the liberal gaze on middle america
what was trump-era theater, and what do we make now
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This monster got some editing help from fellow Hoosier-Floridian Annie Aguiar.
I’ve wanted to write about conservatism and Christianity in theater since I watched Jeremy O. Harris’ Zoom mounting of Heroes of the Fourth Turning in October—on the Christian left and how white Catholics are the worst Catholics in the world—but my thoughts didn’t coalesce until I put myself through The Prom. If your gut reaction is “how dare you evoke Will Arbery and Ryan Murphy in the same breath, they are worlds apart,” I get it, but I have some things to say to you about New York theater and its relevance to American politics.
One is a buzzy, Pulitzer finalist, fly-on-the-wall portrait of Catholic conservatives in their element, their white nationalism dressed up in “intellectual” tradition (“intellectual” as what is Rob Dreher??) and Sorkin-speed dialogue. The other is a forgettable musical I planned to avoid until I witnessed my fellow IU alumni wander into this Netflix nightmare both blessed and cursed to lack my prior knowledge, so I watched it out of Hoosier solidarity.
These two works share one crucial feature: “progressiveness” is alien. Heroes of the Fourth Turning—about three alumni of a very weird Catholic liberal arts college, their professor and her daughter debating their shades of conservatism in a Wyoming backyard during the August 2017 solar eclipse—hangs on the premise that this is a conservative safe space. “I made this strong decision to not have a liberal foil in the play, or a stand-in for the audience,” playwright Arbery said in an interview with WBUR. “That's how I think you can really immerse yourself in that world.” On the more Protestant side of things, The Prom is a literal invasion of New Yorkers (“We’re liberals from Broadway,” Andrew Rannells snipes at Kerry Washington) in fictional Edgewater, Indiana, wherein four actors hope to rehab their narcissistic images by taking up an activist cause in the form of a permanently chipper high school lesbian barred from her prom. It’s nearly satirical, but again it’s Andrew fucking Rannells and that travesty of a Gospel number that shifts this musical from self-aware to smug.
To both immersion and invasion, my question is: how closed are these worlds really? How pure is a conservative context, and how safe is any space for anyone?
A question I saw multiple people pose after Heroes of the Fourth Turning was “what is the play trying to say, and is it actually distinct from what the characters say?” My sideways answer is Arbery is in the backyard, too. Silent, maybe to a fault, but he’s there.
What I’m excited by is what I think Arbery and I have in common: we are baptized Catholics who grew up in Midwestern Catholic communities and write theater. The reality outside of the play is that we liberals and leftists grow up in Christianity right alongside conservatives and reactionaries, and if Arbery was like me as a teenager, we argued. I don’t think of myself as a changeling, cursed to grow up in Kentucky and counting down the days I make it to Brooklyn, and I hope the sense of responsibility Arbery says he feels for the people in his play means he’s on a similar page. We’re part of these communities, with roots as deep as our neighbors. What we have to offer, other than two hours of photorealistic bigot bickering, are the stories of our own political education in these environments. Why are we the black sheep? What did we read or stumble upon that led us astray? Because that’s a moment of transformation, and that’s what revolutionaries can study and use.
I say revolutionaries and not liberals, and use and not understand for a reason, and it’s not to diminish Heroes of the Fourth Turning. I think the play is very successful in its humble goal of immersion, and showing us a more or less static world. “Being a theater-maker surrounded by liberal to progressive theater-makers who felt this sort of desperate need to understand who these people are who voted for [Donald Trump],” Arbery told WBUR, “…I said, ‘You know, well, I can give you access to at least five of them.’”
And Arbery never claims to represent or understand more than these five Trump voters. These Midwestern Catholic Trump voters aren’t my Midwestern Catholic Trump voters. My Midwestern Catholic Trump voters are my parents—baptized and confirmed in the Philippines before Vatican II and a case study for Republican immigrants of color that I know I haven’t seen explored in theater since y’all are obsessed with hearing hate speech come out of white mouths, I guess—and the student section of my high school basketball games routinely scolded by our priest for our offensive free throw chants. The differences between my family, my high school class and Arbery’s conservatives are clearly race and class, but I think Heroes of the Fourth Turning’s reception is a case of said liberal-to-progressive theater-makers and their wealthy Democrat audiences taking this highly specific sample size and losing their goddamn minds hearing self-described conservative Christians string together long sentences for the first time.
If the theater spent the last four years asking “How could this happen?” via Heroes of the Fourth Turning or the very excellent Sweat, and The Prom’s so-useless-it’s-harmful “How do we teach acceptance?”, what was the point? Of all the handwringing, the white woman meltdowns to The Handmaid’s Tale, pretending we live under martial law? What was the point when all that mattered to our six-figure salaried artistic leaders who LARPed radicalism was restoring politics as usual? Did you actually learn how Trump happened? Or will you forget this fad of “explaining Trump country” until the Dems’ utter incompetence puts the White House back in the clutches of the party that’s at least honest about sacrificing the poor at the altar of the economy?
We’re past “How could this happen?” and long overdue for “How can the rural and urban underclasses build a mass movement?” And no, I don’t know that theater is the medium for it, but if theater is a belwether for the political life of its creators, I’m alarmed by how long it’s essentially thrown a tantrum and moped about the horror of it all without thinking of the hope that exists in people like me, because when I say I was raised conservative, I mean I was raised conservative.
