Friday, January 30, 2015

Winner and Losers: How We Fight, Why We Fight, What We Fight

With the exactitude and agony of flaying skin off of another human, Winners and Losers goes to work on the layers of humanity, painfully peeling back privilege, class, education, experience, politics, art, and sex by putting friend against friend in a battle for labels. Never has the designation winner or loser been wielded with such consequence.

Couched in the terms of a game between two performers and friends (the performers are credited as the creators of the show with Chris Abraham as director) the topics debated are sometimes heavy, sometimes glib but mostly global--Mexico, Pamela Anderson, NFL, First Nations.  As the battle becomes more personal the stakes do too. The performers share their personal narratives (or mythologies) about themselves. James Long, a working class guy, is married with a young family. Maybe he's the winner of the street smarts competition.  Marcus Youssef, the child of an Egyptian immigrant and wealthy banker, is common law married with older kids. Probably he's the winner of the "worldly wise" competition.

Like Gym Party the battles are a little irrational. It's all harmless fun until it's not--until it becomes a psychological battle waged between what our privilege, experiences, desires, actions, and existence means to the other.  Ultimately Winners and Losers shows how the baton of privilege is passed back and forth between us all.  Depending on the situation and who you are with, you may be the person of privilege in one scenario and the person without it in another.

The piece ends up looking at not only what intelligent, educated people can fight about, but also how those fights are staged and exacted on each other. Sure I happened to go see this show the same day some people who don't know me called me a "stupid cow" on the Internet because I expressed a vitriolic opinion about a Broadway musical.  But in a world where we are increasingly fighting battles of authenticity, validation, and personal rhetoric in these anonymous spaces, it was even more searing to see it exacted live, face-to-face, between friends. 

How much time do we aggressively try to get the world to see our point of view and never once stop to see how privileged we are in our point of view.   It is hard to stomach watching a friend question another as to whether his acceptance of his privilege is enough or the other, with more wealth coming his way, challenge the other on his excessive spending over an expensive pair of blue jeans.  As dramatically staged, these questions and inquiries cut at the soul of each of the men and their visions of themselves and watching a "friend" call each out on their behavior, beliefs, and version of the truth is rough. It's not about blue jeans. 

And again like Gym Party the audience's reaction bears mention. When James is physically wrestling Marcus he pins him down and then starts slapping his face and his ass. It goes beyond "winning" the match to an aspect of humiliation and bullying. The audience laughed. The more it went on the more  sadistic it felt.  Though it never quite felt like the show called out the audience on this wrestling scene, I think it would be hard to watch this show and not spend some time seeing connections to your own life or how you may relate or not to the characters in the show. 

The language and style of argument was also fascinating.  James tried to use aggression and anger to stop conversations. Marcus constantly "acknowledged" his own feelings and his role in things as he tried to gingerly steer James to see his point of view.  The way in which they tried to move the conversation said as much about them as the content of those conversations. 

Power, powerlessness, survival, and success are often wrapped up in very emotional experiences. Why couples don't talk about money and why couples need to talk about money is part of this.  It's not about dollars. It's about the entire way you see the world, yourself in the world, and what you can make from this world. It's loaded with personal history, emotional baggage, privilege, and a lifetime of formative experiences. This play blows up that conversation to its most dramatic potential and the audience is left to pick up its own emotional pieces from when the lights come up.

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