Breaking our Hearts


For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been preoccupied with our school’s production of HAIR — I was cast as the mother.  I have never acted on stage before–I’ve been in dance performances, have given public readings–but I’ve never acted beyond an elementary school play about the Pilgrims, put on for other classes and maybe parents.  This was a whole new experience–and it got me thinking about the power of story, about the various narratives we tell that make up our collective story in addition to the various ways those stories are told.

HAIR, as you all probably know, is a “rock musical.”  Its narrative is disjointed, non-linear, told mostly through a series of montages and songs.  Loosely, the songs and vignettes tell the story of “the Tribe,” a group of “hippy” anti-war protestors, and their friend, Claude, who ends up going to Vietnam and getting killed.  (I play Claude’s mother –a stereotypical 1960’s housewife who thinks her son is wasting his time, striving for nothing beyond “being disheveled”). The songs are full of youthful questioning and enthusiasm.  One song asks, “How dare they try to end this beauty?”

I find myself wondering a lot about that particular lyric.  It is painful to listen to the gorgeous harmonizing, the powerful voices asking such an accusatory question (partly because in the show, I play one of the people who is actively trying to “end the beauty”).  Much of the show’s power is that the music is so lively and catching and the songs so beautiful while many of the lyrics convey difficult truths.  Of course, this is what good writing does too.

Though there are many examples (think Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Greg Bottoms’ Angelhead–I’m not sure why I started this particular list, there are so many!) right nowI’m thinking, in particular, of Justin Torres’ We, The Animals, the Cabell VCU First Novelist Award winner.  Much like HAIR, We, The Animals is a novel in vignettes.  The prose is strikingly beautiful–poetic in its images and rhythms–yet capable of telling difficult and heartbreaking truths.  In his visit to VCU this past week, Torres said that his goal as a writer is to “break your heart” and he does.

And when our hearts are broken, our minds are opened.  Hard truths seep in, possibly take root.  Isn’t this why, then, we tell our stories?  Isn’t this one way to be sure no one “ends this beauty?” Joan Didion says that we tell ourselves stories “in order to live.”  Patricia Hampl says we tell our stories in order to own our history–if we don’t tell our stories, someone else will. And they might get it wrong.

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