I’m not suggesting that white nationalists can be turned. I’m saying most of “Trump country” are children, centrists, and working people too exhausted and exploited to engage in politics. The artists who really know how hearts and minds change in middle America are not middle-aged white liberals who fled, but my generation of anti-capitalists raised here under Bush and Obama who don’t have the money to leave, especially young POC. Because we know actual change is uglier and lonelier than The Prom envisions, and it isn’t redeeming the alt-right or reasoning with evangelicals. It’s how we individually unlearned the conservatism we were raised in and developed politics more radical than our peers dumb and/or wealthy enough to pay New York rent, and the possibility of a template for reaching the disengaged in the communities that made us.
I specify “young” as in like, born after 1990 because The Prom felt like a period piece. Sure, we’re supposed to feel something about a song going viral on YouTube, we hear Meryl Streep say “hashtag,” but young queer people in middle America are not that fucking alone. I don’t care how rural a town is or if it’s still on dialup, and Edgewater looks like a wealthy Indianapolis suburb anyway. If Emma was a real 2010s queer teen, she’d listen to Dodie Clark and watch Orange is the New Black and, sorry, Glee. She’d have a Brittana Tumblr, and she’d have a repressed bisexual Superwholock friend or at least someone looking out for her. It shouldn’t be that easy to exclude someone in a school that looks five times bigger than mine.
I think of my college intro to playwriting instructor, a grad student from New York, saying he assumed I was from Louisville or Lexington, like it was a compliment. “I’m surprised he’s so progressive, considering where he grew up,” my co-apprentice said to me last fall about a peer of ours from an upper Midwestern Lutheran family. This is the same co-apprentice who said to me, verbatim, a line from Kimberly Belflower’s play John Proctor is the Villain, “you just don’t seem like a Taylor Swift fan, that’s all,” written as a microagression to a young WOC.
I love that play because its characters—teenagers just four or five years my junior—grew up on the Internet like I did, and in them I see our revolutionary future and the truth of how education works now. But middle America in the liberal imagination is forever behind the times, probably because the people who escape to the city and portray it in fiction are gay white boomers and Gen X-ers who decided to make their Christian baggage from the 80s and 90s our problem, like The Prom’s sole Midwestern writer Chad Beguelin, from a 13,000-person Illinois town two hours across the border from where I grew up in Kentucky. Or more annoyingly, they’re Ryan Murphy, my fellow Indiana Daily Student arts desk alum whose entire experience of rural Indiana was probably the stretch of I-69 from Indy to Bloomington.
And there’s a few complicating factors here. I grew up in the recession and graduated almost straight into a pandemic, so there’s worlds of different circumstances between me and New York transplants 10, even five years older than me. I bullshat my way through j-school profiling older gay men who, like me, couldn’t afford to move to New York and are confident their Midwestern, heterosexual marriages saved them from AIDS, so by the way, where are The Prom’s gay elders? Can we talk about Spencer Pride? Anyone? No?
Heroes of the Fourth Turning has its prosaic peer in The Topeka School by Ben Lerner, a fellow finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize that also “explains Trump country:” a coming-of-age novel about a future New York poet and then-high school debater in 1990s Kansas. In The Baffler, critic Jessa Crispin describes how Lerner writes his autofiction alter ego as an “anthropologist of Kansas” rather than a Kansan himself. “An anthropologist has nothing to say about common people because he needs a single story to tell about common people to those back at the university,” Crispin writes. “This precludes common people from being individuals, with diverse opinions and lifestyles and experiences; all the better to pitch them as a monoculture to be explained away with a theory.”
My existence, and that of other red state leftists and POC, contradicts what liberal, middlebrow, metropolitan audiences think of middle America. We’re outliers and thus inconvenient to the Trump country bogeyman liberals tell themselves about to sleep at night, and it’s not just white liberals. It’s east coast POC swooping in for MFAs and equity points who’ve told me they’re scared to go out in public, which I grant isn’t totally unfounded with our famous farmer’s market Nazis, but that fear is more than a little myopic when these are non-Black POC who stay exclusively in college towns and cities like Louisville, saying this to me and my 23 years living here when we’re the same shade of beige.
For as long as professional theater—regional theater, New York nonprofits, Broadway itself—is produced by condescending cowards with a single theory of what middle America is, we get stagnant work that does little more than explain Trump, that scrambles backward for clarity instead of meaningfully envisioning a future. If you’re serious about engaging middle American centrists and maybe even conservatives with stories on their home turf when live theater comes back, do more than commission musicals about coal miners. There are local writers from these Christian, conservative spaces further left than you, who don’t hate where they grew up, who’ve challenged their communities for years and will write to where they come from, not the elites looking for their biases to be confirmed. And what we do have to share with New York is both conducive to change and at least a little different from your miserable, godless echo chambers.
I want to doubly cite Jessa Crispin’s Baffler piece on The Topeka School. She discusses seeing Heroes of the Fourth Turning at Playwrights Horizons near the end, and her work in general has been really important to me in articulating the class and regional rage that courses through my very being. She also co-created my tarot deck, and if you dig for one second it’s clear I stole at least a quarter of my personality from her to an actually creepy degree.
I wrote a full-length play about future communist queer Catholic high school girls in western Kentucky during the 2012 presidential election called Holy Virgins you can get on New Play Exchange or by asking me!