Engage & Learn

Real Issues, Real People: The Themes of TRP

Some of the major themes that appear in The Trinity River Plays are powerful and relate-able because they are based in real life struggles. Rape, cancer, grief, survival and even writer’s block are real complexities that can dramatically affect a person’s life. While playwright Regina Taylor has not written TRP as an autobiographical play, she has said that all of the characters contain a little bit of her. She has drawn from the world around her to make the emotional lives of these characters believable. Below are personal narratives and other resources that deal with some of the issues in the trilogy.

The Worst Thing

By Grant Suhs

In the first pages of It’s Not About the Bike, Lance Armstrong (or his co-author Sally Jenkins) writes that “the truth is that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me,” which not too subtly implies that the disease played an instrumental role in his transition from a young, cocky, middle-of-the-péloton cyclist to the man who would eventually win seven Tours de France and hook up with an Olson twin.  Regardless of the role that performance enhancing drugs may have played in both accomplishments (most likely some combination of growth hormone, cortisone, EPO, steroids and testosterone for the races and Viagra for Mary Kate), Lance Armstrong’s story reflects our shared understanding of cancer as an affirmative experience, meaning, in other words, that cancer is good for you.

Grant Suhs, Photo by Bill Arsenault via Northwestern Magazine

Unfortunately, actually having cancer quickly demonstrates that Armstrong—and there’s really not a way to put this politely—is full of shit.  I learned that I had a rare brain tumor on April Fool’s Day of my freshman year of college in 2004.  During one of our first conversations, my doctor said something like, “Grant, when we start chemotherapy, we want to keep your quality of life in the forefront of our minds.  These drugs have serious side effects, and we’re going to carefully balance them with your best interests.”  Between the lines, he raised the possibility of the treatment reaching a point where the effects of the drugs would become as bad as the disease, which would’ve, perhaps, forced me to make the decision whether or not to continue.

The marquee at the Chicago Theatre when Grant appeared as a guest star in SHEAR MADNESS, via Bear Necessities Pediatric Cancer Foundation.

Given how our fundamental will to live can stretch as far as self-amputation after our arms have been trapped under rocks, the question that many would ask is, “Why wouldn’t I want to stay alive regardless of the cost?”  Understanding the answer demands a little background on the disease itself, as well as the ways in which it is treated.  Cancer occurs when normal body cells develop a slight mutation which causes them to divide uncontrollably, and the similarity between cancer cells and normal cells means that nearly every treatment that kills cancer cells will kill healthy cells as well.  So, giving a cancer patient chemotherapy effectively means trying to find a dose of poison that will eliminate cancer but leave the rest of the body alive.

The side effects of chemotherapy only start with hair loss and occasional vomiting; they can quickly lead to far more severe problems like internal bleeding or other cancers (and that leaves side effects from other treatments like radiation and surgery out of the picture).  At its worst, chemotherapy ravaged my immune system, letting naturally occurring bacteria in my small intestine erupt into a severe bowel infection that caused me to lose a liter of fluid a day in diarrhea that came out looking like brown water.  Obviously, if you’re nineteen, like I was, and still more or less convinced that you’re invincible, you’ll accept these effects in the hope of having a full life after treatment.

At a different age, with a different prognosis, the decision might seem much less clear, and cancer might seem like much less of a good thing.

Grant Suhs is a graduate of Northwestern University in Evanston, IL and currently works as a writer for Chicago’s Campbell and Company. He chronicled his treatment through the one man play, How I Spent My Summer Vacation, and continues this process in his upcoming experimental memoir. You can learn more about Grant’s experience and post treatment approach to life in his video, “The Survivor,” found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6eiSZIuvehI or can read about his experiences in Northwestern’s Magazine, found here: http://bit.ly/guCige

American Roots: Living With the “DIY” Culture

By William Landon

We live in a culture of information: The Internet is everything. Our ancestors didn’t have this luxury. You may even hear grandparents or other older relatives complain that “young people today don’t know how to do anything.” Think about what would happen if your cell phone or iPod broke; would you know how to fix it? We are surrounded by technologies and commodities like MacBooks and smartphones that place everything at our fingertips, and we are drifting farther away from older ways of doing things and older American attitudes. In decades past, when a person’s camera broke, they might have known how to repair it themselves. They might have known how to fix their own shoes, grow their own tomatoes, or make their own electricity. To modern Americans, this stuff seems reserved for science experiments.

You may have heard of the American DIY (Do-It-Yourself) movement. Depending on what subculture you look at, this movement can have many different identities: punk, Americana, roots and so on. Despite the many forms, they have one thing in common. DIY is a movement that attempts to get back to the original components of American folk culture through learning to create, produce and use our own goods and services. In recent times, it has been characterized as a nostalgic reaction to the high-speed disposable American economy in search of something from the past. It attempts to define an “older, simpler time” when social and economic reactions were in many ways more intimate and craftsmanship resulted in something of substance. While following these older traditions and handcrafting goods is certainly nothing new, the concept of these acts as “hip” is. American society is in a new wave with new perspectives on things that used to be commonplace. Today’s hipsters do needlepoint sewing, can fruits and tune up their bicycles using techniques known to every individual in the business. How have timeless methods of survival and cultural expression suddenly become hip? To many, they aren’t – they have a much greater significance.

