BY JAMES STILL
There’s a line in Miranda where she’s asked what her mother knows about the work she does in the CIA, and Miranda says, “There’s so little you can talk about without talking about too much of it, you know?” It’s the same with my play and the process of writing it: everyone has secrets. Some questions about Miranda I’m often asked: Why CIA? Why a woman? Why Yemen? Why Othello? Why, why, why? My attempts to answer make me think of another line in the play: “If all else fails, lie truthfully.” There’s a thin line that separates the play and the writer—but it’s in that holy/terrifying/unknown/mysterious space where the work happens, where the story emerges, where the characters seem more real to myself than myself.
What I can talk about with confidence are the ways Miranda is borne out of pure process, deep patience, timely resilience, and the faith of so many collaborators. What makes Miranda especially unique in my body of work is that it completes a trilogy of plays about an American family that started with The House that Jack Built (which premiered at the IRT), continued with Appoggiatura (which premiered at Denver Center Theatre and will be seen next season at the IRT), and is complete now with Miranda (which premiered earlier this year at Illusion Theater in Minneapolis). If my trilogy of plays is about a family, then Miranda is about a family inside that family. The more time I spent inside my own play, the more profoundly I understood the dedication and independence required by the women and men who commit to a life in CIA. There is an overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness that seems to come with that job; there’s also danger and service and yes, intelligence. What kind of person chooses that life—and why? That’s one of the questions my play and its characters wrestle with.
On a plane recently, I was doing a crossword puzzle and this was the clue: “Neighbor of Saudi Arabia.” A few years ago I might not have known the answer so quickly. After all, a few years ago I hadn’t yet dreamed about writing a play set in Yemen. I hadn’t yet met with a CIA officer recently retired after her 31 years with the National Clandestine Service (NCS), and I hadn’t yet Skyped with a woman whose hometown is Aden, Yemen, and is now in the United States doing her masters in international studies. I hadn’t yet been emailing with scholars and journalists and photographers who have told Yemen’s stories through different lenses. I hadn’t yet re-read the novels of Graham Green and John le Carre or the memoirs of women who have served in the CIA. I hadn’t yet considered Othello to be one of the first great spy stories, and I hadn’t yet wondered how Shakespeare sounds when spoken in Arabic. I hadn’t yet spent time at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. (because I couldn’t resist). I hadn’t yet immersed myself in declassified CIA documents or fallen heart-first down the rabbit holes of the internet or become so paranoid and convinced that we’re all being watched/tracked/monitored through our phones, laptops, and security cameras that really are everywhere. And I hadn’t yet seen Yemen’s blood of dragon trees….
While the pursuit of happiness may be one of the inalienable rights guaranteed in our Declaration of Independence, Miranda is too smart not to know that happiness is elusive. She’s thrived during her years in the CIA in pursuit of meaning, not happiness. But what if that meaning and sense of purpose has faded with time and age; what now? That’s something that haunts the play: that slippery, rigorous, lonely pursuit of meaning. It’s what makes Miranda like all of us; but because of the life she’s living and the place she’s doing it, she’s also like none of us. For me, that’s what makes her seem both familiar and surprising and is just one of the many things that continues to intrigue me about her and the other characters in the play. I know them—until I don’t. Which only makes me want to know them more.
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