In many ways, the award-winning play Eureka Day, which Aurora Theatre Company commissioned Jonathan Spector to write, holds a mirror up to Berkeley. The play makes clear that political correctness can reach absurd extremes and that, for all our professed concern about inclusiveness and diversity, we often insist on like-minded thinking and end up alienating each other.
At a deeper level, though, the play isn’t about Berkeley at all.
It certainly starts off seeming as if it is. The play takes place at a fictitious private school in the Berkeley Hills, and most scenes feature meetings of the executive committee, which consists of four parents and the head of the school.
The principal sets the tone of the gatherings by reading profound Rumi poems to the group. Participants admonish each other not to refer to children with gendered pronouns. One parent conspicuously works himself into pretzel-like yoga poses. Characters speak of vegan lasagna made with cashews (a concoction so vile that it prompts mass vomiting) and bicker about whether biodegradable paper plates are more, or less, wasteful than washing dishes during a drought. How Berkeley can you be?
But Spector doesn’t necessarily believe that having this sensitivity means Berkeleyans are actually sensitive about each other’s feelings. In the play, two parents repeatedly drown out everyone else, speaking loudly and aggressively while insisting that their primary intention is to be inclusive and welcoming.
The committee broadcasts one important meeting so other parents can feel included in the decision making. The invitation to participate reflects the school’s ideals about listening to all points of view. However, as parents chime in by writing comments on Facebook at a furious pace, the discourse rapidly degenerates into nasty personal attacks. An obvious disaster, the meeting is abruptly adjourned. It would seem that humans can’t talk to each other in a reasonable way.
Is such contentiousness specific to Berkeley? Spector says it isn’t, noting, “The phenomenon of online conversations going off the rails and becoming vicious is universal.” However, he acknowledges that a few comments in the Facebook exchange are “very Berkeley.”
Spector, 38, grew up in northern Virginia and attended college in Florida before relocating to Brooklyn. Twelve years ago, he came to Berkeley and lived here for nine years before moving to North Oakland. He says, with a wry laugh, that as a newcomer to the Bay Area, he was struck by people’s “care and sensitivity to a wide range of issues.”
He insists that he never set out to create anything other than a realistic depiction of Berkeley residents and the situations in which they embroil themselves. He wasn’t mocking anyone, he asserts. He simply looked for humor and found plenty of it at hand.
Spector’s vivid portrait of Berkeleyans elicits knowing laughs from the audience — so much so that people watching a play in the other Aurora performance space said they could hear the guffaws.
His observations have also made some people cringe. One woman wrote on NextDoor, “It was great — really funny. Although it was so ‘Berkeley’ that it made me feel like moving to Stockton.”
But even as Eureka Day presents familiar people and conversations, the play is about something far larger than Berkeley. For a while, that “something” seems to be vaccination. A mumps outbreak at the school prompts the committee to argue bitterly about the merits and dangers of injecting young children with dozens of vaccines.
For all the communicating the committee does, the members move further and further apart. Given their intractable positions on the vaccination issue — and what those stances reveal about individuals’ underlying belief systems — it seems unlikely that certain characters can even maintain relationships.
With this Spector is showing us the perilously divided state of the nation. And, he says, that is his true point.
He chose to center his play on the vaccination debate, but it wasn’t because the controversy itself fascinated him. (He did research the topic deeply, never shifting his pro-vaccination stance but learning enough that, as he watched his young daughter receive the various injections, he recalled with visceral fear the horror stories he had read in anti-vaccination literature.)
“It’s fine if people are talking about vaccines [after the play],” he says. “But what was exciting to me about the play, and what makes it feel like it has some relevance in our ‘moment,’ is less about vaccines and more about confronting the reality of how we now exist in the world with information and with the Internet.”
In our national political climate, he continues, “fake news” is contagious and dangerous. Before the Internet took off, people deferred to experts on many issues. But online research makes laypeople feel confident about the facts they possess when whole industries (particularly conservative media) are actually built around lying to the public.
“Large swaths of the country believe in fundamentally different truths than we do,” says Spector. “How do we go forward as a democracy? I think the answer to that is very unclear right now. It feels to me like one of the most pressing things facing the country.”
The pro- and anti-vaccination debate seemed a perfect analogy to Spector. “The reason I think vaccines are interesting to write about is that people who otherwise are in total agreement — about the kind of world they live in and their values and where they want to live and the kind of people they want to be — can fundamentally disagree on this thing.”
In that way, the vaccination debate is unusual. For instance, he says he couldn’t have written a play about climate-change deniers: “Certainly for a Berkeley audience, it would be much easier to dismiss those people because not only do you think they’re crazy about climate change, you think they’re crazy about everything.”
Spector had never written an “issue play” before and feels wary of the “many traps” they present. “The danger in writing a play where you have a position is that it just becomes a kind of polemic for your position, which is really boring. The next danger becomes that you overcompensate for that by giving the much stronger arguments only to the side you disagree with because you have a subconscious assumption that everyone thinks the way you do so you don’t need to make those arguments.”
Spector wanted to include the most compelling anti-vaccination arguments, rather than those that are easiest to reject. He also wanted viewers to feel that their perspectives have been represented properly, as audience members tend to feel upset if they identify with a character and believe that that person is portrayed unfairly.
So far, no viewers seem to have had such a reaction. But would Spector know if they did? He laughs and says that when a play upsets Bay Area residents, they aren’t afraid to send theater companies angry emails.
The rampant divisiveness in our country, and in the play, might feel depressing, but Spector argues that conflict isn’t undesirable in the theater.
“If audience members vehemently disagree with each other, then that’s fun because then you’ve created something that gives people something to dig into,” he says. He adds: “If everybody comes out of a play thinking the exact same thing, then that’s probably a pretty boring play.”
Eureka Day runs through May 20 at Aurora Theatre in downtown Berkeley.