Let’s Talk About Edward Albee’s Zoo Story: Exploring ‘Wildness’

the-zoo-storyWhat’s unique about Zoo Story is not simply that Albee employs symbolism and naturalism, but the manner in which he utilizes these elements to fully realize his theme: Isolation.

The title of the play, Zoo Story, suggests that human beings aren’t just isolated from each other, but also from themselves— our own animal instincts.

Albee conveys the notion that the world, itself, is a kind of zoo, a confining force that can lead human beings to take violent action; similar to the one at the end of Albee’s play, where one character murders the other after what seemed to be an amicable interaction. Isolation, as presented by Albee, is a human configuration: we as human beings build our isolation, emerging from man made elements like greed, prejudice, racism, sexism, and the like. These aspects, collectively, comprise our captivity; they are the bars of our cages.

Isolation, therefore, is indelibly human.

The location in which Albee sets his drama—a park— is also an expression of his mastery of symbolism. To the untrained eye his utilization of a seemingly natural environment might suggest an effort to convey wildness or a lack of cultivation. However, he achieves the opposite. The contrast between nature and the very suppressed condition in which the play’s central characters function, provide the perfect juxtapositional framework for Albee’s drama.

The physical appearance of the characters and the occupations they hold, lacking distinction, make them ideal symbols of the masses and further emphasize Albee’s zoo theme. At best, Peter, the story’s central character, can best be described as “spiritually sedated.” A state, perhaps, brought on by his seemingly enviable attainment of the American Dream. For, after having achieved that mythological objective— the inherent goal of all our citizens— what is there left to pursue?

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But are we free as human beings, even when we think we are? Is the price of living in a civilized world inhibition, limitation, the suppression of our most primal instincts?

Given the volatile climate of the world, one where violence is a regular occurrence, the conclusion that our animal instincts are freer than they’ve ever been— our propensity for murder and other harmful actions—comes easily. However, could the opposite be true, that our spiritual confinement, or lack of true freedom, leads us to create the chaos in which we reside?

 

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Playwright Dominique Morisseau on Writing, the Theater, and the Unique History of Detroit.

In 2013, theater critic Ben Brantley, in his New York Times review of Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby, described the playwright as a writer “who knows the code for getting under our skins . . .”

 Perhaps this is what has actor Blair UnderwoodGolden-Globe nominee and star of ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, so excited about playing the role of Blue in her latest work, Paradise Blue. In a BE Exclusive, Underwood referred to the role as “powerful,” but Morisseau, story editor on Showtime’sShameless, is no stranger to this kind of description.

The University of Michigan graduate has won a monsoon of awards and fellowships, writing plays such as Detroit ’67 (Public Theater; Classical Theatre of Harlem/NBT; Northlight Theatre), Sunset Baby(Labyrinth Theater Co – NYC; Gate Theater- London), and Follow Me To Nellie’s (O’Neill; Premiere Stages). Paradise Blue, directed by Tony Award-winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson, is based in Detroit and centers on an African American trumpeter struggling with whether or not to sell his beloved jazz club.

Tell me about The Williamstown Theater Festival, Paradise Blue, and what inspired you to write it?

Morisseau: I’m from Detroit. My play, Paradise Blue, is part of a three-play cycle about my city. The cycle is called The Detroit Project. The first play was called Detroit ‘67 and that was about the 1967 riots in the city, kind of like what we’re seeing in Ferguson, New York, and all over the country.

The second play in my cycle is Paradise Blue and that’s looking at 1949 during the Jazz era of the city when Detroit had its own little Harlem renaissance, if you will, a thriving black community called Blackbottom, and a black business strip called Paradise Blue where they had automobile shops, lots of bars and nightclubs, and jazz spots.