An outdoor canning lesson, from a study of the private and higher schools for "colored people" in the US. Photo courtesy NYPL/Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

In college, a roommate of mine was what one would definitely call a DIY entrepreneur. A self-styled inventor, he made everything himself – from sewing and altering his own clothes, to making furniture, even his own instruments (he built a theramin – an electronic instrument – from old spare parts.) His gypsy-styled musical one-man-band identity was a full representation of his faith in the bohemian lifestyle. While his family was affluent enough to pay for his college education, he was determined to get by with his own means, spending as little as possible and reusing items that other students had thrown away. I’ve known others who keep their own bees for honey, grow and can their own fruits and vegetables, and compost in an effort to minimize consumption and cut out large, wasteful middlemen.

I experienced a lot of this in my family life growing up. My grandparents and parents would all throw unused vegetables and food scraps in the compost pile, and tended their own gardens. In more recent years, my mother has taken to restoring old found furniture and metal scraps, using them to make new and functional tables, chairs, cabinets and home implements. I could even say that these skills have been passed down from generation to generation. Both of my mother’s parents, having grown up in poor farming families, learned the importance of reusing and relying on one’s own resources for goods. I always understood how they could do what they do, but like so many others who have grown up white and middle class, I didn’t understand the true importance of doing things this way in an age when everything is so readily available with so little effort, for those with the money to pay for it. As I learned more and more about the positive impacts of sustainability versus working hard to spend money we don’t need for products of an unfamiliar source, I’ve understood why so many today want, or need, to live a DIY lifestyle.

We see some of this do-it-yourself culture in The Trinity River Plays, albeit here born out of necessity. Jack could be considered a precursor to the young, hip “DIY” entrepreneur. We get the impression from his character that he does not do it because it is “cool,” but because he is a young person who has serious faith in taking a project under his own control. In Jar Fly, he discusses at length his love for his automobile and the complete retooling he’s done to get what he wants out of it. He connects this dream of fully fixing the car—arguably a realistic one—to one of taking it to go fishing. It’s important to keep in mind that this first play takes place in the South Oak Cliff, Dallas of the late 1970s. Jack’s aspirations are a product of his socioeconomic status as well as his realization of the value and benefits of handling a project with one’s own resources.

Penny Johnson Jerald (Rose) and Karen Aldridge (Iris) in the garden. Photo by Brandon Thibodeaux.

Rain’s gardening scene perhaps most profoundly shows the differences between young people who craft traditions as a way of change versus people who see it as a way of life. Before it was a cool element of urban culture, Rose was “doing it herself” for her own means. Iris is attempting to help her mother garden, it seems, as a form of release and change. She sums it up when she tells her mother she’s looking for a new experience, or at least a new perspective on old experiences. Her mother guides her, being well-versed in how a garden works, how deep you should dig and what the plants need. Clearly Rose’s older relatives show her the ways of tending plants early on; she knows quite a lot about how to grow them even from sparse resources. Rose’s work in tending the land and faith in doing things for herself becomes a major part of her character and determines much of the relationship with her daughter as her health declines. She becomes angry and resistant when Iris attempts to help her or take care of her, insistent that she is just as capable as she has always been and in search of the greater personal reward that comes from perseverance. Rose holds onto her ability to do these things as part of her lifestyle, but because she values the wisdom personal involvement in our own products instills.

Rose and Daisy, like so many social scholars today, seem to imply that Iris feels disconnected and in need of something more stable because she has drifted away from older values. As Rose tends her garden in Rain, she maintains that Iris, in her well-off urban lifestyle, has drifted away from the time when a person would garden for herself and rely on her own crops instead of posh grocery stores. Rose urges that Iris find patience and be able to invest time in these slow, older practices because they teach discipline and a true appreciation for the craft. It is also, to her generation, a way of life. Rose’s approach shows us that through something as simple as gardening or learning a craft, Iris could find something stable and constant in herself.

More on the Trinity River

The Dallas Oak Cliff Viaduct, spanning Trinity River. Photo by the National Parks Service.

The Trinity River, a thematic centerpiece in the trilogy and its namesake, is a place in a state of constant change. Here are some resources to foster awareness of the river’s importance as the most highly populated watershed in the state of Texas, as well as highlight its problems and projects undertaken to preserve it:

The Trinity River Corridor Project, a public works and development undertaking:

The Trinity River Corridor

Living With The Trinity, a multimedia public broadcasting project (KERA Dallas/Forth Worth) that aims to raise awareness of the river’s history and importance:

Living With The Trinity

A Christmas Carol

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page to stage
From Page to Stage

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Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men

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Teddy Ferrara

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Measure for Measure

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By the Way, Meet Vera Stark

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Bayard Rustin speaking to a crowd in 1965. Photo by Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (via Wikimedia Commons)
The March on Washington

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Momma’s Boyz

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