After Omer Fast’s one-hour performance, Talk Show, I was looking for a cab, when Rosie Perez, who had just appeared in the piece and was also waiting for a yellow limousine, acknowledged me with a grimace registering resignation and frustration. When I offered to let her take the first cab, she waved me off with the back of her hand.
We stood about ten feet apart, a chilly fall wind spinning her hair, until a taxi pulled over, and I repeated my offer. As she went to open the door, I said, “In this case, beauty before age”, to which she responded with the most ego-deflating, ‘get a life’ look I have ever been shot.
Fast’s Talk Show is a cross between a chat show and a game of telephone. On a stage arranged like a set for an interview, an unidentified man I took to be Bill Ayers, a founder of the Weather Underground and now a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told a moderator, played by the actor Tom Noonan, “how he got into this mess”. The mess in question was his radicalisation in the 1960s and his relationship with Diana Oughton, a fellow radical, who was killed in 1970 when a bomb-making factory the Weathermen were running in a townhouse on 11th Street in Greenwich Village exploded.
Ayers also played a bit part in the last presidential campaign, when his glancing association with then Senator Obama (both lived in the Hyde Park neighbourhood in Chicago) became fodder for the Republican bullshit mill, which spewed all kinds of accusations about treason, involvement with terrorists and lack of patriotism on Obama’s part. Fittingly, this brouhaha is a prime example of the kind of misinterpretation, or reinterpretation, of ‘facts’ that Fast’s piece was exploring.
After Ayers finished speaking, he left the stage and was replaced by the actress Lili Taylor, who then played host to Noonan’s rendition of Ayers’s story. Taylor in turn told her version to Jill Clayburgh. And on and on six times, ending with Rosie Perez speaking to Ayers, closing the circle so to speak. By which time Ayers’s highly nuanced description of protest and radicalisation, social conscience and moral dilemma during the Vietnam War years had morphed into a ‘Catholic high-school girls in trouble’ tale of violent protest against the Iraq War and George W. Bush, whom Perez fittingly called “the most stupid president we have ever had”. (So Rosie, I forgive you for your rudeness. You probably get compliments all the time.)
Ayers’s narrative raises enormously pithy questions about then and now, and the parallel Fast draws between the Vietnam era, when millions marched on Washington to oppose a war, and today, when protest is muted at best and seems, frankly, futile, was obvious from the start. But Fast seems to be cutting to some deeper, more subtle dynamic having to do with personal agency.
It’s not just that Ayers asks what one does when protest is failing, but how an individual might act against forces he considers entrenched and intransigent, or how, more generally, one chooses to participate as a citizen. The mutation of his story exemplifies not misunderstanding per se but how personal perspective and knowledge inflect interpretation. For example, while Ayers referred to the Johnson and Nixon administrations as “the powers that be”, Clayburgh used the phrase “insulated, isolated, white males”. Noonan, who was also old enough to have known what was going on in the 1960s, added details about greenery on the Washington Mall, where the antiwar demonstrations took place.
On the other hand, Dave Hill, who was clearly not around during the Vietnam War and apparently makes his living playing an egotistical dope for laughs, dropped lines like, “I could be a teacher; I had the outfits” and added that he was teaching the fuck out of smokin’ hot girls. (Ayers got his start as an elementary school teacher in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he met Oughton.) He claimed to have no idea what war he was protesting when he went to demonstrations in DC.
This know-nothing superficiality was momentarily amusing, but its artificiality pointed up how rehearsed the performance felt. Of course the news, as presented in the US, is pretty much scripted entertainment. Our anchors are often doing exactly what Fast’s actors did, repeating what other people have said, in the process obscuring rather than revealing meaning.
But the real questions the piece poses are for the audience, because all of us not only face, or ignore, the responsibilities of citizenship, but we all retell ourselves our own version of what we hear and read. By shifting attention to the stage and erring on the side of the overdetermined, Fast draws the audience away from self-realisation, muddling the message of personal culpability that Ayers’s reflections encapsulate.