Lost and found
It happens in strange and surprising ways in “Cherokee,” a world-premiere play from Pulitzer Prize finalist Lisa D’Amour.
By Naila Francis
Lisa D’Amour refers to “Cherokee” as a camping play.
The latest comedy from the Pulitzer Prize finalist, making its world premiere at the Wilma Theater this week, follows two couples from Houston who take a trip to Cherokee, N.C.
But their return to nature offers more than detachment from their plugged-in, conventional existence as they begin to peel back the layers of who they are and what they want — a journey of discovery that delves even deeper with the arrival of a young Cherokee native.
“I spent a lot of time camping growing up. I was curious about writing a play that took place in a campground involving people that were very much trying to change up their routine,” says D’Amour, who won an Obie Award for best new American play, in addition to her Pulitzer nod, for “Detroit,” her 2010 work also about two couples and involving a camping trip — that one aborted.
She considers “Cherokee” its companion piece, a work seeded in the moment a married middle-class suburbanite couple in “Detroit” contemplates the landscape that predated their environs and the husband imagines it to have been “the wild.”
It is that juxtaposition of wilderness and civilization that provides fertile ground for the introspection at the heart of “Cherokee.” Yes, it truly is about camping, but D’Amour, who also is known for the experimental, grass-roots pieces she creates as one half of interdisciplinary duo PearlDamour, tends to pack big ideas into familiar constructs.
The sense of possibility she felt as a girl, sleeping and eating in the woods in Cherokee, nestled in the shadows of the Great Smoky Mountains — on land that is home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — fuels much of the play’s action.
“I was definitely thinking about potential, new beginnings, what does it mean to say yes and what are the things you might have to give up when you say yes to change,” says the playwright, who splits her time between her native New Orleans and Brooklyn. “We live in a country where there’s been a lot of amazing choices that have been made over 200-some years of its existence and a lot of mistakes that have been made. What do you do with the feeling of, ‘I wish we could go back and do that again’?
“What is this idea of looking back and moving forward?”
The way D’Amour explores such questions makes for an experiential night of theater that often defies audience expectation. It’s an aesthetic shared by longtime friend and director Anne Kauffman. The Obie Award winner is returning to the Wilma, where she previously helmed “Becky Shaw” and “Body Awareness” — both earned Barrymore Awards for best play and best director — to work with D’Amour in her debut at the Philadelphia theater. Kauffman, who has known D’Amour for 15 years, also directed the off-Broadway run of “Detroit” at Playwrights Horizons in 2012.
Both plays, she says, capture a particular moment in American history, when a greater truth-telling, collaboration and humility are being called for in the face of eroding superpower ideals. Even the play’s characters — a black and a white couple, from different economic backgrounds, and a Native American — speak to a changing America.
“We’re talking about this country that is in the process of a huge shift in demographics, and in 50 years, there won’t be a majority race. Part of this new world Lisa’s envisioning has this fable quality to it but also a real component to the way this country is going to be and not be and what happens when people who don’t have the advantages are suddenly in power,” says Kauffman. “There’s a lot going on, but the thing with Lisa is you never feel these are disparate themes. They’re layered right on top of each other but go from the personal to the political to the social to the economic. It’s like a layer cake.
“She’s so brilliant at being able to encapsulate the mythic, the fable and the real in any given moment.”
The allegorical quality of D’Amour’s work is especially evident in her language.
“She actually makes up words that feel somehow recognizable. She has this incredible imagination. It’s like a kid’s imagination,” says Kauffman. “Even her more-realistic phrases have a particular angle to them, a flight of fancy to them. The language is very experiential rather than narrative. The way you watch her plays, you’ll find the plots are an experience rather than an A, B, C linear form.
“People think if it’s not linear, it’s not like real life. We’re all so busy with finding the meaning and narrative to a thing, we’ve lost touch with the wild and wooly part of what it is to experience life.”
The characters in “Cherokee” fumble with their own limited awareness and lack of understanding on the uncertain path to creating a world apart from the one they’ve known.
“There’s a real feeling of the pliable nature of time and how time really changes when you get out of your normal routine, when you really put away the electronics and start living by a different clock,” says D’Amour. “When you’re in that situation where the usual structures you hold onto — often to get away from yourself — are suddenly taken away, it can be incredible, scary, surprising, what rises to the surface and what you notice about yourself or the world that you didn’t have time to notice before.”
As the men and women grapple with their doubts about the choices they’ve made and the lives they’ve embraced, they’re presented with an alternative.
“What if we start each day fresh and don’t assume we know what’s going to happen next and what if we were to live our life like that? Would we be more satisfied as human beings?” says Kauffman.
But such serious thoughts are posed with a light, and quirky, touch.
“My plays are really funny, but it’s not a surface funny. You should laugh a lot when you’re in my plays, but it’s ultimately about a deeper yearning that the characters have,” says D’Amour. “They are real meditations on why we are who we are.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer