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Langston Hughes

I & Thou

Langston HughesI’m sitting at a terrific, progressive-minded bookstore/restaurant/cafĂ© in Washington D.C. called Busboys and Poets. It was just rainstorming outside — typhoonishly — and it was so cool, and comforting, sitting inside this lovely place (which is named in honor of the great writer Langston Hughes, who once worked as a busboy in town) and watching the torrential downpour through the huge windows. They’ve created a wonderful community here, at the confluence of several neighborhoods, and the clientele are a chatting/sipping/Internetting mixture, racially and (from what I can tell) economically. Jazz is playing on the sound system; I’ll be staying with my friends David and Denice; life, for the moment, feels as good as it can feel, given that I’m desperately lonely for my wife (whose birthday this is!) and son.

It’s been a whirlwind of a last few days: I performed two pieces in San Diego — then, immediately after my second performance (on Thursday night) I rushed to the airport to take a red-eye flight to Washington-Dulles. When I got to my gate area, the food choice was McDonald’s. I hadn’t partaken of Mickey D’s in a long time, but — after eating only half a bag of cashews all day, to that point — I enthusiastically ordered a super-sized Big Mac dinner (with Diet!) and brought it on the plane. As soon as we reached altitude, I wolfed down the whole meal in like five minutes. And after that I felt very strange. I felt much as Dr. Bruce Banner must feel when he’s about to transform into the Incredible Hulk: toxic, unsettled, out of control. I honestly worried that I might explode. Maybe they use gamma rays when they cook that stuff. Never again. Till next time.

I made it, intact, to the storied Lincoln Theatre, where last night I did an excerpt from Citizen Josh at a gala event celebrating the Arena Stage‘s upcoming season. (I’ll be performing the piece at Arena this fall.) [Interstitial note: It’s storming again outside — very dramatic! And two young women next to me at this long table — law-school students, clearly — are quizzing each other regarding “third-party plaintiffs” and “third-party defendants”; I have the pleasant sensation of being an uninvolved fourth party.] There were lots of other performers on the program, and I got to do something that, incredibly, was a first for me in 20 years in the theater: I actually shared a dressing room! That’s never happened before! My friend, the genius comedienne Marga Gomez, has a joke that goes something like, “You know the worst thing about being a solo performer? The cast parties.” And there’s some truth in that. For once, I was in the middle of a community (that word again! [And coincidentally, David just joined me here and said, “Ah! You found the community table.”])! Actors teasing one another, telling jokes, comparing leads on day jobs, making sure that a young boy performing with them had his collar done just right — it was a joyful thing. At one point I apologized for being so bleary and slow-on-the-uptake, explaining that I hadn’t slept in a couple of days; an actor sitting next to me patted me on the back, saying, “You don’t have to apologize to us, Josh — you’re one of us!” Then he and I spent the next half-hour swapping proud stories about our respective sons. [David — who is David Dower, my theatrical director and collaborator — is now poring over the Citizen Josh script, looking for ways we can improve it for upcoming runs.]

One cool thing that came up during this trip was that I found someone who shared my interest in “I and Thou.” I was chatting with San Diego Rep Associate Artistic Director Todd Salovey, and he asked me what new theater stuff I was working on, and I told him I was focusing on two subjects, which may or may not end up in one piece: playing the oboe, and the “I-Thou Relationship.” He seemed unaffected by the oboe mention (many people cringe), but got all excited about the second topic. Turns out Todd is from a very prominent rabinnical family line, and he’s been really into theological explorations in recent times.

And [change of scenery here — I’m now at David and Denice’s: it’s even nicer!] theology is of the essence in this I/Thou stuff. “The I/Thou Relationship” was the title of a doctoral dissertation that a friend of my dad’s wrote at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. That friend, Chuck, a Presbyterian minister, passed away several years ago, and he left me his dissertation and supporting documents, in the hope that I would bring them to Union Theological and that they’d be put in the library there. With my typical alacrity, I haven’t done this yet: the documents currently sit in a storage unit in Richmond. But lately, especially, Chuck has been much on my mind; he was such a dear friend of ours, and such a big influence on me. And I feel as though if I can transport his stuff, as promised, and also even try to get a handle on “I/Thou,” I may be able to get a little closer to Chuck, even as his actuality recedes with time.

Martin BuberI and Thou is the title of an influential book by Martin Buber (1878-1965), a Jewish philosopher. Based on my quick reading of Buber’s Wikipedia entry, he led a fascinating, passionate, exemplary life. In his philosophy (I read) Buber distinguished between two different kinds of relationships, which he called (respectively) “I-It” and “I-Thou.” From what I can make out (and from the sound of each phrase), “I-It” refers to more limited, materialistic attachments, while “I-Thou” enters the realm of the spiritual and (perhaps my incorrect addition here) political. But given my obsession with democracy, I find very suggestive the notion that Buber was looking at how we are all connected (whether we realize it or not). And in one telling sentence, the very well-written Wikipedia entry brings Buber right into my wheelhouse: “The generic motif Buber employs to describe the dual modes of being is one of dialogue (Ich-Du) and monologue (Ich-Es).”

That’s my big question for myself! How can I, a monologuist, truly engage in a dialogue? How am I connected with my audience? With you? [With David, who is silently typing at his own computer a couple feet away from me?] This Buber guy sounds like he’s definitely someone I should check out. If you have some knowledge and/or leads in this area, please let me know: I am always thrilled to hear from Thou! [And the sun just came out. And birds are tweeting.]