Toronto playwright Kat Sandler explores the liminal space between the real and the fictional in two recently published plays Bang Bang and Mustard. In the former, she presents the story of a young playwright whose latest work of gritty social drama inspired by true events is about to be adapted into a Hollywood movie. In the latter, she examines the fraught relationship between a single mother and her teenage daughter that becomes even more fraught when the girl’s imaginary childhood friend comes to life for the mother. The subject matter of both plays differs significantly, yet both are animated with a highly charged energy and an abundance of ideas that create an exhilarating ride for those who can happily suspend their disbelief.
Bang Bang is one of the latest–if not the latest–of 19 plays that the prolific Sandler has written since 2011. In its form the play is structured as meta-theatre with its examination of the making of a play (and screenplay). In her “Author’s Preface,” Sandler writes that Bang Bang is about “interrogating the creation process” as it pertains to the fictional adaptation of “true stories” (ix) and, it should be added, to the adaptation of fiction itself. The notes on “Setting” explain that in the play’s first production, “the set was designed as a film/sitcom set built within a sound stage with visible lights” and a “backstage” area where “the characters could be seen as actors” (2). This displacement of the setting to a film or sitcom set would lend itself effectively to the play’s parodic treatment of its subject matter—namely that of police violence, systemic racism, and more. The parody, while serving the play’s comedy very well, does run the risk, however, of undermining the significance or gravity of the complex issues raised. How does a playwright of a certain class, background, or context write about such subjects as institutional racism, for example, and do justice to the subject, if that is the intention? Perhaps Bang Bang has a more modest objective which is to show the challenges and pitfalls of writing social drama that rises to the level of art. It clearly satirizes one writer’s major failure in this case.
The play is premised on the playwright’s visit to the woman who inspired his play. A former police officer, she was responsible for shooting an unarmed man during a traffic stop. Both the ex-cop, Lila Hines, and her victim, Derrick Chambers (who survived the shooting and doesn’t appear in the play) are black and in their 20s, while the thirty-something playwright, Tim Bernbaum, is white and Jewish. Bernbaum’s play, Hands Up, was apparently such a hit that it drew the interest of Warner Bros. who contract Tim to write the film adaptation. Tim, as the enlightened, sensitive, progressive writer, is over the moon at the prospect of writing for the movies—and it shows. As we soon learn he holds a rather inflated view of himself underneath his humble, earnest persona. His visit isn’t innocent. Arriving unannounced after he finds out that one of the film’s male leads, former child TV star, Jackie Savage, will be dropping in on Lila that afternoon, Tim tries to pre-empt Jackie’s visit for reasons unexplained. It seems perhaps that he doesn’t trust that Jackie will be tactful enough in breaking the news to Lila that her story is set to become a Hollywood movie. Jackie, a black man in his late twenties, has his own reasons for meeting Lila. He sees a meeting with her as part of his personal research into the story. “Well, any project is a journey,” he says to Lila, “and you want to know, like, what kind of journey you’re embarking on, and who with . . . and what’s the message, you know?” (50). Jackie arrives with a movie-star flourish, accompanied by a sidekick in the form of his bodyguard Tony Cappello, a middle-aged ex-cop. Completing the cast of five is Karen Hines, Lila’s caring mother, a psychologist whose deceased husband had been a cop. The play is set in the stylish living room of Karen’s home, where the traumatized Lila has been seeking refuge while on leave from the police force.
It doesn’t take long before the play descends into comic chaos. Tim does a first-rate job of sabotaging his initial moments with Lila and her mother, and it gets worse from there. He becomes intent on proving to Lila, who doesn’t trust a word he says, that her story is not the actual story that appears in the play. Yes, her story served as the “jumping off point” (18) for his play, he maintains, but it should not be mistaken for the more universal artistic creation that was ultimately realized. The character of the black female cop who shoots an unarmed black youth is representative of all police officers, male or female. “[T]his story is so much bigger than you,” he goes on to say (25). For a woman still suffering from the trauma of almost killing an innocent young man, still struggling with her inability to return to the work she loves, this is not what she wants or needs to hear. Lila does not handle well this confrontation with the man who put the most shameful moment of her life as a police officer on stage. She ends up getting drunk as the meeting with Tim and Jackie progresses (Tim gets drunk, too), and then inexplicably she insists that a reading of the play be held right then and there in Karen’s living room. She will perform one of the parts, in fact. Here we might question why a character within a situation that is so clearly painful for her would want to prolong the agony. She later admits, “If the play made me want to kill myself, what the fuck do you think is gonna happen when the movie comes out?” (142).
