To what limits would you allow yourself to be confined if your basic needs for food, shelter and, most important, love were met in return for your freedom and autonomy? Certainly, the longer you lived in freedom, the more you would fight enslavement. However, if you were held captive as a child and brainwashed into believing that your enslavement was the finest condition money could bring, you might behave differently. In short, out of fear and ignorance, you would succumb to the Stockholm Syndrome and all its attendant psychological overtones and intricate, self-deprecatory, self-demoralizing horrors.
Amina Henry’s sardonic comedy An American Family Takes a Lover tweaks the psychological effects associated with Stockholm Syndrome. The play, directed by Kira Simring (Artistic Director of The Cell Theatre Company), uses irony to explicate enslavement-bonding through an intricate cultural lens of racism, paternalism and genderism with a dollop of chauvinistic objectification of women thrown in as the icing for this confection. This melange is swallowed easily enough but then causes intellectual acid reflux.
The play’s comedic, absurd premise, that a young black woman bonds with her kidnappers, initially makes us laugh. It is so extreme. Upon further contemplation, our response startles us. How can we find her deranged, self-indulgent, narcissistic captors, their principles and views, funny? The humor becomes stark and horrifying: It smacks of the human need for fascistic dominance over others. We recognize this great truth in our impulse to find humor in the dialogue, characters and plot. We acknowledge that the laughter reflects our unease and embarrassment with the incredible, weird, but real drive to bend others to our will, for our good pleasure. Of course, we also realize that the final debilitating outcome results in our own warped dependence on enjoying “being in control.”
The plot duplicates strange captive-bonding situations reported in real life. Lady Anne and Richard David are an upscale suburban family without children. Justine, known as “The Other,” is their adult “child” and plaything. Portrayed with intricacy, fervor and sex-kitten innocence by Tiffany Nichole Greene, Justine is beloved by Lady Anne (a deadpan, beautiful and humorous Lila Donnolo) and Richard (an equally funny and sometimes scary Bob Jaffe). She is a vital link to their happiness and contentment. Justine is an all-purpose housekeeper, cook, friend, lover, playmate and sex partner for the couple’s varied sexual acts. Justine has no identity that she can call her own. She drips sexuality in her racy attire as she serves the couple’s meals; the eating metaphor is subtle. She is prevented from leaving the house, but she wouldn’t even consider it because she has been brainwashed that it is dangerous outside and she has all she needs from Lady Anne and Richard who love and adore her.
As the play continues, the overriding “family” trope becomes more ludicrous and darkly twisted. We find that Justine has nearly forgotten that they abducted her when she was young. The uncomfortable memories have been neatly erased by the “love and happiness” Lady Anne and Richard remind her she is receiving daily. Justine, “The Other,” is completely satisfied that they depend upon her psychologically and physically, not realizing that she has been deprived of education, friends, ownership, her own selfhood. Her behavior is completely controlled and she is their slave; and “that’s the way they all like it.”
That is until Thomas the handyman enters the “loving” family scene. (The character, though realistically portrayed by Daniel Le, is a convenient plot device.) The wall has to be repaired, and because Lady Anne and Richard are so sure of Justine’s bonding with them, they leave her alone with Thomas who discovers the truth of her relationship with the couple and educates her to the importance of friends and a life of her own. The scenario of Justine’s growing realization of her plight, Thomas’s invitation to a family celebration, the couple’s realization that they, too, have become enslaved to the circumstances they’ve created, spirals. The playwright unravels the events of each with surprising twists. The conclusion is startling, humorous and disconcerting, but very real and very dark.
Amina Henry’s metaphor about who the lover is and how the lover is taken runs long and deep. Depending upon one’s ability to extrapolate, one can see the threads running throughout negative human behaviors: becoming addicted to self-destructive power relationships; making others (including larger systems) our bondage holders; finding excuses for why we cannot break away to empowerment and freedom; dis-empowering others as one’s own self-destruction. All are themes that resonate in our culture. All are touched upon in this thought-provoking play which will most probably be done again at another venue because it is too good not to be.