Amherst Magazine

Wordplay

This fall, New York’s Roundabout Theatre produced work by two of the hottest emerging playwrights in theater: Julia Cho ’96 and Kim Rosenstock ’02.

By Lawrence Goodman

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In Tigers Be Still, Halley Feiffer (left) plays Sherry, an art teacher who moves home with her family, and John Magaro plays her teaching assistant, Zach.

[Theater] You might say it all began with Amherst’s Playwright-In-Residence Constance Congdon. “The great luck of my life was that Amherst hired Constance Congdon to teach plays and playwriting while I was there,” says Julia Cho. Kim Rosenstock had planned on majoring in English and going to law school before she met Congdon. “She encouraged me to take her playwriting class,” Rosenstock says. “Then she was like, ‘You’re a playwright.’ Those are such powerful words for a student to hear from a teacher.”

Fast forward to the present, and Cho and Rosenstock are two of the hottest emerging playwrights in theater, with both enjoying productions of their work this fall at New York’s prestigious Roundabout Theatre. Cho’s The Language Archive is about a linguist who can’t find the words to communicate with his estranged wife. Rosenstock’s Tigers Be Still tells the story of a teacher struggling with an ailing mother and sister who refuse to get out of bed.

Cho has had numerous plays produced before, including the critically acclaimed The Architecture of Loss. The Language Archive had its world premiere earlier this year at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., and won the 2010 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, given to the best play written in English by a woman. Rosenstock is just starting out, having only recently graduated from the Yale School of Drama. But the women share a similar comic sensibility, a love of wordplay and an interest in the limits of love and language. Their plays at the Roundabout are mainly realistic but also feature extended flights of fantasy: Cho’s features a dream sequence and a vaguely Eastern European-sounding made-up language; Rosenstock’s has a tiger running wild in the suburbs after escaping from the zoo.

Cho says she began work on The Language Archive in 2008 after reading a newspaper story about the death of the last known speaker of an indigenous language. “I started reading more on how and why languages go extinct,” Cho says. “As someone who cares enormously about language and words, I found the whole idea unsettling and sad.”

In the play, the main character studies dead languages and is busy trying to record the conversations of the last two speakers of a language called Elloway (which Cho invented). But having command over several languages and being fluent in the language of love turn out to be very different things. The linguist can have mastery over words in his professional life yet still find himself at a loss for words in his personal life. “The play is about the vagaries of communication and how difficult it can be to say exactly what we mean,” Cho says.

Rosenstock says Tigers Be Still was inspired by personal experience. Shortly after she graduated from Amherst, her mother was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that left her with renal failure and forced her to go on steroids. Her face puffed up and she gained nearly 70 pounds. She had to retire from the job she loved as a fifth-grade art teacher, and then she simply stopped leaving her home. “She didn’t want to be seen,” Rosenstock says.

Rosenstock herself wasn’t faring much better at the time. She felt lost and lapsed into a serious depression. “My mom and I were really in the same boat,” Rosenstock says, “but we couldn’t really help each other because both of us were pretty inconsolable.”

In the play, two sisters and their mother are all ill and bedridden until one day one of the sisters, Sherry, decides it’s time to get up and resume her normal life. She then has to convince her sibling and mother to do the same. Tigers Be Still became Rosenstock’s way of writing about “all these things that I felt I should have done for my mom, or didn’t do, or wish I had said, but couldn’t say directly,” she says. “It really began as my writing a letter to my mom.”

Lawrence Goodman is a playwright living in Providence, R.I.

Photo by Joan Marcus