A Theatrical Confrontation in L.A.

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Saturday night we see The Weir at the Geffen Playhouse?oddly appropriate, considering it's St. Patrick's Day. The play is a bit of a bore, but my wife?let's call her Jil?enjoys it. Throughout the play, whenever Jil laughs, the woman sitting in the seat in front of her looks back and scowls.

As the play ends (the last 20 minutes are moving in an Irish-Tragic Three Beer Epiphany kind of way), everyone stands and applauds. Jil leans forward and confronts the woman, a white woman in her mid-30s, with a sensible pageboy haircut. Jil is small, pretty and African-American. She is an actress who acted Off-Off Broadway, did an indie that made it to Cannes and standup before moving to L.A., where she acts on television and just wrapped her first big feature. Her bedside reading alternates between Cosmo and Thoreau, Eggers and Melville.

The applause dies down. The woman is smiling at Jil. Was this whole thing some sort of misunderstanding? Just when I think they've worked it out, the woman says, "Skank."

Did I just hear what I thought I heard?

"Why am I a skank?" Jil asks. "Because I enjoyed the play?"

"You and your phony laugh," the woman says. "Like, I get the jokes."

"Why don't you just take the stick out of your repressed ass and enjoy yourself?" Jil says. Around us, the crowd of mostly older west-side theatergoers has begun to collect their jackets, while trying to act like nothing is going on here.

Clearly, this woman did not see this coming. She's probably spent her entire life scowling at people and no one ever tapped her on the shoulder before and asked her who the fuck she thinks she is. Jil's mom was a single mother, an African-American union organizer who raised four children on her own in Baltimore. Once, driving down the Jersey Turnpike, she felt the car behind her was following a little too close, so she stopped the car in the middle of the Turnpike, got out, walked back to the guy and said, "Stop tailgating me!"

This entire incident has a weird Spy vs. Spy quality: no one except the two combatants really knows what took place. Now the entire mezzanine is waiting for an explanation.

There is none, of course. The woman mutters through a clenched smile?we can't even go to the theater anymore without being bothered?something about Jil being low class.


Here it comes.

"Cunt!" Jil says.

That was always the one word you could never say. There was always someone who would say, "I hate that word. Say anything but that word." Now they say it on Sex in the City every time Samantha leans out the window of her loft and yells at the transvestite prostitutes to shut up already.

The Scowling Woman is here with a bourgie African-American woman who is watching the confrontation with a look of bourgie horror. On Scowling Woman's other side is a thirtysomething, bald, agent-looking guy who's playing peacemaker, urging everyone to just calm down.

Just when it looks like it might get ugly, the incident gets defused. Everyone collects their coats and goes downstairs and out onto Le Conte Ave. The incident is over.

Or so I think.

"Where is she?" Jil asks. "Where is she? I want to talk to her. What's so skanky about enjoying a play?" she asks.

Good question. In a weird way, by laughing out loud, Jil has violated some sort of unwritten social compact that exists in Southern California that we are only beginning to figure out. A couple of times I have been at games?a Padres playoff game versus the Houston Astros in 1998, when Jim Leyritz hit a game-winner?where I've stood and cheered, only to have a fan tap me on the shoulder from behind. Please sit down. Another time, at a Lakers game, a group of us cheering for the Lakers were told by other fans sitting in the section to stop yelling so loud.

Unlike New York, which is compulsively communicative to the point where you almost wish people would just keep their thoughts to themselves, Los Angeles is compulsively private. It's a place where people keep secrets. There are gates in all the nice neighborhoods to keep you from seeing into their wealthy worlds, and they built Staples Center, the new arena, to make it almost impossible for the serfs (Upper Levels) to be able to sneak down into the landowners' (Lower Levels) sections. When you read about show business, you might get this idea that there's a place where certain people go who make up Show Business, a kind of Royal Court. But then you get here and Show Business is actually just 1001 touts in $1500 suits and $200 haircuts trying to whisper each other to death.

The other thing the Geffen Incident illustrates is the difference between show business people (performers) and civilians, and how they react to live performances. We (performers) just laugh louder, and more often?because we know what it's like to be onstage, praying for a little audience reaction.

Jil and I walk to Gardens on Glendon, an exposed brick place just off I-405 where people meet on blind dates?nice enough, and what freeway access!?for a drink. Jil drinks a glass of merlot, cries, says how sick and tired she is of being regarded with suspicion by white people and Asian storekeepers everywhere she goes in Santa Monica.

"I've never stolen a thing," she cries. "When I was at Bennington, all those white girls stole. All my little white girlfriends stole all the time, and slept with all kinds of guys, and I never slept with anyone, but now I can't go anywhere without some creep stalking me down the aisle. You probably just think I'm crazy, because every time you walk in a store, all anyone ever feels is relieved." (I'm a white guy.)

In a way, she is crazy: she has committed the insane act of telling people the truth in Los Angeles.

She borrows a pen from the bartender and writes on a napkin.

"I'm going to get t-shirts made," she says, and she holds up the napkin.

On it is written: Please stop following me because I'm black. I'm not going to steal anything.

E-mail Stephen Hunt at [sbh9924@hotmail.com](mailto:sbh9924@hotmail.com).

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