A History of Burning: An American Quartet by Caridad Svich
What makes an American Quartet?
The four plays presented in this collection, Guapa, The Way of Water, Spark and Hide Sky make up an American Quartet by Caridad Svich. They are individually and together a vibrant reflection on what it means to be living in America today. The plays struggle with, consider and challenge notions of race and class by putting a spotlight on the working poor – a group often neglected by mainstream theatre – and show that the struggle of these individuals is matched by their potential.
In these plays we have a single mom working hard to hold her patchwork family together, a fisherman who has lost the very waters he fishes in, a veteran trying to make sense of her life after the war, and a young woman who feels alienated by the very town in which she grew up. However, we also have a future soccer star with limitless potential, the beating heart of an activist, a young boxer who will do whatever it takes to succeed and a young woman who has faith that she can reconnect with her hometown, her family and even her faith.
These plays share a commonality of language. The characters speak in a vernacular that is specific to four regions of the United States, but also, their language is imbued with a poetry that is emblematic to all of Caridad’s work. It’s a way of speaking, but it’s also a way of seeing. Caridad knows and her characters know that there is poetry in the longing, heartache, struggle and the joy of the everyday, and these characters find that poetry, and it finds its way out of their mouths. It sometimes comes out as a whisper, sometimes as a scream, and often, in these four plays, as a song.
These are American plays, and as American plays, they are deeply rooted in American song. In each plays songs appear organically, often as characters reflect and try to make sense of the current state of their lives. The songs pull deeply from the great pool of American music: gospel, folk, ragtime, blues, Latin music, army cadences and other music that lays the foundation for American songs. In the songs that characters often call out to the world, the plays call out to each other. The way a character sings alone on stage seeking solace in Spark resonates when a character sings alone on stage seeking solace in Hide Sky. These are different plays in different places, but there is a connected musical bridge between them.
American history is the history of music: we sing in fields, in churches, in schools, in the back of bars, in the streets, in our houses, at our births, our weddings and our funerals. The songs in these plays often come from single voices, but remind us of the need to hear others and to be heard. The songs in all the plays, even the Army cadences in Spark have a prayer-like quality, asking for understanding, forgiveness, redemption, peace or a way to get back home.
The plays all center on the concept of home. Guapa is about building a home and also the need to leave home, The Way of Water is about having to leave home, when your home has changed and you can no longer stay there, Spark is about coming home, but then not knowing what home is anymore, and Hide Sky is about coming home and reclaiming what it means to be there on one’s own terms.
All four plays take place inside, or in front of a house – the American home. This is where we plant our roots, this is where we set up our lives – and in a struggle that we see exhibited in these plays – this is a safe haven that we have to fight to hold on to. All four homes in all four plays are a point of pride, but also a point of contention. In Guapa and Spark the families struggle to keep their homes, in The Way of Water, a home is lost to a mortgage and in Hide Sky a home is inherited after death, but at a great emotional cost. The property in each play is not just a house; it is a collection of lives. Whatever group of theatremakers is brave enough to stage these four plays in a full day of theatre could stage them on the same set, because, in a way, these are all the same house. Yes, of course Caridad gives us wonderful subtle differences between Texas and Louisiana and North Carolina and Florida, but she has also written four plays that are universally American – the house we all live in as a nation.
The plays are further linked by the idea of motion and rest. In Guapa there is the motion of athleticism and soccer, followed by the abrupt stillness of injury; in The Way of Water there is the movement of the water, the movement of fishing, and then the forced stillness of disease; in Spark there is the movement of a woman coming from war, the movement of her mind racing, and the stillness of her body and her spirit as she tries to reclaim her life, and the movement of her sister, a young boxer thrusting her fists in the air, trying to grab hold – or perhaps knock down – what’s hers in this world, and in Hide Sky there is the movement of a body from the living to the dead and the movement of rising up as a storm comes in.
The movement in each plays creates a dance and a tempest of water and bodies moving, of the struggle to get free and find a place of comfort. The plays of Caridad Svich are plays of action. The characters put out a call to their family members, their lovers, and most importantly themselves to act, to confront what it is that’s holding them back and push themselves as far as they can go. Each play is about action and each play is about limits, and how to push past those limits, even if they nearly break you. Pushing hard in Guapa means a potentially deadly injury, but ultimately finding inspiration to go towards a dream, in The Way of Water it means recognizing that the real fight is not over, it has not even begun, in Spark it means pushing past the pain to find a road a road to healing, and in Hide Sky it means rebuilding at what seems irreparably broken.
They are also a call to action for the audience, a call to stand up, look out and examine the world around us, loudly or quietly. These four plays ask us to look at America today. To examine our own seemingly quiet lives and ask the bigger questions about where we are and where we are going. For me, the most powerful theatre is that theatre that confronts the everyday in an honest, earnest way – theatre that nestles deep into our lives and asks us to question and perhaps confront how we live. There is something magical and at times abstract about the plays in the Quartet, but they are also part of a tradition of deeply insightful realism, because these characters are real in the most honest sense of the word. They are real because they are trying to live their lives in the face of adversity, because they often fail, yet they cannot help but try again, because they burn with the passion of a thousand coals to get their lives in order and make themselves, and often those around them live better and live right.
There is a history of burning in the plays of Caridad Svich and this is especially true of this American Quartet. In Spark, Lexie sings: “All of us are born to burn,” and in that moment, she might mean burn up like a tree caught in a raging fire, but the character in these plays also burn with desire, anger, passion, compassion and truth. No one lies in these plays. These characters stretch the truth so they can get themselves to bed at night, and hold on to hope that things might change, but in the end, they all know the score, and if their words do not say it, their faces do. Hide Sky ends with the line, “Prayin’ for another day,” and that cuts straight to the truth of what each and every character in these plays is doing. They might feel at times like they cannot take anymore - that they are going to burn up, but in the end, they need to, want to, have to see tomorrow. Because they know if they make it to tomorrow, they make just make it in the end.
Caridad Svich is the rare dramatist who is not afraid to look straight into the bleeding heart of America, and then put it right on the page. These plays are personal and these plays are political. With an unflinching insight into the lives of working Americans in the 21st century, this American Quartet paints a vivid picture of the beauty and pain of what means to live in this country today.
I invite you to read these plays separately, to read them together, but most importantly to read them with all the heart and soul that Caridad put into them. These are special plays, vibrant plays, and important plays. Enjoy.
Los Angeles, California Winter 2013