While American commentators have been focused on Roma, they may have missed a portrayal of a middle-class family and its domestic help that cuts much closer to home—and touches directly on these questions about race, the depiction of characters’ inner lives and the movies. Emma and Max, the first play by the filmmaker Todd Solondz, had a monthlong run at the Flea Theater last October. At its center is the firing of Brittany, the black Barbadian nanny of a New York Jewish family.
When it comes to the revelation of characters’ inner lives, Emma and Max is Roma’s opposite. In Solondz’s play, every character gets the chance to share their life story in a long confessional monologue, providing explanations for their behavior. Brittany’s comes last, and the play’s ending is staged like an alternate universe version of Roma’s. Cuarón’s Cleo saves her employer’s kids from drowning, bringing her closer to the family she serves. In Solondz’s play, on the other hand, Brittany retaliates for being fired by drowning her charges, and ends up in prison.
One babysitter is embraced, and the family is saved; the other is rejected, and the family is destroyed. But the imagery and themes are similar. In both cases, the babysitter seals the children’s fates with an adrenaline-fueled plunge into water. And in the aftermath, both babysitters make confessions about their own miscarriages, invoking taboos about race and motherhood.
Had Solondz made a film, these two would likely have been discussed side by side. But as it happens, the filmmaker’s first play has as much to say about cinematic storytelling and the inner lives of fictional characters as it does about racial dynamics in the domestic sphere.
Emma and Max begins with a scene that could conceivably have worked in a movie. Sitting in their living room, wife Brooke and husband Jay fire Brittany for reasons they fail to articulate. “Sometimes the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit together anymore,” says Jay. They have decided to replace Brittany with Famke, who’s from Holland.
The couple behaves with a combination of cruelty and cluelessness. They first appear to be caricatures of well-meaning white people: people who don’t think of themselves as racists, but whose behavior and language betray them. Brooke is too fragile to do the firing herself—she tries to speak and runs offstage to throw up. Jay pats her leg reassuringly while they fire Brittany, as though they were not themselves in control of the situation. When Brittany asks what she did wrong, Brooke and Jay go on about how smart she is. As they hand Brittany her three months’ severance, Brooke says, “We love you.”
Then Brittany does something unexpected: she opens the envelope and begins to count the cash. Brooke and Jay exchange glances. Slowly, slowly, Brittany counts: she makes the couple wait. Brooke leans forward as if to tell her it’s all there—Brittany shushes her with a hand wave. Counting the cash is the move Brittany can make to reassert herself, given the situation: the couple is forced to acknowledge, in her presence, exactly how much they are willing to pay to get rid of her. It’s both satisfying and funny to watch—at first. Brittany keeps her composure, until something in her breaks: she has a seizure. Brooke and Jay freak out, unsure whether to approach her body as she shakes on the floor. The stage goes dark.
It’s possible to admire this opening in a very basic way: the satirical dialogue is snappy, the tension builds, and it contains the pleasure of listening to a cringeworthy conversation. But Solondz quickly backs into a different format, one that emphasizes the difference between the the screen and the stage: from this point forward, the play consists mainly of monologues, with occasional interruptions. Each character gets an opportunity to explain their behavior in speeches that are half-confessions, half-life stories. And interestingly, given the fact that Solondz is primarily a filmmaker, the monologues contain frequent references to how the characters think their life story might look on film.
At first, Brooke claims she does not feel guilty about firing Brittany. Actually, she does feel guilty—she feels guilty about not feeling guilty. She’s just much happier with Famke. But she’s so exhausted from the firing, doesn’t Jay think they deserve a vacation? Inspired by Brittany’s heritage, they head to Barbados. When, inevitably, Brooke does reveal that deeper layer of guilt, she confesses something about her childhood: when she was young, she also had a black babysitter who was abruptly fired.
“Amaryllis taught me to do the Twist.” She smiles at the memory. “We really got down.” With that, Brooke makes herself fall apart. She remembers what it was like to hear, as a little girl, that her beloved babysitter was “fired.” Not knowing the word’s meaning, she recalls imagining all kinds of suffering and torture. “Fired. Burned at the stake. Lynched. Gassed. Waterboarded. Why?”
Now Brooke’s the one who fired the babysitter. She has, as a parent, recreated a painful situation from her childhood, and she’s suffering the consequences. Brooke’s childhood has been revealed to us at a moment when Brooke, the once-innocent child, is now seen by her adult self as the victim. Amaryllis and the Twist, the memory itself a caricature of “racy” dancing, represent Brooke’s innocence: the word “fired,” and all the terrible things it caused young Brooke to imagine, are its destruction. But what upsets her, really, in this memory, is not what happened to Amaryllis or Brittany; it’s what happened to her. She’s searching for the roots of her own behavior, for the place her good intentions went wrong. Her first instinct is to give Brittany a call, informing her that they’re in Barbados and inviting her to lunch at Le Pain Quotidien when they get back—“my treat!”
A little earlier in the play, Brooke wonders if, in a movie, she’d be considered an “unsympathetic” character. Maybe if the movie of her life were directed by Greta Gerwig, she suggests, people would understand her. Like many lines in the play, this one contains a joke, but something more serious, too. Through Brooke’s monologue, Solondz is not just providing an explanatory backstory for an otherwise unlikeable character; he’s exposing the backstory itself as a formula that narratives use to generate sympathy. In Brooke’s case, everything is so exaggerated: her cruelty, her self-pity, her memories, her delivery. Is this twisted emotional journey what it takes to inspire feeling for a character with whom we don’t mysteriously, automatically, “sympathize”? Brooke herself suggests there might be a surefire route—the right director.
Brittany is less concerned about the director of her life story than she is with the actor who would represent her. Significantly, Brittany never has the chance to speak without another character present and listening: in the play’s final scene, she’s being recorded by a researcher, there to report on women’s prisons. She, too, goes deep into her past, even though the researcher warns that she might end up only “a chapter, or a footnote” in a larger academic tome about the incarceration of women of color.
Brittany focuses not on her recent crime but on her first work experience in the U.S. She worked for a couple: a Greenwich Village intellectual who “looked like a frog,” but who must have had a “beautiful mind” because his wife looked like an actress. “You know, the blonde actress…” she prompts the academic to help her remember the name.
They go on and on until… “Meryl Streep?” “Yes!” “Yes!” The academic is elated when she gets the right answer. “Not Halle Berry?” she ventures. “No!” What has been accomplished in this little game? Yes, it’s funny, that “blonde actress” could be almost anyone, but it’s also very strange to see two actors on a stage play this familiar guessing game. We all have access to this cast of celebrity characters; our imaginations can play with them like dolls.
Not only does Brittany cast Meryl Streep as her former employer in the memory of her life—she also believes that, if Meryl Streep were to star in the biopic based on her life, people would sympathize with her story. And it’s an awful story. Her boss, the one who looked like a frog, rapes her. Afterwards, he goes to the kitchen to get some “diet crackers”; then he goes back to his study. When she gets pregnant he offers to marry her, then sends her money that she rips up. She has a white baby that she loves for a few hours, then it dies. In spite of the baby’s father, Brittany wanted her child to live. Everyone knows whites have the most beautiful babies, she says. When she turns to the subject of Emma and Max, she explains that she did not kill them out of anger, but out of love: she wanted to save her angelic charges from turning into horrible white adults.