Tuesday May 10, 2005

Thanks to tips from the Daily Planet’s theater writers, we spent two evenings last weekend enjoying dramatic presentations, both of which did exactly what they were supposed to do: illuminated real life in ways we might not have expected. Parents like us who raised children born in the often tumultuous ‘60s and ‘70s sometimes wonder if the kids in that cohort were helped or harmed by their exposure to the crosscurrents of political and cultural change which were sweeping the country at the time. Judging by what we saw in these performances, the kids turned out pretty well. 

Proof, which won the Pulitzer Prize for David Auburn in 2001, is a play about the kind of person sometimes known as a Girl Geek. Girl Geeks came into their own in the ‘70s with the re surgence of feminism. It became kind of okay in some circles for girls to admit that they were smart (though of course that didn’t prevent a counselor at Berkeley High from telling one of our daughters that girls don’t usually like math.) The girl geek in Proof had the added burden of an eccentric parent, a familiar situation for the many Berkeley kids who were born at the beginning of the ‘70s into multi-parent communes, in vans or in yurts, or even under water. Some of these kids grew up before their pa rents did, but the interesting thing is that it doesn’t seem to have done them much harm if any. People now in their thirties and forties who had, shall we say, colorful childhoods have turned out just fine, with more than the average percentage of produc tive and creative adults in their number.  

Eisa Davis, now 34, who performed her autobiographical work-in-progress at La Peña on Saturday and Sunday, is the quintessential real-life child of her era. From her production we learned that she was raised mos tly by her mother Fania (portrayed as what might be called a communist/hippie) but also by, in varying amounts, her old-school southern African-American grandmother and her formidable multi-faceted aunt and namesake Angela Davis: Marxist, feminist, profes sor, intellectual. She spent many weekends chanting at demonstrations, but also became a fine classical musician. She adored hip-hop, but was a shoo-in for admission to Harvard. Like many Berkeley kids, she reminded me of a Peanuts cartoon I once saw: lugubrious Charlie Brown saying dolefully “there’s no burden as heavy as a great potential.”  

She and three actors (one was her cousin, playing herself) in what is currently a staged reading managed to bring all the characters from her complex childhood to life in words and music. Judging by the audience reaction, she’s got us down pat. My daughter went to the Saturday production, heard someone laughing uproariously throughout the show, and thought it must certainly be me. When the lights went up she realiz ed that it was Angela Davis sitting behind her, reacting to the many funny bits in the same way I would have if I’d been there. My particular favorite, when I saw the Sunday show, was Eisa’s description of how she’d practice saying cuss words on her way to Willard Junior High so she could relate to her peers. It was hard for her, because as a deep-down Nice Girl from A Good Family, she’d been sternly warned against using that kind of language by her grandmother. That kind of dual identity is what we call Very Berkeley. 

Women from her background, like the girl geek in Proof, have faced enormous challenges. My generation expects them to: (1) continue their parents’ tradition of countering the dominant culture (2) save the world from racism, militarism and environmental degradation (3) achieve intellectual and professional distinction in areas such as science and the arts formerly closed to their mothers and grandmothers and (4) we’d really like a couple of grandchildren before we’re too old. It’s a tall order, but many of us Berkeley mothers, in this week after Mother’s Day, would like to take this opportunity to tell Eisa and all the rest of our daughters that we think you’ve been doing a great job so far, and we’re proud of you.