A couple of days ago, I checked out a rehearsal of Susana Cook's new play, “We Are Caligula”. It felt so retro, sitting on a folding chair and watching actual humans on the stage moving around in the flesh. It was kind of about that — flesh — and the disposable body. Who gets eaten and who doesn't. What makes somebody God enough to make the choice, and somebody else so far below human they end up on the plate.
In short, with an entertaining blend of show tunes, massacres, and orgies, “We Are Caligula” explores just how our species justifies war, and racism, and homophobia, and all the other stuff that ends in us devouring each other (and animals) without a second thought.
Sitting there, with sweat running down the back of my knees, I started thinking about Trayvon Martin. He's one of the black bodies that doesn't count for much, either in life or death. You could say he was killed twice. Once, quickly, by George Zimmerman, another time slowly, during the Florida trial, as bigots assassinated a whole race.
I've been wanting to say something, but didn't know what. I was surprised at how many people were shocked that Zimmerman got off. As if half the white liberals on Facebook only then discovered that Dame Justice wasn't as blind as they'd thought. I guess they hadn't noticed all the straight guys getting acquitted for shooting queers. “He came onto me, I was afraid.” Or how women are always getting raped and killed while their attackers go free. And when it comes to race, I seem to remember marching 15 years ago when Amadou Diallo got shot 41 times by NYPD cops who were apparently terrified of a black man raising a wallet. Fear acquitted them, too.
The only question is whether the current outrage can grow legs and take off. After all, people went out in the streets after Diallo's death, but nothing much changed. Probably because it was mostly African Americans out marching in horror. After Zimmerman's recent acquittal, they've finally been joined by plenty of my white peeps who may have had a great awakening to racism, but are probably just shocked by this specific case with the shooter clearly out of control. The victim, Trayvon Martin, so young and puppyishly cute, he looks as good on a poster as Matthew Shepard.
It's not enough. Even innocent, handsome, white Matthew Shepard might have disappeared from the radar if there hadn't been national LGBT groups ready to leap on his corpse for all they were worth, sending out flyers, demanding money, using his mother with incredible effect to bring attention to hate crimes legislation. “Matthew just happened to be my son, but he could have been yours, your son, your brother, your…” Which is literally true. Queers are usually born to straights, like cuckoos dropped in the nest.
Black kids, on the other hand, don't turn up so randomly in white families. So another script will have to encourage whites, whether entirely racist or merely privileged, to make the leap and see kids like Trayvon as their kin.
I don't see any other way to put a stake through racism's heart. Surely not by making the opposite argument, as one blog does, smarmily calling attention to white privilege by declaring, “We Are Not Trayvon Martin.” Even if it does have a certain consciousness-raising value, in the long term WeAreNotTrayvonMartin.com also has the unintended consequence of reinforcing the idea that human experiences are so different between races that they can't be bridged. And that racism itself is a singular set of problems. If that's the case, well, what can we really do beyond maybe getting that Florida law repealed, which allows fearful folks like Zimmerman to Stand Their Ground with a loaded gun?
I actually think we'd get further with a site declaring, “We Are Trayvon Martin AND Also George Zimmerman.” Because even though the system weights things heavily in favor of whites from life to liberty, individually we are not as separate as we'd like, either in our goodness or evil. And any evolution of our society's culture will require an immense joint effort of the imagination that we can rarely be bothered to make.
In “We Are Caligula,” it rang true when a couple of worried senators (and possible victims) got together to figure out how to depose the dangerous, bloodthirsty Caligula, but ended up deciding he wasn't so bad after all, he had his reasons, and Rome's finances were doing quite well. All things considered, change was scarier than Caligula, and frankly, required too much work.
“We Are Caligula” will be performed Sat., Aug. 3, 8:30 p.m. at Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie St., btwn. Rivington & Delancey Sts.; hotfestival.org.