Robbie McCauley by Lynne Tillman

Robbie McCauley is a formidable actor, writer, and director. As a performer, she takes dramatic risks, exhibiting an almost palpable vulnerability, a terrific intelligence, a breathtaking range of emotions.

BOMB 41 Fall 1992
Issue 41 041  Fall 1992
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Robbie McCauley. Photo by Vivian Selbo.

Robbie McCauley is a formidable actor, writer, and director. As a performer, she takes dramatic risks, exhibiting an almost palpable vulnerability, a terrific intelligence, a breathtaking range of emotions. Her texts focus on our social complexities and psychological ambiguities and are dedicated to the search for a more common good. McCauley always gambles, with hope, on the desire of the spectator to risk something, too. Most recently, her play Sally’s Rape, which she performed at The Kitchen with Jeannie Hutchins, won an OBIE for Best Play of 1991.

Lynne Tillman In Indian Blood (1988) and Sally’s Rape (1991), your family’s history is intertwined with the story of race and racism in the U.S. I wondered about working with these different kinds of narratives, sewing them together.

Robbie McCauley It comes from writing as the actor, and by that I mean, that actor’s voice. If I’m being personal, it doesn’t work—unless I connect with larger concerns. I’m not interested in just my biography. I’m very much interested in how what is personal to me connects to other people. That makes it strong for me. And I actually believe people connect that way. It’s what I’m always trying to find.

LT One of your lines is: “Confessions are good information.” As an actor, you’ve figured out how to “act out” your texts, to perform the so-called personal and political. Sometimes you move from playfulness to a fierce anger, or you struggle to speak but lose the words and grope for a way to articulate extremely difficult emotions and thoughts. It repeats in all the pieces I’ve seen.

RM Part of the actor’s craft is to repeat emotional connections to facts. So the recognition of rape as an oppressive fact of our history is a repeatable moment. I don’t know how to say that in words. Sometimes I repeat phrases over and over, jazz-like.

LT Sally’s Rape led me back to an essay by Primo Levi. He wrote that “a single Anne Frank excites more emotion than the myriads who suffered as she did, but whose image remained in the shadows.” In Sally’s Rape you stand on a slave auction block, to be bid upon—a humiliating, painful scene. After you get off the block, you say, “I wanted to do this to free us.”

RM To enter a moment fully helps to free the burden of the memory. I think that burden remains unless we free it. Entering it makes you able to move back and forth to look at it, and also it makes you able to speak. I think one of our biggest fears is going into the pain both personally and politically, and that’s what I’m trying to do in my work. An actor’s work is to go toward the pain in oneself.

LT Slavery is one of the great repressed, maybe the most repressed, aspects of U.S. history. There’s no monument, there’s nothing that really marks…

RM And yet we’re obsessed with it. It’s a tangle of denial and outbursts. It’s also part of the mythology, the happiness mythology: If we don’t talk about it, it didn’t happen. We don’t think about it and it didn’t happen, and that’s true for black and white people. Yet it makes us unable to progress, to be progressive and move towards equality for people. It is the suppressed rage in both black and white Americans.

LT What kind of reactions do you get to your emphasizing slavery?

RM I think people appreciate a source for release; that is what I do. I think people are afraid of their feelings about slavery. They think they will get in the way of progress toward equality, and then there are those unknown fears—loss of power, freedom… But I try to make that release possible and speakable through drama.

LT You often use the word progress. In Sally’s Rape, the play comments on itself—you refer to it as a “work in progress.”

RM Which is, of course, a play on social and political progress.

LT How did it come about that you chose to make the play a dialogue with a white woman?

RM I’m interested in how slavery affected the stereotypes of black and white women. I think it’s hard because of that for black and white women to dialogue. Yet it’s necessary because slavery did affect us, both as class and gender. And so this was a way of opening that dialogue which has not happened with any sense of the anger and compassion between us. That’s the theory. Also Jeannie Hutchins and I had an ability to dialogue, a friendship, which enabled us to go through this.

LT In Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark she writes about “the impact of racism on those who perpetuate it.” I was thinking of that in relation to your play based on the Freedom Riders and the Civil Rights movement, Mississippi Freedom, which was performed in Jackson recently. One of the actors, a white woman, states: “I don’t want to feel bad.”

RM She was anxious about what Jeannie Hutchins and I solved—the ability to be honest without being destroyed. So the process was very good for her. What the dialogue got to be about was: You’re not going to come out good in this, and you’re not going to come out bad. The point of this is—we’re all in the same story.

LT How did Mississippi Freedom come about?

RM It’s part of a series I’ve been doing on historical events, in various places in the U.S., around racism. Mississippi was especially poignant because the community in Jackson welcomed me. I worked with local actors who interviewed people who were involved in the Civil Rights movement. The stories were both personal and documentary; the play also included dialogue with the audience.

LT The form is extremely interesting—it’s as if you’re constructing a cinema verite situation. The only work I could think of close to it was the Living Theater, but the Living Theater was often hostile to its audience.

RM I’ve chosen not to do that. There are many similarities between people. The differences are obvious. The thing about working with people who are from the place is that they know the community. What you want to do is make a relationship between the actors which allows people to listen to each other.

