Talking Cleanliness, Craziness, and Redemption With Sleeping Weazel's Charlotte Meehan
Prior to her interview with EDGE about her new play "Cleanliness, Godliness, and Madness: A User's Guide," Sleeping Weazel's artistic director, Charlotte Meehan, provided a copy of an op-ed piece she had written. In the op-ed, Meehan recalled how her parents adopted a survivalist mentality that was informed by racist fears and sentiments. The young Meehan saw the family's money go toward a stockpile of rations that, in the absence of civilization degenerating into race wars and desperate gun battles, eventually spoiled, uneaten.
Sleeping Weazel's approach to theater is one of "making different possible," which entails new work told with the use of multimedia. Meehan, who serves as Playwright-in-Residence at Wheaton College, is an accomplished author of theater work, and has brought her childhood memories -- and the perspective she gained through early life experience -- to a meditation on the state of a nation that could go so far as to elevate a crude, continually flip-flopping reality television star to the status of presidential candidate.
"Cleanliness, Godliness, and Madness: A User's Guide" centers around two deeply religious women whose "righteous" husbands discount them even as they strive to influence the social and political climate by founding a Moral Majority-like group called "The Movement to Restore Decency." Naturally, the very question of what constitutes "decency" -- and who is qualified to judge it, define it, or enforce it -- promises both depth of thought and breadth of humor in a play that, the Sleeping Weasel website promises, "provides a tragi-comic view of far right Christian fundamentalism, The Tea Party, and the hypocrisy that lives just beneath the surface of a stringent belief system no one actually upholds."
Charlotte Meehan recently chatted with EDGE about her personal past, the nation's future, and the, if you will, spirited times in which we live.
EDGE: The Sleeping Weazel website notes that your new play, "Cleanliness, Godliness, and Madness: A User's Guide," is your "response to the current U.S. election cycle." It's true the current election is ripe for parody, tragedy, and everything in between, but doesn't that mean you had to write the play quite quickly? How did you pull everything together so fast?
Charlotte Meehan: I've been working on this play for over two years, and in that time The Tea Party, Christian fundamentalist activism, gun violence, hate crimes, and police brutality toward African Americans have all become increasingly prevalent, along with the rise of Donald Trump to his current status as the Republican Presidential nominee.
While I certainly do not consider it my good luck that a sociopath could land in The White House, my reasons for writing this play were multiplied by Trump mania, and I did incorporate this mad moment into the text, which was not difficult given all that has been brewing before "The Donald's" stunning entrance into politics.
EDGE: You wrote an op-ed piece on Donald Trump in which you recalled childhood memories involving your father's terror and paranoia that societal collapse was imminent and race wars would be part of that. In the op-ed you point to Trump as "capitalizing on this mentality, as well as engendering it." Is that thought also behind your new play?
Charlotte Meehan: Indeed it is. Without giving too much away, the play deals hilariously with the ways in which politicians of the Trump ilk exploit people's vulnerabilities, fears, and prejudices to win votes. Sadly, it's often the case that people like Trump (and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz) distort the meaning of religion to appeal to the worst in us. We know that love thy neighbor is a foundation of all the major religions, yet Trump talks of building a wall and throwing Muslims out of the country. Since he's been on the scene, every day is a new WTF moment.
EDGE: Your op-ed also took pains to point out that your parents were not "uneducated, backwood folk," citing your father as having "[begun] his studies at MIT at age sixteen," while your mother "was a registered nurse trained in Montreal, having attended a convent school for the whole of her childhood education." So what compelled them to stockpile food -- that later went to waste, despite its ruinous expense -- and make plans to build bunkers? Did mental illness play a role?
Charlotte Meehan: This question is difficult to answer in the sense that, yes, I believe my father was mentally ill, but I can't justify his bigotry that way. It would be too easy, and there's too much hatred in our country right now to let it go as mental illness. Of course this depth of prejudice is sick, but I see it more as a collective social ill than a diagnosable disorder that can be ameliorated with medication.
EDGE: By most objective standards the United States is in fine shape, and yet it's amazing how there is this miasma of near-apocalyptic anxiety permeating our culture right now. What's going on here?
Charlotte Meehan: I truly believe that some of this anxiety is a result of deep-seated racism that has been exacerbated by our having been led for the past eight years by the country's first African American President. Now that this has happened and, in my opinion, we've had a true diplomat and intellectual in The White House, there's no turning back. It could happen again. And there are those for whom this is so threatening that the sky seems to be falling right on top of them. However, I think we are seeing this wave of hysteria because, in fact, we're experiencing a huge moment of progress.
EDGE: Your play is a comedy about two right-wing religious women seeking cultural influence through a new organization called "The Movement to Restore Decency." There's so much material there just begging to be addressed - from religious extremism to sexual hypocrisy to the dangers presented to our nation by those who wish to supplant democracy with theocracy. How did you organize what you wanted to say and define a plot?
Charlotte Meehan: As with all my plays, the plot is a loosely assembled puzzle of surprise, tangentiality, quickly alternating moments of hilarity and anguish and, in this play, extreme displays of rapture and flashes of the sublime. In many ways, I've been writing 'CGM' my whole life, as my mother did, in fact, found The Movement to Restore Decency (aka MOTOREDE). Although I've taken the narrative of the play to a very different place from what happened in real life, I am intimately familiar with the paranoid mindset that I witnessed every day as a child and the fractured thought processes that accompany it.
EDGE: The two protagonists of the play become embroiled in a lesbian affair (if I understand the synopsis correctly). Gays and lesbians are the people most consistently targeted and punished by religious right-wingers, and LGBT equality advocates counter the hateful messages from homophobic Christians by noting that the Bible is much more critical and clearly condemning of things heterosexual people do -- divorce among them, but also crystal-clear directives on how to dress and even what to eat. The anti-gay Christian right routinely ignores these other Biblical injunctions. How does your new play address this disparity?
