the lost season

What Would Ren Dara Santiago’s The Siblings Play Have Become?

From The Siblings Play, at Rattlestick. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

If we’re being ruthlessly glass-half-full about it, the ephemerality of theater is what makes it so damn hardy. What is dead can never die: After a production ends, the script still exists; artists can always revive it; even the censored God of Vengeance of one century can be transmuted into the Indecent of the next. And when the theater closed down in New York — Broadway on March 12, the rest of the city’s performance venues in the following hours — shows didn’t expire. They went into limbo. With so little known about the future, not a one is definitively gone: Many are (so far) postponed, and even those that have announced cancellations still have hope of returning in some fashion.

But what’s lost beyond reclamation is the season. The 2020 spring lineup, the accidental juxtaposition of ideas and aesthetics and failures and runaway successes that would have blurred together into a zeitgeist, has been cut off. Because theater is the art of thinking out loud and in community, a season works as a public intellectual, one that’s assembled Voltron-like out of all the separate shows within it. And wouldn’t it be nice right now to have such a mind to help us think our way through … all this?

Which Broadway musicals would have made an impact? Which Off Broadway premieres would have guided the conversation? I’ve chosen to focus on shows that I believe would have most governed our thinking this spring — a time when we all need to meditate carefully on political action, citizenship, communal responsibility, domestic work, and sacrifice. There’s more to theater than just intellectual companionship, though. During the Lost Season, certain designs, certain songs, certain performances would have been our touchstones. What would have made us feel strong? Who would have made us look inward? I have hazarded a guess at the productions that might have been the keystones of the Lost Season. Here’s the first.

The Rattlestick production of Ren Dara Santiago’s The Siblings Play, suspended five days before its scheduled opening night, was one of the season’s most anticipated debuts. Santiago was riding a cresting wave — she had won a series of prizes like the MCC Alumni Award, the Cornelia Street American Playwriting Award from Rising Phoenix Rep, and a Tow Fellowship — but more importantly, she was one of the founding members of the Rattlestick’s Apprentice company Middle Voice, a diverse young ensemble mentored by Lucy Thurber. The Siblings Play was to be a megaphone for Middle Voice — one of its playwrights, finally with a mainstage production, speaking from experiences that our don’t-bother-without-an-MFA industry doesn’t often talk about. Writing programs move in and out of the hot zone: Brooklyn College took the spotlight for a long while, as did the Ars Nova writers group. The Siblings Play might have given Middle Voice its moment.

Santiago’s play takes place in a Harlem apartment, where three siblings have been left to essentially raise one another. Written with the unmistakable voice of experience, the text is full of details about staying one step ahead of the electricity-bill collector, fighting for a promotion despite racist managers, extracting concessions from teachers, avoiding child services, and combating the slow-working poison of parental neglect. It also, though, sounds authentically young. The kids play video games, mess with their phones, talk knowingly about sex, hassle one another, and banter and shout and cajole. The Siblings Play manages to be large-hearted and sympathetic, even to the mother, who finagles money from her own daughter to pay the bills, and their deadbeat father, who sold drugs, got his oldest son into the business, and then fled when responsibility grew too heavy.

But Santiago avoids the lugubriousness of misery porn by pacing the play farcically fast: The kids’ jerry-rigged survival strategies constantly collapse, leaving them scrambling like Wile E. Coyote in the air. It’s a drama, paced and scripted like a comedy — but its depth comes from its faint touches of horror. Set designer Angelica Borrero tore holes in the set’s crumbling walls so that characters could sometimes slide eerily out of them, visions even more fearsome than the present. The first time the tightly wound high-school student Marie (Cindy De La Cruz) sees her absent father, Logan (Andy Lucien), materialize through one of those ruined walls, we realize that her world is thin at the borders. We can’t tell if she’s dreaming or if her mind is crumbling from strain. Characters are constantly talking about money, but in Marie’s visions, we get a true sense of what costs.

Santiago started writing The Siblings Play in 2010. She was in acting classes where every character she was asked to play seemed alien. Contemporary theater stretched out before her, a sea of upper-middle-class adult couples, each working out their issues over increasingly fraught glasses of wine. That didn’t chime with what Santiago already knew about the world — born in the Bronx, raised in Puerto Rico, Yonkers, and Harlem — so, at 19, she started to write herself into it.

The first scene Santiago wrote was the play’s second. (When she showed it in an after-school playwriting workshop, she hid under the table. Thurber had to physically drag her out to watch it.) Almost all of The Siblings Play occurs in the increasingly claustrophobia-inducing apartment, where Marie mothers her 13-year-old brother, Butchie (Mateo Ferro); hassles her mother, Lenora (Dalia Davi), about her late nights; and tries to keep ahead of job and school and their past-due rent. But the second scene, alone of all the scenes in the play, takes place in a nearby stairwell. Marie’s older brother, Leon (Ed Ventura), has taken Marie to a party in a nearby apartment. He enters furious, having just violently broken up his sister’s woozy attempt to trade sex for drugs. She’s an overwhelmed and fraying 17-year-old, desperate to shed at least one of her burdens — her virginity will do.

