To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, Baltimore’s Center Stage Theater asked fifty of America’s leading playwrights to each write a monologue in response to a simple question, “What is America?” The monologues were filmed by director Hal Hartley, who has compiled twenty-one of the fifty pieces into a feature film. Each monologue presents a unique character with their own perspective on their country, their values, their prejudices and their desires. Each of these twenty-one videos stands out, but I can’t help but pick my own favorites, if only to unpack what I find to be special about this film as a whole. Here are my five favorite Americas in My America:
“From A Distance” is a breathtaking hip-hop freestyle performance by the spoken word duo The 5th L. The vigorously intertwining wordplay of David Ross and Femi Lawal paints a panoramic national landscape of contradictions that sets the tone for the entire film.
“Amazing America Auction” by Lynn Rosen is also driven by a freestyle verbal energy, but to a completely different end, as an auctioneer tries to sell the American dream to a group of new arrivals. But strangely, the harder he tries to inspire them to bid even higher for a piece of the dream, the darker his American success story becomes.
The uniquely American way of patronizing people of other backgrounds is brought to life in Danny Hoch’s monologue “Phil,” in which a Puerto Rican shipowner tries to make small talk with a newcomer to the neighborhood. His efforts are a spectacular disaster that reveal the complicated mix of compassion and prejudice behind his friendly demeanor.
An even more complicated monologue is “Hit and Run” by Kirsten Greenidge, which a young mother tries to describe a hit-and-run incident that she just witnessed. But in her sleep-deprived state, she makes indiscretions about her own family conflicts and liberal prejudices. Her off-the-cuff remarks suggest that the title doesn’t just describe an incident, but a way of life. It’s a monologue that’s too rich in meaning to summarize; it simply has to be experienced.
But the monologue I found most immediately gripping is Space Mountain by Dan Dietz, in which a veteran of the war in Afghanistan tells the story of how he and a fellow soldier tried to rescue a sick Afghan girl only to get into deeper trouble, It’s an old fashioned soldier’s story but one told with great clarity about the mess that U.S .soldiers can’t help but find themselves in, and against all odds, it works its way towards a moment of hope. That feeling of hope is encouraging and will stay with me, but it’s just one of many feelings that can be found in My America.