A Bright Room Called Day, or, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Zillah?

I recently had the pleasure of chaperoning a group of advanced high school theater students to a production of Tony Kushner's little seen play A Bright Room Called Day. I've known for years about the problematic text (and even saw a production or two before), yet had neither a reason or desire to read it. This one black box production opened up the play in such a revolutionary way that I had to get my hands on a copy and actually read it. A Bright Room Called Day is an experimental play, creating parallels between Hitler's ascent to power in Germany and the Reagan administration's treatment of the AIDS crisis in America. During President Reagan's second term, a Jewish woman named Zillah moves to Germany so she can safely protest the administration. In 1930s Germany, a group of artists and communists fight against the rise of the Fascist party led by Adolf Hitler. By chance, Zillah has moved into the same apartment once owned by Agnes Eggling, a silent film actress who reluctantly joins the communist movement in Germany.

A Bright Room Called Day by Tony KushnerThis play is not a light read. Kushner takes his inspiration from a Bertolt Brecht play called The Private Life of the Master Race. Instead of subverting the story to bring in the modern social issues, Kushner apes the form of Brecht to tell an original period story. Every brief scene--there are dozens only a page or two long--is book-ended by a suggestive title spoken in German (and translated to English on a projection screen) and a blackout.

Kushner's text encourages the use of music to break up the story and further the alienation effect. Obviously, you cannot judge the songs and suggested placement by the text alone, but the lyrics are deeply metaphorical and intentionally inflammatory. Once you realize what Zillah or the communists are singing about, you're going to become very uncomfortable.

This is a play that, in one Zillah Interruption--her presence is treated as an intrusion on the main period story, even though she is the character that opens and closes the play, mathematically proves Adolf Hitler and Ronald Reagan are both the devil. The devil himself is summoned at the end of Act I to announce the coming chaos of the World War II. A ghostly figure--representative of old Germany, inescapable patterns of human behavior, or perhaps even Agnes' future--breaks into the apartment every night to cackle about World War I and the starving citizens on the streets after the sanctions.

The problem with A Bright Room Called Day is that it's filled with ideas. Reading the text outside of this production I saw, I found it as troubled as I had been told for years. The historical parallels are clear in the context of Kushner's writing. There's just too much going on to really drive the point home. Or perhaps driving the point home is the only focus at the expense of cohesion.

Zillah is the core flaw--a shame, since her scenes are very fascinating. She is literally shoved off into a corner of the set for the entire play. She is an unseeing witness to the rise of Hitler and her interruptions but, a few throwaway lines about dreams of a German woman wandering the apartment aside, they don't really line up well with the text. Kushner includes a note about creating your own parallels to other periods in American history so long as you obtain his permission to replace his interruptions. This reveals that, for Kushner, Zillah is not a character or even an essential device. She is a political tool for the theater above the creation of accessible art.

It takes a strong director to beat Zillah into submission without losing the simultaneous insanity and insight her character brings. If you remove her, the play would just be an pointless exercise in Brechtian theatrical techniques. With her, it's an exciting and flawed text that falls short of its many lofty goals.

This article was written as part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read 4. Check out more book reviews (for charity!) here.

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