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Welcome to Belleville

by Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey

Two couples. One, Abby and Zack, are American expatriates living in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. The other, Alioune and Amina, have roots in Senegal and are the landlords of the apartment where Abby and Zack live, and their downstairs neighbors. Abby and Zack are recently married and have moved to Paris for Zack's job doing medical research on AIDS with Medicins Sans Frontiers. Abby is finding it hard to live in Paris. She doesn't speak French, she misses her family. Her mom recently died, her sister is about to give birth, and she has gone off of her antidepressant medication. Abby is in constant contact with her father, who calls frequently (to Zack's frustration). The unease between Abby and Zack is apparent from the opening scene of the play, despite their efforts to connect. Alioune and Zack are friends. They get together to smoke pot but their camaraderie is strained. Zack hasn't paid rent for four months and it's left to Alioune, who's under pressure from his family, to collect the money he's owed. The play is a suspense story so it would be unfair to reveal its plot or hint at its outcome. I think, instead, I might point to some elements of the play worth observing. The first is the difference between these couples. Abby and Zack, white Americans, are ex-patriots. Alioune is an African immigrant and Amina was born in France. The differentiation found in common usage usually comes down to socioeconomic factors, so skilled professionals working in another country are described as expatriates whereas a manual labourer who has moved to another country to earn more money might be labeled an ‘immigrant.’ This is important to the play in understanding the dynamic between the couples and it points to a central theme that Amy is working throughout the play. The recurring mention of home and family, parents and children, is a lens through which Amy is exploring the question of responsibility and maturity and the cultural forces that shape those qualities. Alioune and Amina are parents, Zack and Abby are not despite their being several years older than Alioune and Amina. Instead, Abby is positioned as a daughter: her constant connection to her father and the family of her origin is a point of tension between her and Zack. Abby's sister and brother-in-law await the eminent birth of their daughter and in the banter between Abby and Zack, we see that they regard the couple as rather conventional. There's a bit of scorn in the way that they talk about the settled lifestyle of Abby's sister and brother-in-law— the implication that they are grown-up and thus “square.” Notice that in the patter between Zack and Abby, their nickname for each other is “homey.” Yes, it's a term of endearment in contemporary slang to signify a closeness, but the constant repetition of the moniker is significant because its common usage is between friends (usually of the same gender) and so conveys more a friendship than a spousal relationship. Because the play is inquiring so pointedly into the nature of home, the idea that Abby and Zack are less spouse to one another than playmates is unsettling. An exchange between the couple when Abby is very drunk is revealing: ABBY: Where am I? ZACK: Home, homey. (She laughs, drunkenly) ABBY: Home homey home homey home. Did you know that— ZACK: Gonna have to repeat that. ABBY: The word uncanny. It means unhomely. I mean, etymolog-ic-ally. Or in German, or something. It's Freud. I'm dizzy. Through this brief exchange, the playwright has glancingly introduced the specter of the uncanny in Abby's dizzy feeling for home, and hinted at the “Freudian” nature of that feeling. The uncanny is identified as a feeling of the strange and mysteriously unsettling, and specifically, in Freudian terms, describes something that appears familiar but is paradoxically foreign at the same time. Something that should be comforting appears threatening, and all the more so because of the familiar shape it takes. It may be worth noting Freud introduced his concept of the uncanny with the German word ‘unheimlich.’ That is, the opposite of 'heimlich' which can be translated as ‘homely.’ It's here, that Abby, in her disinhibited state is able to put her finger on the nexus of home, the uncanny, and the Freudian indication of something below the surface. Something in Abby recognizes an unease in their “home” they have in each other. I love the introduction of “the foreign” into the knot of meaning. It loops us back to Amina and Alioune. Both couples are perceived as "foreigners" in France but Alioune and Amina perhaps have a more "uncanny" relationship to France. Alioune was born in Senegal, the former French colony. He is a familiar in his adopted country in that he speaks French, and because his wife Amina was born in France. And yet their African origins mark both as foreign, “the other.” As Zack and Abby are so clearly outsiders to Belleville, the “uncanny” in that couple may exist more deeply in the personal relationship between them—in the “unhomeliness” of the home they share. The sense that they are more sibling or playmate than they are spouse to one another suggests that they have never really left the home of their origin. Home to them is a place where they are children, not a place where they have children. Within the context of marriage, their familiarity is, perhaps, strange. The play is asking us to keep two things in view: the nature of the relationship between Zack and Abby, and the difference between the two couples in the play. I think Amy is extremely skilled in maintaining that dual focus. The deeply psychological inquiry into the relationship of Abby and Zack opens up onto a cultural question. How is it that Americans comport themselves on the world stage? Is there, finally, a difference in our sense of maturity and responsibility? And finally, the play is an engrossing and suspenseful mystery. It's a great theatrical ride—funny, scary, insightful and surprising. We are delighted to bring this powerful voice to Steppenwolf. -Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey