Trigger Warning, with a capital “T.”
It’s the opening sequence of Portland Center Stage‘s Bo-Nita, and the 13-year-old title character (played by a mature but agile Kate Eastwood Norris) is explaining what just happened: Her mom’s ex-boyfriend, Gerard, was trying to “get it up to poke” her (implied: “again”) when he suffered a cardiac arrest. First she refused to help him up from the bathroom floor. Then she began punching him in the face, continuing to wale on the unconscious man until she’d reduced him to a bloody pulp.
No, seriously. Elizabeth Heffron’s script, selected and developed at Portland Center Stage’s JAW new-works festival in 2012, is framed as a comedy, rife with gallows humor, about wacky dead-guy-handling hijinks akin to Weekend At Bernie’s. Though the circumstances she describes are dire and nauseatingly un-funny, Bo-Nita ekes out plenty of audience laughs with Eastwood Norris’s animated re-enactment. Dreadlock pigtails flying, she hops and saunters around the stage, mimicking Gerard’s low drawl and her mom’s wily twang. She makes noises and goes through motions: Pow! Pow! Pow!
How dare she make light of this horrible story?
Well…because from my observation, when left to their own devices, that’s what survivors tend to do.
Following last Sunday’s matinee, PCS hosted a Perspective Series talkback with social workers and a student from NAYA, the Native American Youth Association, to discuss at-risk teens and family dysfunction…whereupon things got personal. “I’m 70 years old,” remarked one audience member, “and I still deal with that feeling of ‘warm milk'” (a reference to a line from the play about withstanding creepy conditions). Other attendees uncomfortably mentioned “coming from” abuse, too, with a general consensus that Bo-Nita’s depiction seemed true. Taking notes and having a little distance from the topic, I withheld comment, but here are my two relevant stories:
When I was a kid, I shared a school bus with all of our town’s juvenile delinquents. No, I wasn’t one myself, and no, this is not an exaggeration. With about a half-hour left in the ride each way, the bus swung by the town’s halfway house and picked up all the residents who were approved to attend high school. Some would slump into a corner and stare at the floor. Some would hit on me and/or threaten to light my hair on fire. Even then, I understood that this was a performance. They’d also perform for the bus more generally, clowning and joking elaborately about their horrible homes, their idiot teachers, their asshole abusers. Which is to say, I have known several real-life Bo-Nitas.
Cut to my adult life in Portland when a fellow folk musician taught me to harmonize on his new song. His first-person lyrics described parents ripping away his Boy Scout badge and burning his hand on the stove. “Did they?” I asked, knowing such things were possible. “Of COURSE not,” he replied. “It’s just a story.” He’d been reading classic Irish novels. He’d added the abuse narrative to his lyrics to give them an extra dimension of flavor, like peppering a soup.
In my experience, in America, at least (please note those qualifiers), abuse is rarely recounted by its victims as a maudlin, dramatic, sympathetic first-person story. Telling your painful tale leaves you vulnerable to stigma, question,s and rejection, and most victims won’t go there. They’re far more likely to stay silent (suck it up), state things flatly (for the record), or try to joke their pain away. Making fun of something lets you dominate it, minimize it, laugh it off. And most victims have been taught that particular use of humor…by their abusers. As sick as that may sound, survivors reading this right now are nodding. Survivors who watch Bo-Nita will also nod, while the less experienced chuckle and wince.
Obviously, it’s hard to critique tech on a show that—if Sunday’s talkback is any indication—pries open serious psychological and civic conversations. Despite that, and Eastwood Norris’s adept performance and Gretchen Corbett’s dynamic direction notwithstanding, I have a couple of items on my wish list as this new script blossoms: 10 fewer minutes, a more youthful lead (if possible), region-and-era-appropriate wardrobe (rather than the Seattle ’90s grunge style that Bo-Nita sports while in Missouri and Arizona), and more attack in the show’s brief but recurring Stepping routine…because Bo-Nita doesn’t do anything else half-assed.
When you see Bo-Nita, you might laugh, you won’t cry, and you’ll hopefully understand some unorthodox truths about America’s cycle of dysfunction and family abuse. Unless you’re already familiar with it firsthand, in which case…Trigger Warning.
A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’ for The Portland Mercury, and is former arts editor of Portland Monthly magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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