A Theatrical Confrontation in L.A.

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Saturday night
we see The Weir at the Geffen Playhouse–oddly appropriate, considering
it’s St. Patrick’s Day. The play is a bit of a bore, but my wife–let’s
call her Jil–enjoys it. Throughout the play, whenever Jil laughs, the woman
sitting in the seat in front of her looks back and scowls.



As the play
ends (the last 20 minutes are moving in an Irish-Tragic Three Beer Epiphany
kind of way), everyone stands and applauds. Jil leans forward and confronts
the woman, a white woman in her mid-30s, with a sensible pageboy haircut. Jil
is small, pretty and African-American. She is an actress who acted Off-Off Broadway,
did an indie that made it to Cannes and standup before moving to L.A., where
she acts on television and just wrapped her first big feature. Her bedside reading
alternates between Cosmo and Thoreau, Eggers and Melville.


The applause
dies down. The woman is smiling at Jil. Was this whole thing some sort of misunderstanding?
Just when I think they’ve worked it out, the woman says, "Skank."


Did I just
hear what I thought I heard?


"Why
am I a skank?" Jil asks. "Because I enjoyed the play?"


"You
and your phony laugh," the woman says. "Like, I get the jokes."


"Why
don’t you just take the stick out of your repressed ass and enjoy yourself?"
Jil says. Around us, the crowd of mostly older west-side theatergoers has begun
to collect their jackets, while trying to act like nothing is going on here.


Clearly, this
woman did not see this coming. She’s probably spent her entire life scowling
at people and no one ever tapped her on the shoulder before and asked her who
the fuck she thinks she is. Jil’s mom was a single mother, an African-American
union organizer who raised four children on her own in Baltimore. Once, driving
down the Jersey Turnpike, she felt the car behind her was following a little
too close, so she stopped the car in the middle of the Turnpike, got out, walked
back to the guy and said, "Stop tailgating me!"


This entire
incident has a weird Spy vs. Spy quality: no one except the two combatants
really knows what took place. Now the entire mezzanine is waiting for an explanation.


There is none,
of course. The woman mutters through a clenched smile–we can’t
even go to the theater anymore without being bothered–
something about
Jil being low class.


Uh-oh.



Here it comes.


"Cunt!"
Jil says.


That was always
the one word you could never say. There was always someone who would say, "I
hate that word. Say anything but that word." Now they say it on
Sex in the City every time Samantha leans out the window of her loft
and yells at the transvestite prostitutes to shut up already.


The Scowling
Woman is here with a bourgie African-American woman who is watching the confrontation
with a look of bourgie horror. On Scowling Woman’s other side is a thirtysomething,
bald, agent-looking guy who’s playing peacemaker, urging everyone to just
calm down.


Just when it
looks like it might get ugly, the incident gets defused. Everyone collects their
coats and goes downstairs and out onto Le Conte Ave. The incident is over.


Or so I think.


"Where
is she?" Jil asks. "Where is she? I want to talk to her. What’s
so skanky about enjoying a play?" she asks.


Good question.
In a weird way, by laughing out loud, Jil has violated some sort of unwritten
social compact that exists in Southern California that we are only beginning
to figure out. A couple of times I have been at games–a Padres playoff
game versus the Houston Astros in 1998, when Jim Leyritz hit a game-winner–where
I’ve stood and cheered, only to have a fan tap me on the shoulder from
behind. Please sit down. Another time, at a Lakers game, a group of us
cheering for the Lakers were told by other fans sitting in the section to stop
yelling so loud.


Unlike New
York, which is compulsively communicative to the point where you almost wish
people would just keep their thoughts to themselves, Los Angeles is compulsively
private. It’s a place where people keep secrets. There are gates in all
the nice neighborhoods to keep you from seeing into their wealthy worlds, and
they built Staples Center, the new arena, to make it almost impossible for the
serfs (Upper Levels) to be able to sneak down into the landowners’ (Lower
Levels) sections. When you read about show business, you might get this idea
that there’s a place where certain people go who make up Show Business,
a kind of Royal Court. But then you get here and Show Business is actually just
1001 touts in $1500 suits and $200 haircuts trying to whisper each other to
death.


The other thing
the Geffen Incident illustrates is the difference between show business people
(performers) and civilians, and how they react to live performances. We (performers)
just laugh louder, and more often–because we know what it’s like to
be onstage, praying for a little audience reaction.


Jil and I walk
to Gardens on Glendon, an exposed brick place just off I-405 where people meet
on blind dates–nice enough, and what freeway access!–for a drink.
Jil drinks a glass of merlot, cries, says how sick and tired she is of being
regarded with suspicion by white people and Asian storekeepers everywhere she
goes in Santa Monica.


"I’ve
never stolen a thing," she cries. "When I was at Bennington, all those
white girls stole. All my little white girlfriends stole all the time, and slept
with all kinds of guys, and I never slept with anyone, but now I can’t
go anywhere without some creep stalking me down the aisle. You probably just
think I’m crazy, because every time you walk in a store, all anyone ever
feels is relieved." (I’m a white guy.)


In a way, she
is crazy: she has committed the insane act of telling people the truth
in Los Angeles.


She borrows
a pen from the bartender and writes on a napkin.


"I’m
going to get t-shirts made," she says, and she holds up the napkin.


On it is written:
Please stop following me because I’m black. I’m not going to steal
anything
.


E-mail Stephen
Hunt at sbh9924@hotmail.com.


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