An Actor

Magan at work in the West Bank

Sealing the Deal

A couple of months after The Book of Mev came out, I did a reading and signing at at Left Bank Books in Saint Louis’s Central West End. I asked one of my former students, Magan Wiles, to read the very last chapter of the book entitled, “The Gospel according to Mev.” Magan did a riveting reading but I noticed she was weeping as she read Mev’s words. She told me afterwards she would let me know why she had been crying. A week later, she emailed me this explanation:

“I was crying because my heart was broken, and filled up at the same time. I was crying because I knew I could never move to New York and just be a poor bohemian stage actress, which is an old and outdated dream, and it breaks my heart to let it go. I was crying because right then I knew I was going to Palestine, and I knew that after that I will go many places to join the struggle. I was crying because right then I realized that the struggle is my life, and it always will be, it will never be over. I cannot compartmentalize, I cannot just leave it for a little while to go do something else. I have seen, and I cannot look away. I will live my life as Sisyphus, and while this ignites a fire in me, it also makes me ache. My heart is broken and full. I am humbled by your book, and by Mev’s clarity in her life’s mission. It forces me into more focus. Please know that the honor was mine, that speaking those words sealed the deal.”

Why Shakespeare Matters
by Magan Wiles

Shakespeare matters because, just like Tupac, young men still quote him in juvenile detention centers. I teach acting to court-involved kids, and have for a long time, and I always feel weird about imposing another dead white writer on black-n-brown teenagers. But Shakespeare will fire up the room every time. Even if I can’t get them to read it, they will improvise the situations – “your uncle has killed your father and married your mother, and then your father’s ghost appears to you and tells you to take revenge. Ok, Dale is Hamlet and David is the ghost. Go.” They love it.

If you know about scansion, know how to analyze the rhythm structures of poems, you know that Shakespeare matters because he is a fucking genius with rhythm, and no one has ever come close to touching him. He wrote in iambic pentameter, the rhythm of the human heart, and he layered the emotions behind the character’s thoughts into the actual sounds of the line. Miranda in The Tempest, upon first meeting the love of her life, says “I would not wish any companion in the world but you.” Feel all those “wuh” sounds? The sounds of the words themselves are a loving sigh; to make the sound of a “w”, you purse your lips like a kiss. Say the whole line in one breath, and really mouth the consonants – just the way the words feel in your mouth gives you the feeling of being in love as a Miranda would experience it – warm and gushing and so big you can’t contain it.

Contrast that with Juliet’s “Gallop apace, you fiery footed steeds/Towards Phoebus lodging!” Juliet knows what she wants – her heart is racing – she is full of adrenaline and desire, it’s in that G of the Gallop, and Shakespeare also starts with a stressed syllable so you have to launch into the line, not ease into like you would if it was the expected unstressed-stressed pattern of iambic pentamter, and the sentence is all “fffs” and “sss” and popping consonants. Also a young girl in love, but in a very different way – this a young woman impatient for her wedding night. That’s why you love reading Shakespeare out loud – that’s why his text sweeps you up and carries you away – that’s why when it’s acted properly, you will feel what the actor is feeling, what Shakespeare was feeling when he wrote it. And that’s why it’s so boring when an actor doesn’t know how to handle the language.

If Only It Were So

6 North Coffee
Corner of Sarah and Laclede

Coming in from a windy day
Sitting in a booth

Magan Wiles across from me
Our eyes meet

The wheels start turning
The words come tumbling


Blue Rose Stage Collective presents their debut production:

Taken from the writings of Rachel Corrie
Edited by Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner
Performed by Magan Wiles
Directed by Tom Martin

Come and see this profoundly moving production of the life of the murdered Palestinian rights activist Rachel Corrie. Adapted from the writings of Rachel Corrie, “My Name is Rachel Corrie” is a deeply passionate portrayal of both the life of Rachel Corrie and the cause she lived and, ultimately, died for: justice for Palestine.

“Damn You!”
by Magan Wiles

Professor Friend, First the nice polite happy part about reading your wonderful book, Dear Layla: This pasticcio covered a breadth of my own experience. I remembered things I haven’t thought about in a long time: How I originally went to Palestine because of “the dread of being a bystander.” How I quit ISM because there were too many Americans “run[ing] after a tragedy…elated to see what [they] were seeing.” What it’s like to watch someone lament the loss of trees. How the Palestinians said over and over “the American people are good, it is the American government who is bad.” The “labyrinthine, incredible Nonsensical, painintheass ways/Of the Israel occupier’s permit system.” How at checkpoints, we would avert our eyes from the “naked torsos” of middle-aged Palestinian men, to try and give them back a little of the dignity being stolen from them, these men who are more dignified somehow than middle-aged American men. It is worse to see the torso of a Palestinian man than an American one; something bigger is lost. How awful and awesome to be a nobody visiting other nobodies in hopes of righting the wrongs of the somebodies How I swore not to use drugs or do any romantic canoodling, then after three weeks going with Ellie to a park in Jerusalem to buy hashish, and after two months making out with the handsome American Jew from Chicago who could talk Arabic like he grew up in Balata camp. Bil’in. Bil’in. Bil’in. The indomitable hope and spirit of the people of Bil’in. “That legendary Arab hospitality’’ – choking down warm goat’s milk that had just been cheerfully milked for me, gulping cup after cup of tea with spoon after spoon of sugar, staying one, two, three hours past the time I intended, eating meat bought by people who could only afford to buy meat for themselves once a week. The first time Fayrouz played for me “the soft, tender voice of Fairuz.” We sat on her bed on our backs and looked at the ceiling as she translated the song for me – “Shadi”, about a woman and her long lost love. How beautiful Arabic-translated-to-English is….I can’t remember where I was when I heard this or what it’s from: “I’ve waited to speak with you because you are expensive to our hearts.”

