Daniel Karasik on the accidental politics of Mustard at Tarragon Theatre
LIKE A GOOD party host, playwright Kat Sandler wants her guests—her audience—to enjoy themselves. She’s got the gifts to make that happen: a sharp ear for dialogue and a lively comic sensibility that suggests the influence of prestigious cable TV and The Simpsons. Mindful of her guests’ conflicting views, she tends to avoid contentious issues that might spark arguments.
Alas, guests and audiences don’t always behave. They bring their politics to the party; their differences challenge social harmony; they resist all attempts to predict, much less determine, their ways of seeing. Ashlie Corcoran’s production of Ms. Sandler’s new play, Mustard, which opened last week at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, can appear to be an apolitical revel, a poignant family tragicomedy free of provocation. Just don’t look too carefully at its central plot conceit: a brown man becoming suddenly visible to a white woman who’d previously considered him to be invisible.
To be sure, this isn’t what the audience is urged to see. The audience is invited to watch a charming tale of a teenaged girl who can't let go of her childhood imaginary friend, Mustard, played with intelligence and flair by Anand Rajaram, who happens to be brown. The girl’s mother, who can't get over the husband who fell out of love with her, is an alcoholic and pill-popper. Various hijinks ensue: the daughter is knocked up by her much older boyfriend; the mother, in her need for support and companionship, starts to notice Mustard, who'd formerly appeared only to her daughter and whom she'd dismissed as not real. A subplot unfolds around two bounty hunters sent from the great beyond of imaginary friends, who hunt Mustard and, in scenes of torture and intimidation that aren't rendered less dark by the production's whimsical tone, coerce him to leave his teenaged charge, now too old for such a fictive playmate.
Though the play never acknowledges this, the environment in which its plot develops isn’t politically neutral. Designer Michael Gianfrancesco has created a realistic set of a house that could be occupied only by white, middle-class, Anglo-Scottish or Germanic Protestant North Americans, with its single malts on the cabinet top and wood-toned decor, the self-styled earthiness of urban-dwellers who attend the United Church and read Naomi Klein—a house that is thus occupied, by a woman, an actor with the name Dodd. Within its walls, the actor with the name Rajaram appears. He's an imaginary friend. He’s also an intruder.
He can't help but be seen by a typically pale Tarragon Theatre audience (my date for the show commented on the statistically improbable prevalence of red hair—a pretty funny synecdoche) as other. Yet that same audience, typically troubled by post-colonial guilt, resists with all its life-force whatever tribal aversion to that otherness it may feel, denies its own ineradicable racial pride. It sees: intruder. It hates itself. It amends: guest.
The audience is put in this awkward position because an artistic decision has been made to cast the play's humans as white and its main non-human as other. The brown man of the production, as an imaginary friend, has no existence independent of the white women who behold him, who love him—or anyway his existence apart from them is devoid of history or culture, is fantastical, and so is still realized, or not quite realized, through their gaze. The young white woman requires him as a comforting but servile presence. When he becomes visible to the older white woman, she treats him as an intruder, brandishes a bottle as a weapon, fears for her life. Why else would an unknown brown man be in her house except to do her harm? As soon as the threat alert level is downgraded, the possibility of violence is transformed into erotic desire. He becomes, not more interesting to her—he's always fascinated her, even when she most feared him—but more comfortably interesting. He’s allowed to become her love object. The stranger can not only be made safe for her; he can also heal her. She can't permit herself to believe that he's a truly alien presence, whose laws and ways are not her laws and ways.
Yet violence doesn't disappear once the brown man has been tamed by the white woman's "generous acceptance" of him. It reasserts itself first of all in the daughter's behaviour—she picks fistfights with strangers and occasionally non-strangers—though the audience is asked to accept this behaviour as a dark flower of the girl's isolation, her fatherlessness. As the production and play confess the young white girl's shocking violence, they also psychologize it away. The repressed brutality of the WASP is transferred to the two bounty hunters tracking the recalcitrant Mustard. The first is a man with a British accent, a colonial avatar that a post-colonial Canadian audience may safely reduce to villain status. His partner is played with humour and charisma by an actor whose name, crucially, is Nappo.
In the stage or screen Italian, the white Protestant sometimes finds a useful repository for her atavistic desire to dominate through bloody struggle, her lust to possess a power that knows no law—drives that embarrass and horrify her. In the North American cultural imagination, the Italian is obliged to be the thug, the criminal kingpin, the womanizer; of necessity, he's Donnie Brasco and Michael Corleone. The bourgeois Protestant needs the Italian to be violent so she can participate in that violence and also define herself in opposition to it, as a kind of person who's uninvolved in it: she needs the Italian to be guilty so she may be innocent. She watches his brutality with intense interest, with erotic attraction, while she makes perfectly clear to herself that it's nothing of which she or her husband or anyone they'd have to dinner would be capable. The Italian is permitted and able to fulfill this role for her because he is both white and not white. Though, like the Jew, he remains essentially other to her, his light-ish pigmentation and the long, relatively successful history of his ancestors in North America absolve her of guilt over whatever social separateness he may experience. Needless to say, the Asian or the Arab can't play the same role for her that the Italian does, can't serve as a repository for her ugly, pagan appetites, quite effectively repressed in her own home with its single malts on the cabinet top. The brown man must be, for her, in her part of the world and historical moment, never the intruder, always the guest.
And more than the guest: for her moral absolution to be complete, the white woman must marry the stranger. In Mustard, the eponymous imaginary friend performs the role, in ever more convincing ways, of the older white woman's estranged husband. Eventually the identity between the two men is or seems total. The ex shows up for dinner and looks just like Mustard. Is the woman's ex in fact another man indistinguishable in appearance from her and her daughter's imaginary friend? Or has she succeeded in transforming the stranger into not just her guest but the love of her life?
Mustard invites the audience to root for this happy transformation. Gone is any trace of racist, xenophobic fear that a brown intruder may be a terrorist, a refugee who might exploit the welfare state or undermine its liberal values, a sexual transgressor who will grope girls at New Year's celebrations or—the fear that must never be spoken—woo the innocent blondes of the ruling caste away from their own kind. The brown man becomes simply brown—not Punjabi, or Iraqi, or subject to any such distinctions—and also not brown. The audience is expected not to see his difference. Expected to pretend. The play's concern with make-believe doubles.
The stranger will heal us; we will marry him; we will not marry him, but he will let us overcome our pain and live again. In any case, we love him; our relationship to him is uncomplicated, pure. We are, the production's symbolism urges us to feel, altogether blond and innocent.
Chances are, the playwright and director intend none of this. It seems likely that their goal is to tell a funny, affecting story and illustrate its emotional complexities. At this they succeed. But such success is far less interesting than the art they make, as it were, by accident. They may have set out just to craft a pleasing entertainment, but that project happens in history. The "eternal verities" they reveal about the human heart come to light in, and are shaped by, a particular historical moment.
It's too bad that the current production of Mustard is unable or unwilling to acknowledge, in its staging or text or both, the long political shadows it throws. Its TV-inspired comic realism is well handled, but neither playwright nor director seems to have grappled with the fraught assumptions of a conventional realist style: whose reality is included, and whose excluded, and why? Only in the absence of such thinking could an ostensibly apolitical work of whimsy, on one of Canada’s major stages, double as a cathartic fable of the magical brown man.
DANIEL KARASIK is a playwright-in-residence at Tarragon Theatre.