This stairwell fight is the play’s seed, and we watch it germinate back in the hothouse environment of the apartment. “In the dynamics as I was writing,” Santiago says, “a lot of people would assume they were a couple, but I knew they were siblings.” In the forced quasi-confinement of the family, emotions and terrors run hot; the apartment is as humid and claustrophobic as a greenhouse — intimacies have started to overgrow their pots. The sibling trio Leon-Marie-Butchie can accidentally operate as father-mother-child, forced into roles they should never have needed to inhabit. Certainly their mother Lenora has lost interest in taking responsibility: Her boundaries are all out of whack, knowing that her daughter is replacing her.

Santiago’s scenes are socially incisive about the ways the city tries to help and fails them — the kids are food insecure but have access to impressive arts and sports initiatives, and the pressure of participating in them divides the family against itself. Logan had ambition for his children. Before he left, he pushed to get Marie into her fancy arts school and set up Butchie with a youth program meant to prepare him for James Blake-ian tennis stardom. The children are now living the life of an underserved but “enriched” poor, with well-meaning liberal efforts yanking at the family with centrifugal force. Butchie’s tennis practice is as demanding as a job, and when everyone frames it as a “ticket out” of their financial desperation it reveals how (a) such programs depend on lottery thinking, and (b) emphasize that any “out” is better than in.

Santiago wrote about Butchie and Leon and Marie because “I had trouble relating to my peers,” she says. “They didn’t understand why it was so hard for me to trust people outside of those of who grew up in my circumstances. The reason was to let people know — I’m not lying. This is me.” The play tracks her own understanding of what she now thinks of as post-traumatic flashbacks, the inspiration for the visions from the past (moments of abuse, violence, terror) that stalk Marie. She too has had moments of watching people walk through her walls. “I thought my symptoms were supernatural,” Santiago says. “I thought I was being haunted or a demon was chasing me. But when I articulated that to Lucy and Jenna, they said — no, that’s part of your history. You just don’t have the language for that mental injury.” Her own family’s story is somewhere disguised in the play — she identifies with Leon (the one who leaves the family and comes back), and Marie (the artist on the edge). She even wrote a fight between a playground drug dealer and a gang in an early version, specifically aimed at her own younger brother — she brought him to a workshop of the scene as a warning, as an “I see you.” The brother didn’t listen to the bit about the Dangers of Drugs (now no longer in the play), but, says Santiago, “What did work was the healing. It was my apology to him for leaving.”

Even though the show never opened, it did have a virtual run online. The Rattlestick’s artistic director Daniella Topol was able, over a few frantic days in mid-March, to work out an agreement with Equity to get the final performance filmed and to be allowed to complete the two-week engagement virtually. The online version of The Siblings Play closed on April 5. (If you wanted to “attend,” you bought a ticket and got a single-use code that gave you access to the video for 30 hours.) According to Topol, the show managed to sell 740 virtual tickets. So now, the production is a chimera — part real, part digital. An audience did get to see it, for the scheduled length of its run. But has it … premiered? For Santiago and director Jenna Worsham, the show is both dead and alive. They think about the set, still standing, shut away and quiet. Waiting to be torn down.

What would we have talked about if The Siblings Play had opened? Well, for one thing, it would have made Ferro a star. The elfin 18-year-old actor, playing 13 with boneless ease, glided through the play as heavy-lidded and liquid as Timothée Chalamet at his swaggiest. His Butchie took family strife and poverty and possible disaster all in stride, slouching like an octopus against an aquarium wall, talking nonstop shit about the shorties at school. Teens would have passed out in the aisles. It would have been the Year of Ferro. It would have been his time.

But more important, it almost surely would have been a thought-partner for These Times We’re In.™ Santiago gave a voice to being pinned between twin terrors—the callous world outside and the prison of home. The play would have also served as an indictment of programs that hand out gilded bootstraps but refuse to get cash into people’s pockets. (Only a partial indictment, though, since we’re subliminally aware of the after-school writing program that helped make Santiago herself a playwright.) But most importantly, I think it would have set a new standard, possibly one to be borne by other Middle Voice writers, about portraying life as it’s actually lived in New York. After a thousand plays about the pressures of bourgeois privilege, here at last would be a barnstorming play about living close to the knuckle, relying on networks of concerned neighbors, dodging debt, and finding ways — even seemingly destructive ways — to be resilient. The Siblings Play might have offered up a critique we could use, but it might also have been a model to follow in a time of total social disrepair. It might have shown us how to thrive through interdependence, how to be brothers and sisters for one another.

What Would Ren Dara Santiago’s The Siblings Play Have Been?