The below is excerpted from Monica Raymond’s newest play, A TO Z.
Summary: A TO Z tracks the relationship between Annie (white) and Zafiya (Black and queer) through forty years of US history and all of the letters of the alphabet. They meet when Annie comes to tutor Zafiya in reading in the juvenile detention center where she's being held. At the end of the first act, with Annie's help, Zafiya's succeeds in escaping. A TO Z won the Ruby Lloyd Apsey Award, a national prize for plays about race/ethnicity, and is currently a finalist for Association for Theater in Higher Education's 2016 Award in Playwriting.
After I got a hundred miles, I stopped thinking it’s the cops every time I put out my thumb and someone pull over. I didn’t use my name, I told people to call me Angel. And they did.
The signs all sticking out funny, everything I used to ignore halfway into meaning, teasing me, waving like banners, where you gotta always be paying attention to the two-faced nature of that world, that jar that’s full of roach poison though it got written on it in big letters SUGAR.
To me the whole world feels like that, written in a alphabet no one of us knows how to read—and all of them juju beads, tarot cards, bones, trying to round out, in hundreds of different languages, whatever part we’s missing.
One night I was staying on some women’s land outside of Eugene, Oregon. Reminded me of the lake I went that last time with Annie. I took some mescaline—funny, now they calling that salad that— mesclun salad, but that salad don’t get you high, no way. And all that night, I saw the letters of all the alphabets—not only English, but Russian, and even Greek—those Arab curlicues and Hebrew letters like they wrote in the original Bible—and all of them black against the blue, and then silver against the black sky like shooting stars—and they was all clear to me. I could read every language, like back before the Tower of Babel, when we could talk to every person in every language, and plants and animals, too. And in the dawn, I saw even those things around me, the bird flying Vs or a yellow leaf in the water. All of them seemed to be letters. And I could read them.
KARACHI, Pakistan—Fire ravaged a textile factory complex in the commercial hub of Karachi early Wednesday, killing almost 300 workers trapped behind locked doors...
September 12, 2012 NY Times
Because the bosses locked the doors,
called them thieves, infidels, and whores,
when fire came, they could not flee.
They let the stone-washed denim be,
and jumped down from the highest floors.
They smashed below. Now poetry
claws at that spectral moment, free—
that vacuum nature, God, abhors.
Because the bosses locked the doors
I write this wisp of elegy.
A century before, on distant shores—
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory—
they too jumped from the highest floors,
chose between fire and gravity,
because the bosses locked the doors.
When it is time for you to change your skin
the fleas come out, the mosquitos, the no-see-ums
and leave tiny welts like snaps on one piece pajamas.
It is these snaps that open in the night
when underneath, the patins of your new skin
are faint, shimmering, ready to be observed.
You crawl out, using the stars for footholds
and the bars that delineate constellations as handholds.
You stretch out in the night weather,
and feel the rough sift of meteoric dust
as it makes you its own, for the universe, not this one planet.
You might as well be volcano or asteroid.
(Quite similar is lanugo, that private fur
that marks the embryo mammal in the womb,
that remembers snow and forests, then is shed before birth.)
Your old skin is now orbiting the planet
at a distance too far to be seen by the naked eye,
along with uniforms of 19th century policemen,
phrenology diagrams and petticoats,
abandoned spacesuits sixties astronauts
slipped out of, eloping with the prescient blue.
They preferred their swan dives into unspeakable cold
to the pressurized cabins, forced conviviality,
puffy gloves, constant reporting back, the shitting upwards.
You hear nothing of these escaped. But don’t worry,
you don’t have their problems of indestructibility
or even resilience. Your old skin,
flogged to translucence by the scouring wind,
soon will show patches of holiness.
Eventually its wisps join the general milkiness
that informs our stretch of the cosmos. You sleep soundly through this,
(brain waves in the delta range) while on new skin
meticulous instruments embroider your old scars.
Those who awaken even fleetingly
concoct extravaganzas: UFOS, uterine taps. It’s not their fault—
every natural process unfolds first as wild myth.
But you who sleep soundly through it,
and awake only relieved at the poison drained,
an end to the ceaseless itching,
can you guess the ardent strokes
by which your own past history is inscribed?
Snail whorls rehearsed on trilobites,
mounds of insect bites subsiding,
moon of a birthmark, spider veins brushed in blue,
of antique bruise, crow’s foot pleat at the eyes—
all this to shield you from the shock
of new flesh, the new day—
Each stands behind a table,
smiling and greeting
stale whole wheat baguettes,
cranberry rolls sweetened
with wildflower honey:
from the bourgeois pantry;
bins of tomatoes ("two")
potatoes ("take a handful")
celery ("as much as you can carry")
parsnips ("Please, take 'em all!")
Like Manet's barmaid, grinning,
a glittery, mirrored frieze
of bottles behind her, college students,
kind lawyers confer
"should it be three cantaloupes, or only two?"
Each of us holds a numbered ticket,
"Admit One" pulled from a cardboard roll.
as if we were about to enter
an old-fashioned amusement park or double feature,
kids’ circus in some backyard,
the one-legged race.
The givers come from the current culture—
Ipads, Adidas, anxious
or affable, clear skin or Clearasil.
Those of us who wait
are darker and stranger:
a woman in a sari, tiny
as the cart she pulls,
black-browed Peruvian children,
capering among the pews,
an ancient lesbian Buddhist, Afro shorn
to indeterminate gender.
Also, we’re hungrier.
Mary, on the way out,
does her Bo-Peep impression
pink cheeks, plaster innocence,
She holds crucified Christ,
slighter than a box of oatmeal.
one plaster shoulder banged off
exposing the rebar beneath.