So, I just got back from New York, where my play Halfway, Nebraska, directed by Daniel Melnick is appearing in the Fringe Festival. Some of the most talented people in theatre live and work in New York, despite the fact that The City is viciously inhospitable to theatre-making. Everything is impractical.
If you live in the area, I urge you to head out there for one of the last two performances. Click on the photo to go to our website.
Daniel and I are hoping to move the play forward, to find more homes for it.
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This summer, I was approached by Big Idea Theatre’s Artistic Director about writing an adaptation of the Jungle Book for their theatre company. The Jungle Book is actually a short story collection, and most audiences have rightfully been exposed to the three stories about Mowgli only, and BIT was commissioning me to focus on Mowgli as well. The catch: the play would be going up in November. This means that I’d need to bang out a draft as quickly as possible.
Fortunately, my trip to Utah was, in essence, a writer’s retreat.
It is an open secret that I want my work produced in the Sacramento area, so I jumped at the chance to work with them. That I love Big Idea Theatre and have an artistic crush on them was a major bonus.
The challenge is that The Jungle Book is associated with Rudyard Kipling, who had disgusting politics. While the book itself is more complicated than his problematic politics would suggest, I was still wary of the property. I know that Mary Zimmerman fell from grace when she produced an adaptation without interrogating Kipling’s politics and dismissed those who were bothered by her apparent cavalier attitude toward colonialism, and I don’t want to reproduce her folly.
That said, The Jungle Book is not a good container to destabilize the orientalism and colonization of Kipling and his social background. At least, not for me. Mowgli’s stories are laden with a sense of outsiderness, while he pines to be someone — a wolf — that he is, by birth, not. Mowgli doesn’t fit into the wolf society, nor does he fit into human society. He is a social outcast. Maybe it’s that I’m queer, maybe it’s that I’m half-white, half-Mexican, but this is what I respond to in The Jungle Book.
I also feel Kipling’s yearning to return to the jungle in a way that elevates that which is not human above any form of so-called human civilization.
It seems foolish to try to undermine The Jungle Book by inserting an overt anti-colonial message when the structure of Mowgli’s journey itself seems to undermine Kipling’s politics.
And I’m wary of engaging in an argument with someone who has been dead for decades. Whenever I see these kinds of work, I’m struck by how frequently they lack characters, story, themes, or at the very least a reason for an audience of someone other than the original writer to sit through. We cannot conflate the person and their work with the either the affect of their ideology or the modern incarnations of their ideology. They are dead and we are alive — so we win that argument.
So… where does that leave me?
I decided that instead of trying to capture the essence of The Jungle Book, I would use it as a starting point for a story structure — and focus instead on the aforementioned themes that I most responded to, while also growing some of my own values from the soil. No, this version is not in India (dear god, the last thing I want to do is reproduce Kipling’s idea of India), but instead in a theatrical space and time. I am inspired by my colleague Steven Wilson, who sets many of the plays he directs in specific non-specific timespaces so that they can become invitations to wider audience and collaborators. While I’ll have little to no control over the production, I do know that I want a play to occupy its own reality. I wanted to colonize Kipling — to take over his work and put my own values on it.
Them’s the theory. Let’s see how well I get’er done. Wish me luck.