February 14, 2017

Questions of America’s Past and Future in Performing and Media Arts Presentation of “The Diary of an American Girl”

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I watched The Diary of an American Girl, a play written by Cornell Performing and Media Arts student Aleksej Aarasether, on February 10th at the Schwartz Center. American Girl had been written for the Heermans-McCalmon Dramatic Writing Competition, and the PMA department showcased it as one of the winning screenplays. Two other performances, excerpts of a screenplay and a script, were also shown.

The Diary of an American Girl depicts the story of Anna, a young Latinx girl born in America to with undocumented parents. The script flirts with the conceit of Anna’s diary, through which some of the story is told. The background characters—Anna’s Muslim friend, a school bully, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents—present another novelty; while at the performance these characters were played by actors dressed in black, the script intended for them to be depicted using only shadow.

The story takes place over the course of a year, from 2016 to 2017. Given the play’s anti-Trump message (one which might be inferred just from the information I’ve given so far), it is inherently political. It’s clear from the outset that the 2016 election and subsequent aftermath will play large roles.

Time is a central component of the play. In the beginning, Anna’s boundless optimism manifests itself in dreams of the future. She imagines herself in a perfect relationship: one in which she’s happy but not domesticated: she doesn’t want to cook anyone’s dinner. She anticipates the school dance as an opportunity not only to get closer to her crush, but also to have fun. She bristles when her father, Octavio, tells her that she is “too young”: if she is, then she wants to move past her youth and into her maturity. The future rests on some far-off horizon, Anna’s perpetual goal.

But from the viewer’s perspective, the irony in all of Anna’s optimism is obvious: the future is not going to be very pleasant. The play sets up Trump’s election as an easily foreseeable turning point in Anna’s life. Each scene in the beginning of the play is marked by the date in Anna’s diary, almost like a countdown to Election Day, and while Anna makes almost no mention of anything political before November 8th, the tension as the date approaches is palpable. The spacing between Anna’s diary entries even grows shorter towards Election Day, slowing down the story’s pacing in the buildup to the critical moment.

After Election Day, the play moves into 2017, begins to speculate on the (very near) future and shifts in tone dramatically. There is little fun or joy in Anna’s life anymore: her story becomes one of survival in the face of a hostile government and newly-emboldened racists. It’s no longer relevant that Anna is “too young” to learn about racial slurs—threats to herself and her friends become commonplace, and the maturity she longed for in the story’s first half is forced upon her all too quickly as she must learn to survive.

American Girl doesn’t shy away from telling a story that is both important and disturbingly relevant. Not half a week before the play was shown, reports from Texas to Southern California spoke of new ICE deportations under the Trump administration’s new policies. There was further reporting on the administration’s intent to fund construction of new detention centers along the U.S-Mexico border and to funnel asylum officers into positions where they can facilitate an increase in expedited removal hearings.

At the same time, there are aspects of the play worth questioning. The title is, after all, The Diary of an American Girl, centralizing America in Anna’s identity. Towards the end of the play, she says, “I’m American. I love it here.” Here means Texas, and it’s clear that American doesn’t mean America in the broader continental sense, but America as  in the United States.

The reason why Trump’s election is a critical point in Anna’s life is that it transforms the America that was once her home into something alien and hostile. The play’s imagined America has enough camps, deportation agents and children hiding in attics that the connections to Nazi Germany follow easily. All it took to effect this transformation was the election of one man and the course of a few months. Does this seem plausible?

This dramatic transformation serves both to whitewash America before Trump’s election and obscure our understanding of what comes after. I don’t think I need to go over the myriad violent, oppressive, and generally unpleasant facets of America which all have long histories stretching far before Trump was elected (or even born). But what about the future?

Anna’s life with respect to Trump is a series of firsts, events which cleanly delineate a “before” and an “after” pertaining to Trump’s election and her going into hiding. People can rally around these moments as battles to win or lose. But what if they never come—not in the neatly packaged way that American Girl suggests they will?

Between the past and future separated by these critical moments, there is a present which no turning point can define and which, cliché and obvious as it is, everyone always occupies. Part of me wanted American Girl to explore this present, as opposed to romanticizing a rosy past or imagining a dystopian future. It is only now, in the space between moments, when anyone can act.

That said, I enjoyed the play. I laughed at the jokes, and thought the sense of dread in the first half was particularly well-executed and important. Art can provoke reflection on the structure of a world which grows increasingly more opaque, and, if nothing else, The Diary of an American Girl certainly made me think.

Albert Chu is a junior in the College of Engineering. He can be reached at [email protected].