Thoughts & Musings

A Cast of Outcasts

by Tom Roberts

“That boy’s…family is a mess and I don’t want you staying in that environment.”

With that advice Buddy sends his daughter Kimberly off to her friend’s house, armed (Buddy hopes) with an awareness that she is an integral part of her family’s Us, and the friend’s family are at the very heart of Them. Since we humans developed civilizations, we have always defined ourselves at least in part by who we are not. The Greeks had the Persians, the Hatfields had the McCoys, the Red Sox have the Yankees. We find strength and comfort in the embrace of those like ourselves, safe from the dark, the unknown, The Other.

In American history, we have gone through cycles of redefining The Other. It has almost always included immigrants – documented and un – although the countries of origin have shifted from western to southern to eastern Europe then Asia then Latin America. Those Others have been blamed for disease, moral decline, drug abuse, and economic ruin. Because America has had an almost limitless capacity for absorbing the wretched refuse of teeming foreign shores, many who were once the Them have held on to become the Us who excluded later groups of Them.

Our popular culture draws colorful metaphors for The Other, sometimes the potentially realistic threats from Islamic extremists, sometimes the fancifully romantic threats from vampires, zombies and werewolves. In Kimberly Akimbo, David Lindsay-Abaire provides us with a houseful of low level, wildly funny, but no less off-putting Others: a teenage girl with a medical disorder that leaves her looking older than her own grandmother, an irresponsible alcoholic father, a physical and emotional Superfund site of a mother, and an aunt whom you would cross the street to avoid on the sunniest of days. These Others invite us to sit by their hearth and commiserate for a couple of hours, managing simultaneously to engage us and repel us. That is quite a dramatic accomplishment.

A decidedly 21st century play, Kimberly Akimbo asks us to embrace and care about characters, most of whom would worry or even frighten us if they appeared on our doorstep. This embrace of The Other has become more common of late. The vampires and werewolves of the Twilight saga have become the smoldering pin-ups for a generation of adolescent girls (and maybe a few boys), mixing straightforward sex appeal with the promise of something darker, some unspoken dread. Even Jane Austen, though 200 years dead (we assume), has not been immune to the allure of zombies. But those other-worldly creatures and the dreamy actors who portray them are easy to embrace because they do not really walk our streets, pump our gas or camp out in our libraries.

But the Kimberly Akimbo Others do. We love them on the page and on the stage, but we hold our nose and avert our eyes in real life. In that, Lindsay-Abaire was a few years ahead of the curve. And almost a century behind. Television today abounds with Kimberly-like freaks & geeks whom we welcome into our homes despite their ranging from annoying to horrifying in their social skills: House and Dexter are monsters, unlikely to be pin-ups; Modern Family and The Office are monuments to dysfunction; even the Glee and Big Bang Theory crews are better appreciated from a distance.

They all owe that gift for making The Other attractive and even beloved to us to that great artist of a century ago, Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin took a figure of pathetic disgrace – an unwashed, ill-clothed, anarchic tramp who waddles around the edges of a society that never does, never could accept him. Despite the Tramp’s obvious disconnect from both his social norms and our own, Chaplin managed to weave him into the cultural fabric of the entire planet. For three decades, the Tramp was the most recognized, most beloved cultural figure in the world. Even today, seventy-five years after the last Tramp film, his persona remains instantly recognizable to millions of people, many of whom have never seen one of the films.

With the Tramp, a kind of permanent Other, Chaplin helped his international audiences understand the challenges of the underclass through the safety and comfort of a camera lens. Still, he never relented on the Tramp’s separation from and (justifiable) mistrust of mainstream society. Do we treat the poor any better because of Chaplin? For the most part, no. But Chaplin did force us to recognize through our laughter that Us and Them have more in common than we might have wanted to admit. And Kimberly Akimbo, albeit more modestly, takes us down that same road.

Tom Roberts is Senior Lecturer in History at the Rhode Island School of Design and a longtime member of the 2nd Story company.

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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