, I was only peripherally aware of Happy Valley’s rah-rah, Joe-Pa-is-God, football-centric culture. When child-molestation charges against Jerry Sandusky were filed in 2011, I, like many, was shocked, but not completely surprised. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, or so the saying goes, regardless of context. I followed the daily news coverage and, before long, felt the itch to write. Translation: In my mind I began embodying the different characters, imagining what they might say to one another, and trying to get a sense of their vocal rhythms and diction.
Before I wrote a word, I pitched the idea of a Penn-State-inspired play to a local theater company. The artistic director liked the idea and mentioned that a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright had already sent them a draft of a play based on the same events. The A.D. and I envisioned three plays, including my yet-to-be-written drama. Sadly, after a few weeks of talks the project fell through (see reasons above), but I found I still had the itch to put people (my characters) in a room and have them hash out their problems. Maybe, through this process, I'd find answers to some of my questions about power, hero worship, and human fallibility, like the ones I'd explored in my 2013 drama Playing the Assassin.
I don't begin writing with an agenda; that kind of theater bores me. Instead, I build characters based on their goals, their needs, and their impediments. That way, when they inevitably clash with one another, dramatic sparks fly. At least that's the plan. In this particular drama, I had no interest in portraying the abuse itself. That would only serve exploitative ends. I was much more interested in the ethical questions involved, especially as they related to the head coach of the football team.
I saw the story as a classical tragedy (like the Greeks!), with a flawed tragic hero and a downfall from the heights of celebrity, honor, and respect. I wanted to take a familiar story and attempt to imbue it with a sense of inevitability. I hoped that would lead to a catharsis in the audience: a gut-level release of anxiety, pity, and fear for these specific characters, and the human condition in general.
Most important, I wanted to confront questions of culpability and — in a theme I somehow keep returning to — willful blindness. We're all guilty of choosing to see, or not see, things in our lives. "I'm not a racist," says the woman who chooses not to recognize (and historically own) the centuries-old pattern of lynching African Americans. "I'm a good husband," says the man who only beats his wife "when she deserves it." Or, "I knew he really liked boys, but how could I know he abuse them?" This kind of denial is common, to greater or lesser degrees, in all of us. It's a flaw in our hardware. Then again, maybe it's also part of our survival instinct.
My play tries to humanize these issues by watching people struggle with their own weaknesses and blind spots. My job isn't to point fingers but to listen to these characters as they struggle for survival and even redemption in a complicated and challenging world.
Dark 'N' Stormy: A highball cocktail made with dark rum (the dark) and ginger beer (the stormy) served over ice and garnished with a slice of lime.
Click below for the Clay Warrior script