Heroes of the Fourth Turning
December 1–20, 2020

Being Stuck and Perpetuating Whiteness in ‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning’

December 10, 2020

by Wilma HotHouse Company Member Justin Jain

Let’s start with the basic assumption that I am not a monolith. What I will share here is my (and only my) viewpoint. I do not speak on behalf of a race, creed, or group of people. What follows is my own idiosyncratic lived experience of the artistic process of Heroes of the Fourth Turning in Philadelphia, PA in the Fall of 2020 … at the height of a Pandemic.

Will Arbery’s Note on Casting reads:
“This play is, in part, about whiteness and the way it operates in America. Each character is implicated. That’s not to say that certain roles (particularly Justin and Kevin) can’t be cast in a way that evokes ‘passing’ or assimilation, but bear in mind that this is a white environment, and these characters are speaking to each other accordingly.”

(Will’s characters were all originally written for white actors. This author’s note came later.)

I, a first generation Queer Filipino-American, played the role of Kevin.

Kevin is a rural conservative Catholic Republican Millennial, caught in a moment of crisis.

I am a liberal city-dwelling Democrat, raised in the religious values and practices Kevin talks about. I was also in a kind of crisis.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how whiteness operates in this play and (in my particular version) Kevin’s proximity to and participation in it. In doing so, I’ve had to confront my own beliefs and behaviors within white culture. Saying “yes” to this role meant more than taking on a character, it meant reckoning with my own ‘passing’ or assimilation.

For what it is worth, I believe Kevin is very much aware of himself and his family history as an Asian-American body living in 21st century America. His participation in the racist systems built around him is not because he is in denial of his race, but rather, in spite of it.

It would be a sophomoric choice to think that Kevin is more or less “blind” to his race. Perhaps an actor could craft a narrative that he was adopted and raised in a white family, or that growing up all his friends and authority figures were white. While these truths hold for many individuals and may even be true in this version of Kevin, rooting his cooperation in mere ignorance or complacency is an easy out.

The more dangerous choice, the one that also perhaps is an engine for his self-destruction and identity crisis, is that he is well aware of his ethnicity and how that operates in the white conservative Catholic circles he spends his time in, yet to awaken to the racism in these communities would be far too debilitating to comprehend. This, compounded with the fact that Kevin may also have LGBTQ leaning tendencies (not explicit in the play, but alluded to and open to interpretation), a few addiction problems, and a heartstring tug for a more Liberal way of engaging with the world amount to an individual who is tortured, questioning, and stuck. Acknowledging his differences would mean making a fundamental rift from the saintly dogmatic values of the Catholic Church, the only world he has known.  

“I know that I’m stuck but…” Kevin says in his first scene with Teresa. That line has haunted me, as many of Kevin’s lines do. Every time he is on the verge of expressing a deeper inner truth, Arbery chooses to either have him trail off or be interrupted by another person (and sometimes himself). But this notion of ‘stuck’ was a big clue for me, alongside other key phrases Kevin says about himself: “Weak… Pathetic… Awful… Horrible…I’m so alone… I NEED TO CHANGE… All I do is come and cry… I’m trembling on the brink of doom.” What a palate to paint with!

I think a lot about the four ‘Stress’ Responses and how they might pertain to Kevin: Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn (a relatively new term, related to people pleasing). While these characters undergo a real-time transformation over the course of the play, a true exhibition of Fight emerges in Teresa and Gina, a Fawning is drawn out of Emily, and one might even point to Flight for Justin. So Kevin feels like a strong fit for Freeze.

Then I think of the moment in the play when Teresa is arguing with Gina and flat out avows the racism inherent in the Ultra-Conservative belief system to which she (and all the characters of the play) ascribe, while never sincerely reckoning with her privilege:

Mary Elizabeth Scallen, Justin Jain, and Sarah Gliko in "Heroes of the Fourth Turning"

“…there is a documented, daily, open attack on white Christians. And we’re not allowed to talk about it. White people are the only people in the United States who aren’t allowed to take public pride in who they are… I agree. Everyone needs to calm down. But they’re never going to listen to you, because you’re white you’re white you’re white. We’re all white. And our white language is the white language of the white oppressor.”

In rehearsals, we briefly discussed if she was talking about me too in this diatribe. However, this answer was ultimately kept ambiguous, to leave a little space for mystery. Yet I struggled, and continue to struggle, with how to receive this specific passage as a bystander-listener in this unapologetically Filipino-American body, all at once onstage and in the audience. In this one moment, Arbery is able to zoom in and double-down on a foundational truth of these characters’ convictions. So Kevin (and Justin Jain) chooses to Freeze. I was continually negotiating how Kevin would hear these words – if this is not new information to him, perhaps hearing this from Teresa is. Why would she be implicating me with this statement? Am I not even present to her in this moment? Does she, and by proxy, all these other characters see Kevin as white?

This one moment does a kind of retroactive menacing coloration of lines she says to Kevin earlier in the play: “you’re a pale American soy boy… you’re weak. And it disgusts me… Stop slowing us down.” So I freeze. Kevin freezes. “I know that I’m stuck but…”

Audiences rarely understand the personal and emotional toll certain roles take on the actors who play them. As an Actor of Color, I am in constant negotiation of how much of my light I am willing to manipulate for the predominantly white organizations (PWO) that employ me.

