On Friday afternoon a scene played out in Portland, Oregon that was so dramatic, so heavy with symbolism, that it would be hard to believe if two real human beings weren’t now dead. Even as it is, I suspect there are thousands of conspiracy theorists/internet trolls spreading the word that the whole thing was liberal terrorist street theater.
First, consider the setting. Trains are frequently used in drama to establish the theme of change and instability. As the scene opens, the train is arriving at a station named “Hollywood,” a reference to the entertainment industry and the role it plays in influencing American life.
The time of the scene is also laden with meaning. It is Friday: the beginning of the patriotic Memorial Day holiday weekend, a time for reflection and for considering civic principles. It is also the beginning of Ramadan, an indicator that an important message is about to be revealed, so the audience must be alert. Also at this same time, the tassels are being turned at colleges and universities across the country, pointing to a theme of education and enlightenment.
But more than anything, it is the characters themselves that flesh out the symbolism of the Portland play. First, there are two unnamed, non-speaking females that serve as a critical plot device. Their gender, age, religion, and race are hinted at by their costumes, but their departure from the scene is silent, swift, almost ghostly, like a wisp of stage fog. They do not drive the action; they are the eye of the hurricane around which the larger dramatic elements swirl.
Although the stage is crowded with actors, only one has a speaking part—at least as far as we can tell from the earliest reports—and his lines are a garbled cacophony of hatred, threat and bigotry. This character is motivated by a desire for chaos. He is given the ironic name “Christian.” This villain is also given the play’s only prop: a deadly sharp blade.
Although they have no lines, the heroes who respond to Christian’s tornado of hate speech and fury do so with a balletic intensity and artistry that clearly reveals their own characters.
One is a middle-aged army vet, a civil servant, a devoted husband and father. He is given a name, Ricky John Best, that seems to allude both to the two-first-names custom of the American south and heartland and, through his surname, to the superlative honor he displays. He represents the American values of service and stability, but to the villain he also represents the establishment.
The other hero is a bearded backpacker with a goofy grin. A recent graduate of one of the most liberal of liberal arts colleges, a college best known for its “Honor Principle,” his field of study was the mysterious and often distrusted field of economics. This character’s name is the same as that of a quintessentially progressive and innovative American landmark: Taliesin. To Christian, he represents the intellectual elite.
Both heroes are also, like the villain, white males. This is important.
Some audiences might have preferred that this scene develop in a very different way. It would have been more immediately satisfying and cathartic to watch the unnamed, non-speaking females rise to their own defense. Or what if either hero or villain had been cast as black, Hispanic, or transgender? That would have provided some interesting complication.
But this is one play about race whose message is best revealed through homogeneity. By casting the heroes as white men resisting another white man, the Playwright/Director forces the audience to witness the illogic of bigotry in action. Christian attacks the heroes not because they are Muslim, or women or people with a skin tone different from his own, but because they are righteous. In his violent, angry, deeply crazed “defense” of his race, one evil white man kills two good ones.
Whether or not the overall volume of white honor in the universe is diminished by the loss of Taliesin Namkai-Meche and Ricky John Best is now up to the audience.