There’s a contradiction at the heart of one-person plays about trauma.
Many of these solo shows boast the aesthetics of a TED Talk: highly presentational, polished to the nth degree, word-perfect, with meticulously precise rhythm, pacing, and narrative structures. Because the solo actor is the primary storytelling device at their disposal, productions tend to cleanly shape the text and their performance to maximize the audience’s straightforward engagement and understanding.
But have you ever heard a person still in the midst of struggling with their trauma try to tell their story? As much as we might feel the clear urgency of their motivation to clarify their tale for catharsis’ sake, their active wrestling with their own demons inhibits the clarity of a TED Talk.
If they’re still struggling to tell their own story in a coherent manner even to themselves, then wouldn’t it stand to reason that the audience will struggle to cohere their story, too?
Who Killed My Father dons this approach, as does another example at San Diego’s Old Globe right now.
Mala is about writer and star Melinda Lopez coming to terms with the death of her mother, as she attempts to make sense of the disparate pieces of their relationship, pieces that she now must reckon with alone because her mother is no longer around — and will never be around again — to help her work through what’s left unresolved (this tragic truth also fuels the siblings’ arcs in Montana Story; it’s their final chance to ask their father for answers that’ll die with him).
“Disparate” also describes the storytelling style here, of both text and performance. Grief and guilt have the capacity to dislodge and disassociate its victims, a messiness that pervades Mala. At times, it seems like she’s stumbling over her lines, as if she’s floundering to remember the script…as would be the case for someone stuck in the psychosis of her own tortured psyche, searching for the words to explain the unexplainable.
As such, the apparent artifice of Lopez’s performance actually reads as truer to her character than a neat and tidy TED Talk. A crisp recall wouldn’t call our attention to her struggle, and it wouldn’t be as true to how the character would be if she was on stage in front of us, in all her conflicted, rough and clumsy (un)glory.
Fittingly, her story and performance are all over the place. When she gets too far afield of her focus, too consumed by the overwhelming emotions threatening to topple the ship, she returns to a sort of happy place to regroup, rattling off positive micro memories that reconnect her to a more manageable perspective. These interludes are followed by the “chapter” title of the next section projected around her, as if she uses the text to keep her on track. It’s a push-pull between the ordered structure of most one-person shows, and the disorder of her own consciousness.
“All over the place” is also the modus operandi of her blocking. Because the audience surrounds the stage on all sides, Lopez is constantly on the move, stuck in a confined space, but still twisting and turning to give the viewers fleeting glimpses of her face. Not only is this physicality dramaturgically-true to the state of her character’s existence, it also deprives the audience of fully gleaning her person through her visage, blocking our window into her being; we’re blocked just like she’s blocked.
That’s how it goes with recollection; the act of collection is neither neat nor tidy, resulting in the drama before us being neither neat nor tidy.
Like her, we’re all in disarray.
Another overlap between Who Killed My Father and Mala: their only set piece is a blanket-adorned chair.