Director Ernie Nolan On Good Person
Sex. Money. Love. Power. Greed. Corruption.
I’m not talking about last season of Empire or the current state of Chicago politics. I’m listing a couple of the themes of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan—a play begun in 1938 but not completed until 1941 while the playwright was in exile in the United States—that seem ripped from the headlines and media sound bites of today. The Play explores the question, “How can someone be good to themselves and to others at the same time?” Or perhaps, in less academic terms, it asks one of the questions posed in the film Straight Outta Compton, “If you had the chance to change the situation, would you take it?” Brecht describes his play as a parable, an instructional story that teaches a lesson or principle. In a way, the construct of the play is similar to the stage work of Tyler Perry, whose Madea plays communicate social themes in a riotously funny, theatrical setting.
In order to create a “story-like setting” for the audience, Brecht set the play in imaginary, mythical China. It’s interesting to note the playwright’s intense fascination with Chinese culture. In addition to celebrating Asian theatrical techniques, he traveled everywhere with two wall portraits, one with the great philosopher Confucius and another with a man he called “The Doubter.”
Where as Brecht wanted his urban, diverse setting to seem “other,” it’s really a place that contemporary audiences are all too familiar with. It’s the city landscape that the characters of Empire are trying to climb out of. It’s the world of Slumdog Millionaire. It’s the setting of rap and hip/hop lyrics. It’s a place Cookie Lyon describes where, “You lose your soul when you feel like the world’s forgotten you.” It’s a place just like Chicago. Think about it. Even with the attention of films and television programs that highlight characters trying to break the chains of urban poverty, are the northern residents of Chicago really thinking about the people of the South Side? Are we even still thinking about the slums and tent cities of Haiti? The ghettos of Delhi? For those of us north of downtown, how “other” is a place like Szechwan? Isn’t now, as we’re surrounded by gun violence, facing an impending school crisis, and thrust into an election, the time to explore how to stay good in the face of intense social and economic circumstances?
“The streets aren’t made for everybody. That’s why they made sidewalks.”~Cookie Lyon, Empire
Excerpt from Conversations with Director Ernie Nolan regarding Cor Theatre’s The Good Person of Szechwan.