At the heart of Bang Bang lies the story of young woman struggling to come to terms with an act of violence that almost took a man’s life. She was only doing what she was trained to do, but it has brought her public notoriety and crippling shame. It has provided writers, artists, and the industry with challenging material to put before audiences hungering for something more substantial than mere entertainment. Bang Bang lampoons the “artists” behind such seemingly well-intentioned but ultimately misconceived projects as Tim Bernbaum’s play and screenplay based on the lives of real people. Tim and Jackie leave a smoldering mess before they are finally thrown out of Karen’s home. They are exposed as grasping, self-serving hypocrites who care more for their professional careers than they do for the altruistic principles they espouse. The play’s message at its conclusion, however, is that the show will go on in spite of everything. Tim and Jackie’s movie will get made by a production company that sees a lucrative project in such a socially conscious film. And the woman whose story is being rendered so artistically on stage and screen will be left on her own to heal her wounds.
The conclusion to Sandler’s earlier play Mustard leaves its two protagonists—Sadie and Thai, mother and daughter respectively—in a more hopeful place. They are both in need of healing and love as they emerge from the crisis they found themselves in. For Sadie, a single mom in her “forties or fifties” (2), her struggles stem from the loss of her husband Bruce a year before. He simply walked out on her for another woman, and Sadie went into denial and depression. When the play opens, Sadie is grappling with the decision to accept the end of her marriage and sign the divorce papers. She has been drinking heavily and taking pills for some time, it seems, and failing her 16-year-old daughter miserably. After a particularly painful scene with her daughter, Sadie sits down with a handful of pills and pops them all in her mouth. Meanwhile, her daughter Thai has, moments earlier, given herself a home pregnancy test and discovered that she’s pregnant. She’s been getting into fights at school and has become involved with an older boy, Jay, 20. Thai is suffering, too, from her father’s absence and is lashing out in all directions.
Amidst this brewing crisis stands the absurd, endearing figure of Mustard. He is described in the stage directions as being “dressed like a badly drawn cartoon or a child’s imaginative version of a funny thing” (3). Of course, he has to wear a “superfun hat” (3). We will learn that Mustard is Thai’s imaginary friend and has been from the moment she was born. He lives under her bed; he plays with her; he consoles her when she’s down; he gives her advice: he’s her best friend. But more than being an imaginary friend who has always been there for her, Mustard is known in the world of the play as a Boon, a living entity from an alternate realm called the Boon-swallows. This is the place that Mustard will return to when the Person he has been assigned to—the girl Thai—grows up. Mustard’s problem is that he has over-stayed his time with Thai and won’t leave. Neither Mustard and Thai are letting go, which is a serious matter in the world of the Boons. One strand of Mustard’s plot (not the strongest aspect of the narrative) has to do with two enforcer Boons who have been sent to apply Mafia-type pressure on Mustard and convince him to sever his bond with Thai.
At this point the play’s allegorical form begins to emerge. We are in the real world of make-believe in which the three main characters of Thai, Sadie, and Mustard must face up to the realities of life and complete their passage rites, as painful as that is for them. Thai and Sadie have to say goodbye to Mustard, who in the course of the play appears as a displaced version of Thai’s father and Sadie’s ex-husband. The turning point arrives when Bruce shows up at the house, looking like Mustard himself, so much so that Sadie thinks Bruce really is Mustard: “Without that hat, and in those clothes,” she says to Bruce, thinking that she’s speaking to Mustard, “you look EXACTLY like him” (95). Thai takes the lead in forcing Bruce, the father and husband who abandoned them, out of their house and presumably out of their lives. The implication is that mother and daughter will now be free to develop a stronger bond between them and together deal with life’s challenges more honestly.
Both Bang Bang and Mustard deal with tough, sometimes dark material, but they do so with a playfully comic and ironic touch reminiscent—in Bang Bang, at least—of a George F. Walker play. They are unapologetically physical plays in which the characters are always engaged in the act of doing something and compelling others to do their bidding, yet they are plays that indulge in extravagant language play and the chaos of conversation. Ultimately, they create their own strange and distinctive versions of reality for their characters to find and lose their way within.
by Kat Sandler
Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2019. 159 pp., 17.95
by Kat Sandler
Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2018, 107 pp., 17.95
Dale Lakevold is a playwright from Minnedosa, Manitoba. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Brandon University.