Charlotte Meehan: In 'CGM,' the two main characters, Mary and Grace, say hateful things in the name of God from a dissociative position of learned bigotry. They are utterly unattached in any informed way to their proclamations about gay and transgender people, instead parroting what they hear at their fundamentalist Christian church and from the extremist outliers their husbands follow on the news, which they are not even allowed to watch themselves. My argument in the play is that this is a bastardized form of Christianity, and if we could meet the 'real' Christian God (which we do in the play), we would see that kindness towards all is Christianity's message.
With regard to the sexual escapades Mary and Grace find themselves engaging in, it's only Mary who can ever put words to that. You'll have to come and see the play to learn how this part turns out.
EDGE: One recent -- and hilarious -- development in the real world is how the infamously anti-gay Tony Perkins lost his home in the flooding in Louisiana. Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, has long claimed God expresses rage at gays and abortion by sending natural disasters to punish us, but he dismissed the loss of his own home as a 'test' from God rather than a 'punishment.' Have you seen this mentality up close with your own family?
Charlotte Meehan: I've seen this many times. When my brother became a drug addict, my parents decided it was the devil's work rather than their son's medicating himself to deal with the pain of growing up being constantly berated, and sometimes physically abused, by my father. At the same time, AIDS was of course a punishment for those who 'followed the homosexual lifestyle,' according to my parents.
Like Mary and Grace, people whose belief systems are so contradictory have no trouble moving from one wrong idea to another because they're not thinking anything through with the use of legitimate sources of information. Now I'm showing my bias, but I'll stand by my philosopher friend Nancy Kendrick who once said to me, 'knowledge is love,' and leave it at that.
EDGE: I think we agree that a Trump presidency would be a disaster of epic proportions... Biblical, if I may make the pun. But we keep hearing from self-identified progressives that Hillary Clinton is nothing but a Republican in Democratic clothing and some of them swear never to vote for her. What's you take on all this?
Charlotte Meehan: Hillary Clinton is a mainstream politician. I can't think of a single President in my lifetime who was not, including Barack Obama, whom I respect greatly. Is she perfect? No. Has she done more good than harm? I think so. I voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary and I will happily vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election. My fifteen-year-old daughter Margot and her best friend Emily recently told me they are embarrassed to be Americans with Donald Trump running for President. All I could answer was, 'You should be.'
EDGE: I think it's actually all part of the same Zeitgeist that we have a woman presidential candidate and your play focuses on two right-wing women. Obviously, the social and political questions of the day are very complicated for women, especially since the hard-right religious view is that women should submit to men. Does that also inform the writing of this play?
Charlotte Meehan: Yes. Mary and Grace have great ambitions to save the country from moral ruin and yet their husbands, Dick and Harry, treat them pretty miserably. Although the play is often riotously funny as it details the antics of these two women and their quest for attention through MOTOREDE, the underside of this story lands in the abuse they're suffering at home. It's a complicated dance of desire, oppression, and finally a struggle (on one of their parts) to break free from ignorance.
EDGE: Robbie McCauley is directing the play. How did that come about? And why not direct it yourself?
Charlotte Meehan: Robbie and I have been collaborating for several years now. We met in 2012 at a convening (called Third Bohemia) hosted by P. Carl and Todd London at Emerson College. She performed poetry in Sleeping Weazel's 'African American History and its Expressions' festival in February 2013, and I commissioned her to write and perform 'Jazz 'n Class' for the company's 'Badass' festival last March.
I am a huge fan of Robbie's company, Roxbury Repertory Theater, where I saw her biracial production of 'The Glass Menagerie' that brought the play squarely into our contemporary moment, as Amanda Wingfield makes racist comments throughout in front of her two black children, Tom and Laura. Unsurprisingly, racism plays a large role in 'CGM' as well, and after asking Robbie to direct, I found myself emboldened to reveal an unvarnished view into the vicious racist mentality I've seen up close. Why direct myself, when I am blessed to work with an artist of Robbie's stature right here in Boston? Being in rehearsal with her every day is a master lesson in directing and in life.
EDGE: Stephanie Burlington Daniels and Veronica Anastasio Wiseman star in the play. How did they become involved?
Charlotte Meehan: Stephanie and Veronica are affiliated artists of Sleeping Weazel and frequently perform in our plays. I wrote this play for them, and it was exhilarating to imagine these two actors, with whom I've collaborated numerous times, as I wove through the scenes and imagined their energies and personalities coming forth through these two unhinged characters.
EDGE: Sleeping Weazel is all about multimedia theatrical experience. What multimedia elements will there be to 'Cleanliness, Godliness, and Madness: A User's Guide?'
Charlotte Meehan: The play is written for stage and screen, and the husbands only appear onscreen as they arrive periodically to 'haunt' the women. There are also Skype conversations, a visitation from God, found footage of all kinds, and 1950s television commercials re-written by my Wheaton College student video assistant, Christina Smith. Thanks to video designer Mathew Provost and set designer Sara Ossana, the play's immersive video score blends seamlessly with the stage action.
EDGE: Is this a play that could be told without multimedia dimensions?
Charlotte Meehan: Yes, it could. But I felt strongly that the outside (onscreen) world comes forcefully into the play world of Mary and Grace, as a kind of Expressionistic other character. The stage set only has one chair and a side table. All other visuals come from the four large, differently shaped screens. This minimalistic style suits 'CGM' very well, as we're in a hyper-real world, like a photorealist painting.
"Cleanliness, Godliness, and Madness: A User's Guide" runs Sept. 15 - 24 at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, please visit www.sleepingweazel.com