Dallas — “Based on a true story.”
Scanning the inside title page of the program for Second Thought Theatre’s production of Lela & Co., one meets that standout line, in the same-size italicized type as the British playwright’s name: Cordelia Lynn. Only the title is bigger. "Lela & Co.” is a reference to a company founded by the narrator’s husband, who sells use of her body to “peacemaking” soldiers. The foreign country where bombs drop around a suffering Lela is nameless. So is the site of Lela’s childhood, which the audience learns was fraught with abuse from her father.
Audiences are encouraged to consider that this story of sex trafficking and violence could happen anywhere. The ambiguity is a point of pride for the playwright. Lynn told the magazine London Calling in 2015: “Whoever puts on this play can make determined decisions on whether it’s set in Ireland, Iraq, or anywhere in the world, but it can also be set nowhere, and that’s important. I wanted it to be a subtle, beautiful statement rather than pushing the idea down people’s throats.”
What can an anonymous, decontextualized story achieve that one with specifics attached cannot? A story with names and locations redacted serves to protect and liberate the teller at the same time. So the purpose of an expressed base in nonfiction—or, rather, the question of its purpose—hangs heavy over the work. Lela & Co. is much more an exercise in form-play than a clear statement about sex trafficking and violence in homage to survivors, and the true-story disclaimer seems only to excuse the playwright’s generalization of this subject matter.
On opening night of the Second Thought production directed by Kara-Lynn Vaeni, I clung to the program, feeling uncharacteristically confused after preliminary research. A black-and-white image on the cover of a woman in hijab with a shadow of a man behind her guided me along with synopses I’d read toward a particular cultural understanding of what we were about to see: a woman in deep peril, in a Middle Eastern conflict zone, whose story is complicated by interjections from men in her life who tell their version of the story. A commonality of patriarchy across racial and cultural lines is the silencing of women’s stories.
I saw Natalie Young take the stage, not in hijab, but wearing a side-part secured by a clippie. She appeared to be white like many of the actors who’ve played Lela in other productions. The confusion overrode all other feelings about Young’s relentless energy for the role as I watched the performance of Lela’s monologue, specifically Western in its sarcasm and modes of irony as a defense mechanism. I waited for this to prove itself an experimental narrative mechanism, perhaps a commentary on the audience’s sick need to see their own lives in someone else’s before caring about them. The thread only became more muddled.
Lela alternates between this tone and earnest articulations of family and history. In reflecting on the life of her mother and later, her baby, she sings a song called “Westron Wynde” that finds its roots in 16th-century England, its chorus a possible remnant of Medieval poetry. (Scarlett Johansson’s Mary Boleyn sings it in 2008’s The Other Boleyn Girl; Virginia Woolf, Thomas Pynchon and Ernest Hemingway have employed it in landmark texts.)
As an audience member, I felt constantly as if the production was coaxing me to “relate” to or project on Lela, someone whose experience of daily life was immersed in physical danger and sexual exploitation. Her gruesome need to entertain in an ice-skating dress simply to get people to pay attention while a man in a metallic snakeskin suit (Garret Storms) cut her off and negated her feelings— sure, this is relatable. The bitingly clever costuming by Amanda Capshaw brought the tradition of gurlesque poetry immediately to mind. It’s an exorcism of pain and anger in the form of seductive phrasing; a numbed, deliberate show of privilege, a superficial performance of femininity mastered by the likes of Chelsey Minnis.
The feeling of being trapped in a cheap and dark talent show fashioned to obscure violent truths — this came through thanks to Young’s complex performance and Storms’ unyielding Cheshire grin under Vaeni’s direction. A minimalist set by Nick Francone serves this thread of the play, framing all the changes with a showbiz crescent moon à la Sweet and Lowdown flanked by barren trees. At the open, the flippancy of Lela & Co. seems to be a self-aware kind. There’s a distance between the events of Lela’s life and how she processes them. This is the play’s clearest message.
Then the bombs drop while Lela takes shifts as a sex worker against her will, then the distinctly Western nerd-bro soldier appears, then the audience learns Lela cannot understand his language. She appeals to him, cheating out to the audience: “When you know something is bad, that’s when you stop it, right?” The false conflation of earnest petition and ironic deflection renders the play’s messages mostly illegible.
I searched for the source of this true story, the premise to which Lela & Co. falls prey, and found an interview with the playwright about that original story upon the play’s debut at Royal Court Theatre in 2015. It showed the evasion I felt as an audience member. The interview, by Natasha Sutton-Williams, was published Sept. 18 2015 and can be read here. An excerpt:
London Calling: Where did the idea for this play originate?
