This American Wife: A live-streaming theatre fantasia that cuts deep into the Real Housewives
Jeremy O. Harris talks about his latest collaboration with the boundary-breaking Fake Friends
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
One of the most innovative artistic experimentations during the pandemic was undoubtedly last fall's Circle Jerk. Streamed live for two weeks from a warehouse in Brooklyn, the show was hybrid of theatre and internet culture that boldly interrogated white gay culture. And now, the folks behind it are back with This American Wife, a glorious blend of improvisation and multi-camera cinematography coming to audiences live from a "hauntingly glamorous" mansion on Long Island. Instead of specifically interrogating white gay culture, Wife is fearlessly digging into one of said culture's favourite things: the Real Housewives franchise.
Building on the spirit — and ambition — of Circle Jerk, Wife is much more than a tribute to Housewives. It's part loving satire, part piercing examination, and is once again conceived and written by Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley, both of whom perform in the show alongside their friend and artistic collaborator Jakeem Dante Powell. The trio "inhabits and disturbs an imagined image of a real world, playing out scenarios, texts, and choreographies from the massively popular — and endlessly memed — franchise" as they roam around the show's virtual McMansion stage.
Like Circle Jerk, Wife is co-produced by Jeremy O. Harris, the playwright, actor and philanthropist whose Slave Play broke the record set by Angels in America for Tony nominations for a non-musical play last year. (We still don't know how many it's won as the 2020 Tony Awards are somehow still pending.)
Harris met Breslin at the Yale School of Drama, when the two became roommates and then "very, very fast friends."
"A lot of our friendship was based around our mutual obsessions with, like, sort of high and low, quote, unquote, forms of art and our aesthetic relationship to experimental theatre and film," Harris told me over the phone this past weekend. "And Yale school drama was more leaning towards mainstream or classical forms of theatre and film. So a lot of our late-night conversations were always gripes about the limits of the program at preparing us for the type of work we wanted to be doing — and also pondering what was the point of studying this in this way if we weren't going to be able, inside of the structures there, to really push ourselves pedagogically, right? So we created our own pedagogies, mainly at the Yale Cabaret, which is this student-run theatre where we got to practice a lot of the ideas and aesthetics that we were most excited by."
Harris and Breslin ended up casting Foley in a show they were working on together, which is where This American Wife was born.
"During that show, Patrick and Michael discovered they both were equally obsessed with The Real Housewives," Harris said. "And so they started their own work outside of the work that we had been collaborating [on] together. And they sort of, in secret, unbeknownst to everyone else, created This American Wife in its first iteration at the Yale Cabaret. And I remember watching that show and being so fully blown away by it."
Breslin and Foley would go on to form Fake Friends, a Brooklyn-based theatre and media company which aims to "push personal, political, and theatrical boundaries, negotiating the screens and prosceniums that dominate our daily lives."
"With every show they did, the more articulated the sense of their mission seemed to be, which was to make work that reinterrogated what it means to be a queer theatre-maker and what it means to risk being seen as silly or frivolous — and, like, not to fear that risk, but to luxuriate in it," Harris said.
He also saw "a political edge and a grit to their work."
"They constantly put their whiteness under a microscope and under interrogation while also asking questions of liberal powers that be of why so there's so much self-congratulation among liberals instead of further interrogation, while also saying that, like, all of these interrogations of identity and class, while necessary, are rife with ridiculous contradictions," he said.
It seemed, however, that these kinds of interrogations were scaring off more traditional theatre-makers in New York.
"And when theatres were shut down [because of the pandemic] and no one knew what to do, they said, 'I think we know what to do. We just need the money,'" Harris said. "I was like, 'Well, I have money. Let's do something.' And that's what started this relationship. And it's really allowed them to push themselves even further.… I am so excited to see how they've been implementing and going further with that work in COVID in ways that no one else seems to be doing inside of our medium."
Harris does not consider himself a Real Housewives expert "in any way, shape or form," but that is definitely not a requirement for enjoying This American Wife. (I'm not one either and I loved it.)
"I've only watched the first few seasons of Beverly Hills religiously," Harris said. "I think that those are true master strokes of both American performance and just great television drama. The slow burn of Taylor Armstrong's life is beautiful and complicated and tragic. I also really, really, really love the first three seasons of New Jersey and I'm obsessed with Caroline Manzo. I was just like these four are obviously in the mob and this is crazy and like watching The Sopranos but, like, a Taxicab [Confessions] version. And I watched Atlanta pretty consistently, but you know it more so from the reunions. I always find a way to catch the reunions even if I don't watch the season. And that's my relationship with it."
What Harris loves about This American Wife is how even as a casual viewer of Housewives, he's able to "see not only the psychologies that are birthed from watching these shows for hours and hours and hours and hours, but also the ways in which they are a performance of reality."
"Or in the famous lines of Valerie Cherish, 'the reality of reality TV,'" he said.
Harris also hopes the success of Breslin and Foley's shows leads to a new standard in the way theatre is consumed after the pandemic.
"Many people that I know who are disabled have the experience I've had with theatre this year their entire life as theatre lovers," he said. "So thinking about those theatre lovers and how having a consistently accessible theatre-going practice could enable theatre lovers of all stripes, of all types, to engage with the theatre feels so necessary to me. And that's really, really exciting, especially as someone who grew up in Virginia, in the artistic desert. I did not have a theatre near me that I could see any kind of play, let alone an experimental play. So the fact there's an experimental play that's being done every night at 8 p.m. live that I can watch from my computer — whether I'm in Nebraska, New York, California or the Outback — feels phenomenal."
This American Wife continues live every night at 8pm through May 29th and then is available on demand until June 6. Buy tickets here.