So I’m sitting in the window of the Woolly lobby, third performance of House of Gold, on the phone with my mom waiting for the show to get out. About 20 minutes before anyone should be walking out of the theatre, a woman comes out, goes up to our house manager and ever so politely explains that she is dissatisfied with the play. I tell my mom I’ll call her back, go over, introduce myself, and ask if maybe I can help – and so begins one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in my time here at Woolly.
This particularly eloquent patron tells me that she’s been attending Woolly shows for a while, but she just didn’t like this one. When I ask her to elaborate, she focuses on the fact that she “didn’t get it” and felt very lost. Her first specific reference is to the scene with JonBenét and the Man, where he tells her about “his first.” She asks how old JonBenét is supposed to be, and feels that it was very inappropriate for him to use foul words and tell his six-year-old daughter about the crude way he had sex for the first time. She says that makes her uncomfortable. I admit to her that it made me a little uncomfortable too, and ask her why she thought the playwright might want the audience to feel that way. She thinks for a little bit, and says she assumes it is to make a point about father-daughter relations, but that it was still inappropriate for a young girl. Then she repeats “I just don’t get it” and I say that I think she is actually getting it fine – the inappropriateness is on purpose, and that the play does want to examine how we place expectations on children, and the bizarrely repressed way we treat them. She nods and makes sounds of assent, but returns to this question of how old JonBenét is supposed to be in this play. I ask if it helps to see age as immaterial to the play, which is dealing not with JonBenét herself but with society’s obsessive projection of her that is really unrelated to the little girl who died. She says that does help.
Flash to Sunday night – I’m at another theatre with a friend of mine who saw House of Gold last week. We’re waiting for the play to start and I’m grilling him on what he thought of Woolly’s show. “Not my cup of tea” is the opening response, but as I keep asking he finally comes out with it: “just how old was that girl supposed to be?!” I get excited and bombard him with more questions. He explains that if she’s really five, then some of the innocent moments with Jasper are lovely, but if she’s as adult as the actress or as the other characters treat her, those moments are lost. I’m not sure that I agree, and say that I love that the only person she CAN be innocent with—be herself with—is Jasper…
Back to Wednesday: I prompt our audience member to tell me more about her experience, and she starts talking about Jasper. She is stuck on his age, too, and says that in his initial scene she thought he was probably around 12, but then he creates this friendship with a six-year-old and plays her his favorite song which is “all about pussy.” She really wants to know what the point of that relationship was, and how the Richard Pryor could be appropriate, especially when JonBenét seems so child-like? And moreover, why would Jasper like that? I say that she has pinpointed one of the key things about the play: this separation between the way the children look and who they are or the way they talk. I suggest that maybe both of these kids are trying to be something else—what they want to be—because they are unhappy with what they are. Jasper is an overweight marginalized child who focuses on wanting to be a sexually powerful, aggressive black man and JonBenét is forced to be too adult too fast, so she allows herself to be very child-like around Jasper, which I said I felt was part of Kaaron’s (who plays JonBenét) portrayal. I mention the article that inspired the playwright, and I can see this makes my conversation partner think. She says she’ll go home and read the program.
Now it’s Friday night on the metro. “I read the program,” says the woman I’ve struck up a conversation with, based on overhearing her say the name “JonBenét Ramsey” to her friend. “And I still have problems with Porkchop.” I want to know more—I ask why— and she very readily explains to me that black comedians and black athletes are overdone as role models. “Why not an astronaut?” she demands. I say I honestly don’t know, because I’ve never thought about this before. I come up with the half-formed idea that the boxer is necessary for the violence to happen, but she is unappeased. “I get that,” she says, but goes back to the article she read about in the program. If that is the basis for the play, she tells me, then she thinks all the stereotypes make House of Gold “propagandistic.” I’ve never heard that word used about the play before, and I’m fascinated. I think about what this woman said all the way home, until I realize that for me, the play wouldn’t really work any other way. Everyone is a symbol, everyone is a little stereotyped because they are society distilled into caricatures. As a friend of mine said last night, the characters in House of Gold “are archetypes of people responding to JonBenét.” And so, in my head, Jasper can’t idolize a black astronaut, because he’s never seen a black person before except on TV—Jasper is doing the best he can with a limited number of options.
Wednesday, one last time. The conversation is winding down because the show is about to get out, but I have to ask, “what moment made you leave?” The patron says the autopsy scene. She says it was upsetting and that she thought JonBenét was finally dead, but then JonBenét is just sleeping, and the patron underlines that she didn’t understand the structure. I ask if it helps to think of the structure like that of a nightmare, and she says yes. She thinks about it and says “but whose nightmare?” to which I respond “whose do you think it is?” She says “it couldn’t be JonBenét’s because she is too young for this kind of nightmare” and goes on to postulate “maybe the parents’?” to which I respond with agreement. I ask if maybe the parents are symbolic of the popular imagination’s collective nightmare surrounding JonBenét—that what we come up with as theories surrounding her death, the sheer number of them and obsessive quality, might be sicker than the actual event.
Opening night, Friday again, my dad and I are talking to Kaaron. “It’s like a sermon,” my father says about the closing monologue. Kaaron is surprised by that thought, as am I. “It’s a sermon that this little girl unfortunately has to give, but doesn’t even know she’s giving,” explains my dad. I love this idea, at the same time as we all agree that the play is so hard to watch for the very fact that no little girl should have to give that kind of sermon to adults. And on the metro, the other person I’m talking to tells me that he has kids, and that the Dad scene and the Detective scene upset him because “No adult should ever need a child. Children don’t know that, but no adult should ever need advice or comfort from a kid.”
As you can tell, that conversation that began on Wednesday night hasn’t really ended yet. My understanding and my thinking about this play have been shaped by interactions with audience members who both like and dislike House of Gold. So please—talk to me. Talk to us. Whether it be in person, via email, or on the phone – tell us what you thought.
Woolly Mammoth’s mission statement begins with the call to ignite an explosive engagement between theatre artists and the community. YOU are the community—we can’t fulfill our mission without you—so I ask of every audience member that goes to see House of Gold: engage.
~Maura Krause, Literary Assistant