Cordelia Lynn: The theatre company 1989 Productions gave me a real-life story as the seed, but my idea ended up quite different, which was important because when you’re dealing with complex subject matter, there can be something almost voyeuristic about the need to know about what’s happened to other people. I had the initial story as a basis, did research and was reading Ismail Kadare who writes about conflict. I put all this stuff together and came out with my own version, which meant I had ownership. I would have felt ethically uncomfortable about using a real-life story. It needed to be an imaginary piece of fiction.
LC: Did you make a conscious decision not to talk to anyone personally affected by sex trafficking?
CL: Yes, because it comes back to the nature of voyeurism and fiction, and to what extent am I going to limit what I can do by building upon this need to tell the ‘truth’? I almost don’t think there are truths. It would have interfered with the way I told this story. I don’t think it would have been as honest a piece of writing. Imagination, fiction and fantasy are important to me. I have respect for verbatim theatre but that’s not personally how I write. It does come down to what’s happening in the world around me? What am I reading? What am I listening to? What’s inspiring me? And then how does all that go into my head and make a play?
LC: This piece is deliberately set in a non-specific time and place. What was your reasoning behind this?
CL: It was a political choice. The problems and feelings the play explores are universal issues. Human trafficking happens all over the world. Particularly in the West, it can be very easy to point the finger at other countries and say, ‘that’s a cultural thing for them’ or ‘that’s in the nature of their most recent history’. I felt that would be wrong to portray in my play. Whoever puts on this play can make determined decisions on whether it’s set in Ireland, Iraq or anywhere in the world, but it can also be set nowhere, and that’s important. I wanted it to be a subtle, beautiful statement rather than pushing the idea down people’s throats.
Nothing about Lela & Co. is subtle. Even the sound design by Jason Biggs is jarring, a dynamic that I appreciated when combing Second Thought’s presentation for nuance and interpretation. I reached out to director Vaeni with my questions. She, too, was surprised at the difference between the cover art on the program and the actual show, she told me. But that was a decision the STT producers made when the 2019 season and the corresponding graphics were revealed.
I never hope to fixate on materials, but in this case, the image was important to the play, and Vaeni apparently agrees. The remainder of our exchange seems important:
Lyndsay Knecht: What were the discussions like during production about the Western/non-Western and racial dynamics in the play?
Kara Lynn Vaeni: We did not have these discussions because they are not germane to our production.
LK: What were your chief concerns about how the audience would read Lela as a character and how did you address them?
KLV: I didn’t and don’t have concerns about how the audience will read Lela as a character. That is totally up to them. ... To answer a question that I think you are getting at (and that I think many people may have!) regarding race in the casting of this piece: the writer is super-specific that race and place are decided by each production. You can see in the script that all the characters speak in British dialect with British slang. For me specifically, a white woman, to have cast this play other than I did [two white actors] would have been, I feel, pretty presumptuous.
I can only create art that is in the wheelhouse of my experience. That is my personal, ethical, artistic choice. (Others may feel differently.) And while sex slavery is not in my experience, all the ten million cuts that the men in her life perpetrate on Lela in smaller and larger ways are absolutely familiar. When I read this play, I thought about Serbia and Kosovo and the civil neighborhood conflicts I was aware of in my formative years when I was Lela's age. And because of that, it didn't bother me, even on a lefty liberal level, that the two actors are white.
The play is certainly universal enough to cast two Native Americans or two Africans or two Chinese people but I think it is kind of important to the play that the man is familiar enough to Lela that he represents her father and all the other men in her life so I think they should be superficially the same race. And I think if I cast two [black] actors, say, I am now telling the story of the Ivory Coast or Rwanda or the war in Morocco. I think those are all valid productions, but I also wonder if I am the director to be directing them? I think someone should do an amazing Macbeth with an all-[black] cast and set it in Africa or the Caribbean or the American South or..., or...., or...., or....,but I wouldn't suggest that I be on the creative team, you know?
Despite the fact that Russian women also wear headscarves, the dissonance remains for me, with or without the program as preface. It’s true that patriarchy is everywhere, but it does not look the same nor is it processed the same everywhere and by every race or culture. This central tenet of intersectional feminism was illuminated so strongly for me after seeing the play. That we watch a white Lela sit in her brother-in-law’s lap with a lollipop during a flashback and later watch as she attempts to cross a border with her baby daughter feels garbled, at best, and at worst, it feels like another version of what the character Man does to Lela throughout the play: obscure her story with his way of telling it.