Internationally celebrated playwright Catherine Filloux has always had a penchant for traveling to haunted places filled with hunted people and then writing eloquently about their plight so that the rest of us can wake up to what is really going on in our world. White Savior, the play she is bringing to Salt Lake City virtually to open Pygmalion Productions 2020/21 season (it’s free and premieres online Sunday at 2 p.m. and will be available through November) is a drama that has some comic moments. “With my work in all cases there is humor and I always try to encourage people to have fun and to find that,” Filloux says in a telephone interview from her New York City home.
White Savior is about our 45 th president, who is never named — “let’s call it artistic choice and leave it at that,” the playwright says flatly about the omission — and involves two sisters, one solidly Trumpian, er solidly 45 th, and one, a human-rights researcher, decidedly not; a teenage daughter; and an African-American professor/journalist, who all wind up in Texas at the Desert Cactus Motel. (Filloux thought the polarized political relationship of the sisters could be humorous and appealing.)
Why, I asked, is it important that the professor/journalist be Black? Or male for that matter? “He is a very accomplished and rigorous professor and journalist and carries with him his history as an African-American person and that is his identity as a person. He acts on what he has learned as his identity. Being a good teacher, being a good journalist intellectually … Because the play deals with human rights and the construct of human rights organizations and laws. As a black man in the United States, he has a very specific view of human rights.”
Filloux was drawn to creating human-rights plays because she was the daughter of immigrants growing up in San Diego.: “I was a first-generation American; French was my first language and I got to know the border between San Diego and Mexico very well,” she recalls. “There is great inequality between the borders. Because of my roots between a mother who was Algerian and North African and my father who is from France I had the perspective of being an outsider, and I had the perspective of living in a world instead of just a country.”
After encountering a group of women with psychosomatic blindness due to their experiences under the Khmer Rouge regime, she “explored that topic for many, many years,” traveling to Cambodia and subsequently to numerous other countries “where I was able to observe and try to understand human-rights violations (and U.S. complicity),” she says.
Filloux has received awards from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, the O’Neill, the MAP Fund, and the Asian Cultural Council. She has been a Fulbright Senior Specialist in playwriting in Cambodia and Morocco.
This isn’t the first drama with comic moments the playwright has created, nor is it her first play for Pygmalion. Fran Pruyn directed Mary and Myra (about Mary Todd Lincoln) “right before the last election,” says Filloux, “and I told them to find the funny stuff in there and have fun.”
The current play began workshops and readings well before what director Pruyn calls “pandemic times.” When it became manifest that Pygmalion would have to restrict audience members severely, it became economically unfeasible to do the show live, Pruyn says. “So, then, in order to fulfill our mission, what we feel is our obligation to our audience and to the playwright, we decided to film the show.” That is a decision that Filloux says both humbles and honors her. “That Fran and Pygmalion continued with the project and went forward in the way that they did … I am so moved that they have done this.”
Pruyn says: “This is not our first choice. There are people who make movies, and this is way different than a movie — it is a live show edited for digital consumption. I think because it is a new script with relevant themes that people will want to see it. Or I hope they do … It is not a movie and it is not live theater — it is pandemic theatre.”
The artistic director adds: “Families have been torn to shreds over politics during this period, and particularly during this administration. At its heart, this is what this show is really about – trying to find common ground with siblings on radically different sides of the political spectrum. Also, the key social issue is still a key social issue: illegal immigration and what is happening on the border with those immigrant families. There are no key resolutions in the show – and it is often very funny. Sort of like where we all are in our current environment.”
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.