Part of me truly feels that a lot of BIPOC folx engage with the Freeze survival mentality, particularly non-Black POC. This questioning of “did I hear that right?” or “am I the only one that felt that?” or “Am I going crazy?!” is all too familiar a refrain when we encounter racial injustice in the world. So to stay silent is weighted with both a knowledge that passivity is a breeding ground for whiteness and a shame-filled spiral of self-doubt. It is a special kind of insanity that is steeped in survival tactics, soul-rage, and pain. For Kevin to confront this in Teresa may very well be an unraveling of their friendship and himself. Teresa even tells Gina “Telling them to ‘calm down’ is ‘a violence.’ It’s a ‘micro-aggression.’”

So I can understand an audience’s hunger to understand why this version of Kevin behaves the way he does. Or the need to zoom in and empathize with this character over the others. But to build a bridge to that understanding would be a disservice to a thesis of this play: that these people who may say and do things so fundamentally opposite from you may not be all that different from you after all. What I will say is that moving through this material, in this body, while explicitly participating in and perpetuating whiteness, comes at a personal cost. One that I am willing to pay to hopefully crack open a dialogue to something greater, surgically slicing into yet another truth, one of many that this play so skillfully forces us to confront.

Justin Jain in "Heroes of the Fourth Turning"

Audiences rarely understand the personal and emotional toll certain roles take on the actors who play them. As an Actor of Color, I am in constant negotiation of how much of my light I am willing to manipulate for the predominantly white organizations (PWO) that employ me. I live in a liminal state of wondering whether my space at a given table is because of my talent or because of my skin color. I suspect it is both.

When we talk about casting and plays, however, we are talking about systems that have contributed to supremacist practices, holding most standards in relief to whiteness. For theatre artists similar to my race and ethnicity, this has led to widespread acclaim of deeply problematic works like Miss Saigon, The King and I, Pacific Overtures, M. Butterfly, and countless others. The cannon has been, and continues to be, dominated by white western European standards and viewpoints. I learned this the hard way in Acting School when I’d witness my white classmates held to different measures than the rest of us, seeing material in abundance for them, while having to be “colorblind cast” (this term is also extremely problematic and Google it if you don’t know why) in my scene studies and school productions. When I entered the field, indeed I was cast in a professional production of Miss Saigon that I turned down because I wasn’t yet ready for that kind of exploitation.

Jered McLenigan and Justin Jain in "Heroes of the Fourth Turning"

This play and production land in a perfect time when we consider the question “why this play, now?” Though we meet our characters in rural Wyoming on August 19, 2017, two days before the solar eclipse, one week after the Charlottesville riot, and seven months after President Donald J. Trump’s inauguration, the discussion feels more poignant than ever. The 2020 cultural reckoning of America’s race problem on the backdrop of the Pandemic has been a turning point for many people. I, too, have been learning and un-learning a great deal over the course of the year. The ways in which this play intersects with the very conversations we’ve been having all year around race, politics, and the end of the world feel like they are lifted right out from our living rooms, family gatherings, and social media comment wars. The words of this play have stuck with me more than any other piece I’ve ever worked on. The chilling effect these ear worms have on me have caused me to pause just a little more in considering who my “us” vs. “them” exactly is.  It has caused a crack for something new to seep in, and I hope it will for audiences, too.

The words of this play have stuck with me more than any other piece I’ve ever worked on. The chilling effect these ear worms have on me have caused me to pause just a little more in considering who my “us” vs. “them” exactly is.  It has caused a crack for something new to seep in, and I hope it will for audiences, too.

It can be summed up for me in one of Kevin’s earlier speeches: “Like what if the way is be the holy fool? To get in there, to meld, to fuse, to engage, to dance and laugh together on the street. To live our truth, in the face of theirs. To let two competing facts exist in the same space. To imagine a heaven we can all graduate into.”

Being tasked to write an essay about the complexity of the relationship of being a Queer POC performing in a play like Heroes feels like an impossible undertaking. How to capture the wildly conflicting emotions of being in this skin in America, while speaking to the brilliance of this play for what I imagine is a predominantly white reader-audience, continues to reveal that words alone will not do any of it justice. While I try to point to Kevin’s proximity and participation in whiteness, white supremacy is a problem that white people need to solve and their own recovery is impossible to outsource to BIPOC folx.

So, at the end of the day, I leave Kevin as a mystery for you. This lost soul, drunk out of his mind, and close to God. A soul wincing at the brilliance of his own discoveries, only to doubt them and implode on himself. The play slyly pivots to whiteness and he vanishes from the conversation. In my iteration, this is not a mistake, but a choice. You may not see me in that exact moment, but the toll is very much present for both character and actor.

My heart races every time I hear some of the words in this play, specifically around race. It certainly was in-scene at the peak of the argument about race. The feeling manifests as a cold clamminess in my hands, a strong sense of heart-pounding in my chest, a bead of sweat on my brow, and a shortness of breath. I think: “I can’t breathe.” And perhaps it manifests outwardly or not. But in that one instance Kevin is so utterly alone and terrified to encounter words with such power. So if you’re wondering how Kevin is feeling in that moment, know that he – that I – am listening, paralyzed, stuck. And in awe of it all.

Will Arbery says in an interview about this play that he hopes this piece is an invitation to audiences for more listening, more mystery. I couldn’t agree more.

Justin Jain and Campbell O'Hare in "Heroes of the Fourth Turning"