And now for the second, uglier part of reading your blasted book: as someone who has avoided the suffering of strangers for three years – partly because the last time I chose to stand with those who are suffering it almost swallowed me up and partly because i needed time to understand and care for the little girl inside me who suffered who still suffers – Dear Layla was a difficult pasticcio to read. I was not cynical before I went to Palestine. Now I am, and those scars run deep. It has made me meaner and colder. I hate this about myself. It’s not fitting at all, really, so many Palestinians I met, they honestly believe in spite of EVERYTHING in spite of the through-and-through SHITTYNESS of the situation in Palestine, they have hope that one day things will get better. Palestinian people are some of the least cynical people you will ever meet. They smile as they sit in hell. And it makes me SO FUCKING MAD (So fucking mad that as I type this my anger swells up and catches in my throat and a little leaks through my eyes). That I lived there for three very tiny months and it was enough to make my weak-ass heart go cold, made my faith in EVERYTHING dry up, filled me with a sadness so fucking deep that it’s difficult to bear optimism or sentimentality anywhere – It’s cowardly, and selfish, and I have no right to it. But I digress. Henry from your book came back empty, too, Nothing to write for a year, he said, and Oh god, I know how that feels. Six years I know how that feels. I spent the last three years learning how to have compassion for myself. I ignored the Palestinians to do this. So I better fucking do it. Oh god Oh god “It isn’t my duty to end the Israeli occupation But neither am I free to desist from trying to end it.” Fayrouz, forgive me. Forgive me, I was broken for a while.

Professor Friend – you have always been my Emerson, whether you like it or not. I simmer and simmer and simmer and then I read a book you wrote and I start to boil. The signs have been coming for awhile: I have heard from two friends from Palestine in the last two days that I haven’t spoken with in six years. Palestine is in the news again. Speaking Spanish to the bussers and cooks at work is bringing the Arab word for things back into my mind. Fayrouz wrote me to ask for my address for a job recommendation. Palestine, she is calling me to help again, and I have ignored her for long enough.

Damn you! It fucking hurt to read this book. And thank you. It was the final push I needed to get off my ass.


I get a daily Google Alert
For Harold Bloom
One of my favorite writers

I read this morning of a brilliant, gifted, recent Yale graduate
Named Marina Keegan
Who died Saturday in a car wreck

In today’s edition of the Yale campus paper
Bloom said that he “can think of only a few other women and men
I have taught whose presence always will be with me”

Bloom has had countless thousands of students
Having been at Yale for 57 years
For two years Marina was his assistant

Like Bloom I have had students whose presence is with me
They appear in disguise in Dear Layla
It was one way I chose to pay them tribute

The photo of Marina in the newspaper
Had that Mev and Magan look of confidence and poise announcing
“Get ready, World, here I come!”

The T’ang Dynasty poet Han-shan wrote
“Though they say life last a hundred years
Who has seen a full thirty thousand days?”

You’re the Beautiful Resistance

There’s something about your sharing with me
Tears usually are the result

Not sadness as in Ach
But gratitude as in Ah

I’ve known you nine years plus
So, of course, we inter-are

Muriel Ruykeyser: The universe
Is made of stories not atoms

You were a theatre wiz
Sassy smart aleck

Devotee of Boal
Proud hoosier

Companion to the refugee kids
Evoker of their stories

You used theatre to touch them
And so helped them to touch us

You read Mev’s gospel at LBB
Which sealed the deal for you, for me

Mev: Putting our bodies before the wheels of the great machine
That crushes the bones of the poor, blacks, gays, …

For a couple months we meet week after week
At 6 North Coffee on Laclede

You making your jottings in your notebook
Me sharing scenarios, possibilities

You know the theatre of the absurd
Yeah there we were, Lucky and Pozzo

Trying to prepare for that
Which is beyond preparation

Then you performed the play about your alter ago Rachel Corrie
You wonderfully were Rachel Corrie

Summer 2006
Right before you left for the West Bank

Then you phoned me at some crazy hour
You were about to get on a plane

“Professor-friend, I’m scared shitless”
You admitted as Israel was leveling Lebanon

“What should I do?”
And then you accompanied your fear and soon got a taste

Of some of what the Fayrouzes of the world
Endure as they hold on to their humanity

Zora Neale Hurston: There’s no agony
Like bearing an untold story inside of you

And you transformed your months
Into not just one, but two plays

I’ve long been impressed, relieved, and inspired
By how honest and raw and real you are

Like when you sent me three pages of comments
About Dear Layla

I felt so honored
By you soul-probing reading of it

(Of course you inhabit the characters
Of Carla, Tanya and Natasha)

Harold Clurman: Theatre is
Propaganda for a better life

One day I promise
I’ll come to New York

Come see you in a performance
Then stay out regaling you till dawn

Today I got your postcard from Harlem
Your spirit and spunk radiated off of it

That’s why I’m writing these lines now in my notebook
Remembering a few flash moments

Of the goosebumped and glorious blessings I’ve known
Courtesy of the Indomitable and Tender Miss Magan Wiles

This page is part of my book, Dear Love of Comrades, which you can read here.

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