News & Articles

Welcome to The Motherf**ker with the Hat

by Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey

Okay, the name of the play is The Motherf**ker with the Hat. It's a bold introduction to the discourse of the play. One, incidentally, that is fulfilled. There's a lot of swearing in the play. Stephen has created characters whose mode of expression is both energized and bound by a profusion of profanity. Why? Why are we being invited into a world whose vocabulary is so deeply offensive to many audience members? What does the profanity do to us? We are being invited into a world by the playwright with the hope that we will empathize with the people in that world. Why then does Stephen so boldly invoke profanity, knowing that it may create a barrier to the very lives we are being asked to understand and love? My experience of the play, garnered initially from seeing the Broadway production that our ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro directed, and subsequently from multiple readings of the text, is that the language of the play does two things. First, it announces itself: it suggests a world that is not my own. The people in the play do not, unlike the majority of the people in the audience, have educational, economic or cultural privilege. And second, the language becomes incidental to the complex people in the play with whom I end up falling in love. I think what Stephen is up to in the play is that he is creating people who may seem different from the ones sitting next to us in the theater but who become, over the course of the play, deeply human, deeply familiar and deeply sympathetic. And the canny wisdom in that method is that we are able to recognize that the fundamental questions we all negotiate—most especially, our responsibility in love and the ethics of our relationships: how we carry ourselves in the world—are not exclusive to those of us with cultural capital. The language issues a challenge to our empathy: can we take seriously the humanity and complexity of people who are different from us? Can we, even, have our eyes opened to the deepest ethical questions of our lives by listening to people we may be tempted to dismiss? I believe Stephen Adly Guirgis is a reliable guide to this empathy journey. He is deliberate in his use of language (Anna can report that in that initial production of the play, Stephen carefully parsed the use of profanity—excising a swear word here, nuancing the musical resonances of repeated profanity there) and intentional in the effects of each character dialogue exchange. Stephen lives authentically in both of the worlds he is balancing here. He is an accomplished theater artist and knows the contours of that world and social status. He is also conversant in the polyphany of a multi-cultural, mixed-income urban world. And the play is funny! And surprising. The language is musical and poetic and deeply passionate. The people are complex, their minds incisive, their confrontation with themselves and each other is essential and raw. Addiction is a big theme in the play. Yes, the addiction to alcohol and drugs. But I think the play opens on to the question of addiction in a much broader way. If addiction is, fundamentally, the habits that we adopt to keep ourselves from feeling, to keep ourselves from confronting the pain we are covering, to keep ourselves from taking responsibility for our own lives, the play has an enormous amount to teach us about how we each walk through the world. Money and its comforts can be that addiction, as can love, as can the friendships that protect us from knowing what it is to stand alone and choose the direction of our lives. Toward the end of the play, Ralph D. says to Jackie: "Jackie, let me tell you this one true thing and we could go our separate ways, and I'm gonna be conservative about this right here: Anybody you meet before the age of, say 25? That's your friend. Anybody after that? That's just an associate. Someone to pass the time. Someone who meets maybe one or two specific needs. But friend? Shit. Friends are at the playground. If that sounds tough, that's because it is. It's called the real world." If there is a single animating idea in the play, it may be the invocation to stop fooling ourselves. The play gives us the opportunity to witness folks who are, in one way or another, keeping themselves from the truth. And being forced, in the end, to confront it. It gives us, as the theater audience, an opportunity to feel, initially, that these people are different from us. That our relative privilege can protect us from the struggles these characters face. Perhaps the learning of the play is: stop fooling yourself. None of us can buy or con or ignore our way out of our responsibility to live a stand-up life. As Ralph D. would say, it's called the real world.