‘Pillowtalk’ Examines Love Under Oppression

Pillowtalk presented at Victory Gardens Theatre was a highly moving, visceral depiction of two complex and vibrant individuals striving to lead successful lives and love one another within the constraints of white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, capitalism. Buck (AJ Moraga) is a print journalist who wants to do “good work” and change the world. Sam (Basit Shittu) is grateful to be employed by the Republicans after losing his shot at being an Olympic swimmer after a public drug scandal. The couple lives in a pricey, one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, NY, represented on stage by a minimalist set built to focus on an untidy, upright bed downstage center. The white apartment walls that flank the bed are creatively represented by two long vertical neon lights connected by a long, horizontal “ceiling” light.

The play opens with Buck moving through space alone on stage, ruminating. A voiceover lets the audience into his quandaries about life, work, sustainability, and success. The audience learns that Buck has been laid off from his job. When his husband, Sam, comes home Buck attempts to vent about his dissatisfaction with his job, but Sam clearly does not want to hear it.

Sam tells Buck, “Just whatever you do, don’t quit your job. We need your paycheck.”

We begin to understand why Buck doesn’t tell Sam about being laid off right away. Buck and Sam invalidate each other and struggle to really hear one another. We learn that they do not share political values. Soft, willowy, and full of yearning, Buck has held tight to his ideals and his desire to participate in movements for social justice. Sam, on the other hand reveals his world view through the advice he gives Buck: Do what you’re told. Think positively. Listen to your boss. His tone is as brusque and muscular as he is.

None of this helps. It’s all trite “Oprah shit” to Buck.

When Sam reaches for beer as a way to cope with his own stress and this swiftly-escalating argument, Buck asks him not to drink and expresses his fear that Sam will have another relapse. This moment reminded me of so many friendships and couples in which values around substance use, self care, and harm reduction are not shared. They end up creating more isolation and harm around the use of substances. My heart broke as I watched each of these people struggling to do what they felt they needed to do to take care of themselves and the other while completely missing the mark.

In the midst of the argument, Buck decides to make some tea. As he drinks his tea the white frame wall becomes gold. This suggests that Buck goes through an internal shift that the audience does not experience or hear. If I knew more about what tea meant to Buck and Sam in their one-bedroom apartment then I might understand more about what decision or realization Buck may have made.

Out of excuses, Buck finally tells Sam the truth about being laid off, and I wish that this moment had landed heavier as this is the moment I was waiting for. Buck calmly shares, “Before I got this job I used to quit jobs.” With this job Buck thought he had found meaning and a chance to do something that mattered through this work. To add insult to injury Buck says, “They fired me because I am gay. And you are Black.” He doesn’t say anything about the changing industry. He solely attributes his being laid off to his marriage to a Black man and his political views.

Sam receives this news heavily. Instead of asking how they can fight back Sam asks, “How can I be your soulmate if I’m the source of your issues?”

This broke my heart as it was yet another moment when the deeply internalized pain and shame of systemic oppression caused Sam to blame himself for harm. These moments are all too frequent among those of us with marginalized identities.

I appreciate this complex piece for challenging us to ask IF or HOW we go about working out our systemic oppression in the bedroom. I love that it calls out marriage as a mechanism by which many couples suddenly make their problems private, confine their attentions to the two-person unit, and sacrifice their involvement in social justice for participation in perpetuating the status quo.

As an immigrant raised in Arizona in the 80s and 90s, I grew up immersed in mainstream ideas about monogamous heterosexual love and marriage that I absorbed from movies, TV, books, magazines, and the example of my parents. It’s sad to say that most of the messaging boils down to that Beatles refrain, “All you need is love…love is all you need.”

But is it? I’ll be mulling this over. Within the oppressive framework of white supremacy, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy, what IS love and is it actually enough to keep people together? Is it enough to to enable people to thrive? I would argue, and I believe that the final movement of this play also argues, that in order to survive and even thrive in life and in love we have to do whatever we can do to move beyond the confines of our internalized systems of oppression.

In the denouement, the play goes nonverbal. It relies solely on set and light design by Marie Yokoyama, sound design by Lawrence Schober, and choreography by Katy Pyle. The white frame glows, hums, vibrates, and looms, and beats like a living thing. The men strip, remove their microphones, and change clothes. Sam wears the top half of an outfit. Buck wears the bottom half. They dance, and and navigate the space within the white frame. They push and pull each other. They turn toward and away from one another. They do this on repeat, each performing their somewhat rigid roles in the relationship and in the dance. They each have moments when they look like they can’t keep going on. After a moment of rest, the push and pull continues. We see each of them try to escape, but they cannot stay and they cannot leave. They continue to struggle.

Finally they get to a point where Buck is able to face the audience and lean into and hang on Sam. Sam’s body literally supports and suspends Buck as the white frame becomes gold. This moment suggests that Sam financially, mentally, and emotionally supports Buck in pursuing his dreams.

We are left with the sense that outside the framework of that space and its white walls the couple will thrive, given their command of new tools gleaned through their struggles. The play ends with Buck wearing a beautiful floral crown signifying the beginning of new area of self-love and self-actualization. Pillowtalk shows us that within systems of oppression, love is not enough. We must struggle.

Photos: Walter Wlodarczyk

Playwright: Kyoung H. Park

Director: Kyoung H. Park

Cast:
JP Moraga (Buck) 
Basit Shittu (Sam)

Staff: Helen Yee (Original Music), Katy Pyle (Choreography), Marie Yokoyama (Set and Lighting Design), Lawrence Schober (Sound Design), Andrew Jordan (Costume Design), Chuan-Chi Chan (Set and Lighting Assistant), Andrew Goldberg (Sound and Production Assistant), Jess Applebaum (Dramaturgy), Ishmael Huhammad (Assistant to the Director)

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