Alot of the great jazz legends used to come through Detroit and play in Paradise Valley. In 1949, a housing act got passed that would eventually lead to the wiping out of Blackbottom and the building of the 75 Chrysler Freeway. Blair Underwood plays the owner of the jazz spot, and [the piece centers on] what happens when the city gets ready to start its Urban Renewal Campaign and get rid of the black folk. [It’s about] who’s on board and who’s not.

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Waiting for the streetcar on Woodward at State Street. Nov. 25, 1949.

Williamstown Theatre Festival produces works that are in practice, transitioning to another city, or getting incubated for the first time with the hope of transferring to another city. So, this is a safe space for things to get on their feet, get in front of audiences,  get tried out and get the chance to move to New York or transfer somewhere throughout the region.

It’s also a really special place because it was started by a guy named Nikos Pappas, a Greek man who believed in theater and creating a safe haven and artistic space for theatre makers. The tradition has been going on for several decades now and has new leadership, Mandy Greenfield, who has just taken over as artistic director.

As you know, Black Enterprise believes in African American personal and professional empowerment. What advice do you have for creatives looking to enter the entertainment industry, along those lines?

I definitely think artists of color need to think about how to tell our own stories and make space for ourselves in our respective industries— be that theatre, film, or television. We need to think about not just participating in the telling of other people’s stories, but how to bring the stories from our experiences into the spotlight. It takes more and more storytellers to push their stories forward to create balance in our industry.

I think in order for us to be able to tell our stories and tell them the way that we want to, we really have to tap into our entrepreneurial side and figure out how we’re going to be the leader of our narrative, how we’re going to run our own shows or create our own films, find capital to make our films, and create distribution companies for ourselves.

Invest in the opportunities in your community. Build a community around you of like-minded artists that you can create a support system for.

The reason why I was able to transition into television writing is not because I just woke up one day and got lucky, it’s because I built myself—ten years in New York City— a strong community of supporters who, eventually, became my biggest audience and my biggest fans.

A few years ago, I had a premiere of one of my plays in London. I started an Indiegogo campaign to be able to afford housing in London so I could be around to help give shape to my work. We really have to lean on each other and think about where we’re circulating our investments and our support, so that we’re getting it back. Where you put your energy is where you’re going to get it back. Build a foundation—that starts with relationships and community.

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Vintage photo from Detroit’s Paradise Valley and Black Bottom neighborhood. http://www.michiganradio.org

There was a New York Times article, Last Stop on the L Train: Detroit, about the growing number of artists leaving New York for other, more artist-friendly, cities. Detroit is one of those cities.  How do you think this new influx of, largely non-minority artists, will impact the cultural landscape there?

I was actually just talking about this with some friends last night; some of the actors in my cast. All cities need new blood, mixed with old blood, to keep the city reviving itself. However, what happens with this exodus of people leaving their cities and going to Detroit is that they’re not integrating with the culture that exists in Detroit. I’m not saying all of these [people] are doing this.

Alot of times they just see an abandoned building and they just go and they buy it. But are [they] talking to the people in that community to see what the relationship between that building and the community that surrounds that building is? How can you come in and offer something to that community?

You can’t offer something to a community, that it needs, if you haven’t figured out what it needs. Therefore, you’re not actually building with people, you’re building on top of them or you’re displacing them.

Detroit has a gifted artist community that already lives there. There are legendary poets, legendary writers living in Detroit, that are from Detroit, that have been building there and can’t get grants from the state of Michigan for the art they’re doing because of these new people coming in. The state is more interested in the new than the old, and that’s the problem across the board.

The people that are coming in have to learn how to bring an idea and offer something to the community that the community needs. You can’t do that if you’re not talking to the community and getting to know them.

Many of the artists moving there—not all of them—but many of them are well-intentioned. They’re energized by the idea of the city. They’re interested in trying to shift something. But we, collectively, have to figure out a way for that to happen without making the people who are already there feel like they’re unwanted in their own city.

Do you have any stories about the African American experience in Detroit? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Reporting by Rebecca Nichloson. Written for BlackEnterprise.com