News & Articles

“I’m actually just going to pay for my Sprite”

by Jenni Page-White

Martha Lavey: Maybe the best way to start is to say that you’re a very accomplished playwright. And the plays for which I think you’re most well-known—The Hour of Feeling and Urge for Going—these are plays that draw on your father’s heritage. He’s Lebanese, and also a professor? Mona Mansour: No, he’s a lot like the main character in those plays, but he’s not an academic. ML: It’s interesting, because those plays have a very intellectual cast, and The Way West is quite a departure from all that. It’s structured in an entirely different way—it’s a play with songs, the tonality is a bit mad-cap in places, and certainly the characters are very American. MM: I think of those plays as being about my dad’s side of the family. And The Way West is more about my mom and her side of the family. I mean, my mom has physical problems much like the mom in The Way West. She grew up with money in Seattle, and then she married my dad, this immigrant, and we were very middle class. Then after they got divorced, she sort of went on a downward spiral, economically. And my mother had a ‘Tress’ in her life, who literally borrowed money from her for the exact health spa business venture in the play. I did the treatments and all that! ML: One of the things I think is cool about the play is the way the peripheral characters, Tress and Manny, are poised as examples of attempts to succeed in America. Tress is the get-rich quick scam-o way, and Manny is the guy who will just work, work, work—and he’s the one who’s going to have a family and a life and a job. MM: Well, it feels important to me to make explicit the connection between what Tress is doing to what happened in 2008 in the financial markets. Also, as I started to work on the play, I was talking with another playwright, and she said, “People will talk about sex, but they just won’t talk about money.” And that felt important to me, that this play was going to have a character say “How much do you make?” In a country that is so obsessed with material things, you know, we want stuff, but we don’t want to be specific about it… ML: I think because we don’t want to admit our limits. MM: Right. ML: It’s a sin to say “I can’t afford that.” MM:I think that’s true. I got into my own financial mess, and one of the reasons was that I would go out for drinks with people, and I didn’t want to say, “I’m going to order a Sprite, and I’m actually just going to pay for my Sprite. I’m going to be that person.” You know? So instead you say, “No, it’s fine!” And you buy the expensive NYC cocktail. And meanwhile you think, “F***, I hope this credit card works!” ML: The way this play flirts with disaster, that feeling of potential homelessness makes me anxious. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve lived on the edge, you know? It just feels like a state I could revert to, if the wrong series of things happen. MM: When I used to do a lot of temp work, we had this mantra of “Hey! I’m two paychecks away from being homeless.” And we were kidding, but… we kind of weren’t. ML: Right, it’s the flip-side of the idea that everybody can achieve the American Dream. The non-codified class system in the United States means that you can also precipitously fall. MM: Especially in California, everything went up so fast. And as fast as they would come up, they would also go down. Where, on the East coast, things moved more slowly and things were more entrenched; when things would fail, they wouldn’t fail as spectacularly. In California, when they failed, they failed terribly. It’s been an interesting thing to read about the history of the state that I came from. ML: One of the things you do so smartly with this play is that you’ve arranged this very particular story about this mom and her daughters so that it tells a larger American story. The imperative that’s always issued in those stories is “go west,” and you locate these people at the Western edge of the country, so that they’re about to fall off the edge. It suggests that the myth has exhausted itself. The question of manifest destiny that’s buried in all of those stories is that America is this place where anyone can achieve, and the reason that all of this should be ours, this land that we’re conquering—read, stealing—from other people, is because we’re inherently better. MM: I think, growing up in California, I definitely had the sense that we were a little better. ML: As Californians or as Americans? MM: Californians! Americans, yes, plus Californians. It was an added ‘better.’ I remember thinking about people who lived in Arizona, and I’d think, “Yeah, they just ran out of gas. They didn’t make it.” Every place has its mythology. But I do feel like the place where the American mythology of what formed this country really comes together is California. The newness of it—well, new to white people—the way that towns went up so quickly, it’s all the things that are American, but on steroids. Someone just told me that they saw on Google Translate a guidebook to the US for people from Asia, I think, and it said something like, “Americans are always optimistic, and you cannot hate them.” (She laughs.) We really are optimists. My father is from Lebanon—they are not optimists. ML: You know, Mona, there was a period of time when I was only reading 19th century fiction, and it’s so revealing… You know, the British are sort of beautifully ironic, the French are downright cynical, and the Americans are optimistic. You can really taste the national character in these great works, and it’s pretty consistent from one writer to the next. MM: Like you mentioned, Martha, this play connects the American character to the personal experience. These aren’t people that I’m standing apart from, judging. In writing this play, it’s very much that, okay—I’m the first in line. That Manda trap with the credit cards, where she’s maintaining $700 minimums and not even putting a dent in the actual debt—it’s absolutely the trap I fell into. And I’m happy to say, in case anyone’s wondering, it’s down to one card, and it’s only about $7800. ML: Hey Mona, if we do a good job on your play, here’s hoping that your royalties will pull you out of debt. They could!