LT At one point the play appears to stop, and there’s a discussion in the audience.

RM It’s something that I’ve been working at, like in Sally’s Rape, call and response—something I call “talk about,” where the actor initiates and participates in dialogue with the audience. This is facilitated by the rehearsal process in which there is much opening up between the actors. It’s probably my favorite thing to do in the world. (laughter)

LT It also parallels your desire for human freedom—it’s made explicit by employing this freer form. You keep a lot of space for participation. In Mississippi Freedom, you’re mostly an off-stage voice, a witness to the play, a member of the audience. It’s different from Sally’s Rape because…

RM I’m actually the outsider. That is, I can ask embarrassing questions because I’m from outside the community.

LT I’m reminded of what Adorno wrote: “It seems to me that what is conscious can never bring with it as much fatefulness as what remains unconscious… Essentially it is a matter of the way in which the past is called up and made present… For this task it will however be necessary to educate the educators.” All your work is involved with this, especially Indian Blood, where at one point you play a teacher lecturing on Native Americans and U.S. history.

RM For me, history is not stuck in the past. It has to be retold; it is not only factual. It involves who is telling and how the story resonates in the present. This is what Western civilization feels so threatened by now, because they have been in control of the stories.

LT Those interpretations of the story in the present are very accurate about Mississippi Freedom.

RM Very. I accept the fact that the stories are not absolutely factual. The clarity of understanding in the present is the connection to the past.

LT You talk about connections often. You use the word a lot.

RM It’s one of my obsessions.

LT The way in which you connect to your father and grandfather in Indian Blood is ambivalent because of their relationship to the U.S. [McCauley’s grandfather was in the all-black 10th Cavalry in the Spanish-American War. They were known as the buffalo soldiers, as they also fought Indians.] You say about yourself, “I’m about America like a jilted lover.”

RM I do?

LT Your grandfather didn’t seem to have been.

RM I don’t know. I take some liberties. I take what I imagine his inner voice was. It is my job to tell my version of what he thought. Therefore I tell it the way I think he felt, but with my own resonance. My response to him is not condemning but analytical and sympathetic. I look at it as the child who survived it and is able to tell and change the story.

LT You show compassion to both your father and grandfather. You say, “I can’t believe that they are resting yet.” This comes back in Mississippi Freedom in a chant toward the play’s end: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”

RM It’s an old song.

LT But the way you use it—it’s as if your role is not to let these things rest.

RM Right. And my role is also the connection, is the medium. I’m sure a movie about the buffalo soldiers will be made. And it will probably be heroic. I’m not telling that story in Indian Blood. I’m talking about the unrest that had to be inside.

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Jeannie Hutchins and Robbie McCauley in Sally’s Rape. Photo by Joyce George.

LT I think Sally’s Rape is your most feminist work, in part because it risks having an intimate discussion between a black and white woman in front of an audience.

RM And it’s not antagonistic.

LT I didn’t think so at all. It’s also very much a play about language, the language that the white woman uses, the language the black woman uses, both constrained by conventions. The two enter, carrying teacups, and talk about it—how they learned to drink tea.

RM That’s about the complicated caste and class differences that came out of the culture of slavery. How we reveal those differences was what Hutchins and I explored.

LT What are women’s responses to Sally’s Rape—black and white women?

RM Mainly appreciative. Some white women felt uncomfortable with guilt and not winning something. One woman in New York seemed to want us to solve the problems right there and thought that I was not allowing dialogue, which was hard to accept. I do control the action and we talk about that in the play.

LT In the video you did for Shu Lea Cheang’s installation at Exit Art, Those Fluttering Objects of Desire, again you mention personal freedom and say, “I wish I felt freer.” You insist on that in different ways in different pieces, and always in relation to the freedom of others, to a larger sense of lack of freedom. “I wish I felt freer” but…

RM How could I?

LT You emphasize sexuality and sex in the video. “What’s this thing about big penises anyway?” you ask.

RM Shu Lea wanted us to do something about pornography. And none of us resisted her; some might have. I was really resistant: what do you want to do this for? But I trusted her. My resistance interested me, and I realized I had a lot of prejudices about free sexual behavior.

LT In what way?

RM Probably coming from being so restricted growing up in the South. After the age of 10, we couldn’t wear shorts and there were countless rules about being womanish. All of that was internalized. There was a part of me that was young and wild and free in the 60s. I partly acted out and partly explored that—I wish there had been more exploration and less acting out. I’m more of an intellectual than I am sensual—I wish I were more sensual. Shu Lea’s piece was also fun. And serious, of course. It was very freeing. My friend and colleague from Thought Music, Laurie Carlos, reminds me that she has seen me naked so many times in performance, I probably like it. (laughter)

Lynne Tillman’s latest novel Cast in Doubt, is out, from Posiedon.

Lynne Tillman by Geoffrey O'Brien
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Originally published in

BOMB 41, Fall 1992

Featuring interviews with Richard Tuttle, Television, Anna Deveare Smith, Jessica Stockholder, YoYo, Donna Tartt, Gregg Araki, Ron Vawter, Lillian Lee, Fabian Marcaccio, and Robbie McCauley.

Read the issue
Issue 41 041  Fall 1992