I wrote a play for Sticky about the Yanomami, or more specifically, inspired by this story I heard on Snap Judgement, about a kid who grew up in Jersey, but who’s mom was an Amazonian tribeswoman. His dad had been studying the Yanomami when he fell in love with the sister of the tribal chief. She was young, far younger a woman than he would have dated back in Jersey. Because of the difference in the customs of the two cultures, he eventually dismissed his initial misgivings about the age gap. He felt that her maturity level was far greater than that of the girls her same age back home. Her life experience was not a school girl’s experience. She’d been actively engaged in ensuring her own survival, and that of her family, since age three.
If the couple had started their romance in New Jersey, the age gap would have been criminal. She was about 15 when they got married, while he was in his early 30’s. He was an intellectual, an anthropologist, subsidized by university grant money to spend time in the field studying an indigenous people. He got permission from the tribe to set up his hammock in the village, and proceeded to study their ways and habits, with a specific focus on the food that they ate.
He was taken by surprise when, after several months in the village, the villagers wanted him to marry into the tribe, to become part of their family. The villagers chose who was to be his wife, and for a good while, he refused. Refusal was the only conceivable course of action. He was a grown man, she a child. He was a Ph.D student, she an uneducated tribeswoman. He could read, and count past two (the Yanomami count one, two, and ‘many’), while she could hunt tarantulas, and run barefoot for miles through the dense jungle. Yet despite all that, they fell in love. They had kids.
Then they did what lots of people who fall in love and get married and have kids do, they moved to New Jersey.
The guy got a hard time from colleagues, who were saying that he had tampered with the research, had married the subject of a study, had corrupted the findings, and had fetishized the very people he was entrusted with protecting.
I found the story fascinating, and decided to write it up for the bar. I set the man and one of his colleagues at the counter. I focused on the ideas of the scenario.
Why is it that people from one culture feel like it’s their responsibility to observe and preserve the ways of another culture? Why is it that the American colleagues saw the marriage as such an atrocity? Aren’t we all just people? Can’t people marry across cultural barriers? Even if one of those cultures is well entrenched in the modern age and the other is still hunters and gatherers? Where could a couple like that start a life together? New Jersey? The Amazon rainforest? Is there somewhere in between?
Christina Roussous started rehearsals last week. She’s directing Michael Domitrovich and David Marcus in the play. I wasn’t at the first rehearsal, because parenthood, but I heard from Christina afterward. It turns out the end of the play doesn’t work. I have these two guys talking about this pretty big situation, where Michael wants to make a life with an Amazonian girl, and Dave, his colleague, thinks that’s completely insane. By the end of the play I had wanted them to sort everything out. I’d wanted them to collaboratively find the answer to the problem. I’d wanted there to be a clear answer, like maybe he could marry her and they’d move to New Jersey, and it would be great, or they’d stay in the Amazon and be native, eschewing the trappings of modern life.
The original story did not have clear conclusions, but part of what we do when we take reality and make it fiction is to look for clarity. We want to transform all the confusing, crazy realness into something that has meaning,. We want to define a course of action, so that the next time reality comes around with all it’s mixed-up meaningless madness, we can find a way through it, we can say “I know how to handle this now.” Perhaps in this case, in the case of Coursing Upstream, the best we can do is define the questions, not find actionable conclusions. Maybe the questions themselves are the map.
We work again tonight, and this time I’ll be at rehearsal. Good guess that we won’t come up with the answers, but that doesn’t mean we won’t discover a better ending.
Coursing Upstream will premiere at Sticky, directed by Christina Roussos, starring Michael Domitrovich, and David Marcus.
12/12/13, 7:30 pm
249 5th Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11215
buy $12 tickets at www.blueboxworld.com