Monday, March 11, 2019

Operating Systems

I've had a challenging and satisfying few hours chewing on the ideas and questions posed by Gus Schulenburg's new play Operating Systems, which I saw this afternoon. The description of the piece on the Flux Theatre Ensemble's web page includes this:
Operating Systems wrestles with how internalized oppression often makes us reinforce oppressive systems even as we work toward justice. In a tokenizing system that often positions oppressed peoples against each other, can the relationships at the heart of the play survive? Is it better to leverage the resources of these systems in service of justice, or to burn the whole thing down? 
These are fascinating and important questions that couldn't be more timely. (In fact, while walking to the theatre, my niece and I chatted about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, with my niece ready to have AOC "burn the whole thing down" and me hoping that AOC will work more within the system.)

Morgan McGuire, Lori Elizabeth Parquet
Photo: Justin Hoch
In Operating Systems, Code Breakers is a not-for-profit organization (with an emphasis on not, per its CEO Benita) that teaches code to high school girls of color. Originated by dot-com whiz Stephen (think Bill-Stephen-Gates-Jobs with a drinking problem), Code Breakers fights the good fight. But when alumn Bel returns there to teach, ugly secrets are revealed.

Operating Systems is narrated by Dani, a trans-masc former student who runs IT for Code Breakers. Dani, who goes by they, is on the spectrum and a genius. Their sensitivity makes it almost impossible for them to deal with the unraveling of Code Breakers, although they comfort themselves with mathematics.

[spoilers below]

The unraveling begins when Stephen makes a pass at Bel, who supposedly resembles his late wife. Bel is horrified, and Stephen's apology is far from sufficient to dispel her horror. In addition, Bel assumes that since Stephen has made a pass at her, he has possibly/probably made passes at some of the students as well. She recruits a journalist to do a quiet investigation, feeling that this is the only way to protect the students. Benita, on the other hand, feels that holding up Code Breakers to negative public scrutiny will make the students less safe since Code Breakers could lose funding. It turns out that Stephen has been physically inappropriate with at least one student, and more than once: Dani.

Here's the thing: there's a big difference between making a drunken pass at a woman and regularly molesting a girl (which is how Dani was presenting at that point). Operating Systems seems to believe that all straight cis-men are guilty, or at least potentially guilty, of misusing their power. Which I sort of agree with, but sort of not too. I also think that presenting Bel as so strongly affected by Stephen's pass makes her come across as less powerful than she is. I agree with Benita's idea that you "Shake it off, move forward." Again, this is a pass at an adult, not an attack, not a rape, not the molestation of a girl. And when Benita ends up in tears at the end, after her own #metoo moment, I felt that she had been made less powerful as well. Many, many women have #metoo in their past--or present--but remain powerful individuals.

[end of spoilers]

While not in the top tier of Schulenburg's work, Operating Systems features a generous portion of her signature traits: intelligence, heart, and compassion. Unfortunately, the characters come across as idea-delivery-systems rather than as dimensional people. Schulenburg reminds me of Tom Stoppard in this way, searching for the right balance of ideas, emotion, debate, and humanity.

More importantly, many of the ideas came across as political correctness (which I totally support in real life) rather than human complexity (which I seek in theatre, even in straight cis-male characters).

Schulenburg dances around the complexity a bit in the person of Jake, a conservative journalist who knew Benita in school. He asks some important, even biting questions, such as, Would Dani have been accepted to Code Breakers in their current trans-masc identity? And what about white girls? What about a particular white girl in a wheelchair who was refused admittance? The strengths versus the limits of one-group-only spaces is a conundrum that can turn political correctness on its ear, but Schulenburg has Jake back down from stirring up these challenging ideas.

A major problem in this particular version of Operating Systems is that actor Neo Cihi, as Dani, can be difficult to understand. Considering that Dani is our guide to the story, as well as delivering the most complicated, metaphorical, and funny ideas, the play is severely affected by their lack of clarity.

Speaking of humor: the script reads much funnier than the performance I saw today. It's hard to tell if that was a problem of direction, timing, enunciation, or this afternoon's particular audience, but I think that humor could have gone a long way toward humanizing the play.

I suspect I will continue to think about this play, which was certainly thought-provoking!

Wendy Caster
(second row, press ticket)
Show-Score: 78

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