Interview: Brandy Baker on the Premiere of “Under the Knife”

Brandy Baker’s new play, Under the Knife, will have its world premiere at the Toronto Fringe Festival July 6. She discusses the ideas for the story with Myles Hoenig, a producer of the play.

Was there any catalyst that pushed you to write this play?

I was taking a devising class in Theatre Studies in 2014, where you talk a little about your life, or a topic, write about it, and make a play. I was not used to talking about my life in any way. In my years as a political organizer, I rarely did, but I had written stories, poetry, and made short films, so I had made art before. I had never done theatre performance or creation. You assisted me in producing Marx in Soho and The Fever in 2012, both starring Jerry Levy. We brought him down from Vermont for a weekend. I remember us breaking even. We were lucky.

Anyway, I had done that, and I did a one year internship at the Strand Theatre Company in Baltimore in 2008-2009 doing graphic design and videography. Those were my experiences with theatre. I applied to the program of Theatre Studies on just that: producing Jerry’s plays and my internship. I got in. Maybe the BA in Lit helped. Anyway, I liked devising. I liked my teacher, I did not expect to be engaged much, I surprised myself. I started writing plays. I wrote Under the Knife as my thesis. She suggested that I take on the US healthcare system. It became about much more than that.

How autobiographical is this play?

It is not my life with names changed, but it reflects some of what was around me growing up in the 80s. I remember as a kid everyone was tired and “old” after 40, everyone over 50 was so sick. Arthritis, emphysema, a very few cases of cirrhosis, not cirrhosis in the family, but a few friends of family. Three of my uncles were alcoholics and they were also house painters, as was my grandfather in his later years (earlier, he was a farmer who worked on others’ lands). Anyway, there used to be lead in paint and I am sure that was a factor in some of their their respiratory illnesses as well. My grandfather died at 67, so did my three uncles when they each reached that age. I never took notice of the illness around me, nor was there an element of surprise, it just was. It was normal. When you got to middle age, you would break down. It floors me now. I say “Wow” now looking back at it, it’s shocking. This thing today of people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s doing yoga, running, and looking young. We never saw any of that.

The only time back then I would take any sort of notice is when I saw an older person who was not sick. My grandmother, when I was small, was in her 60s, and was healthy in comparison to the other older people around. She worked various labor jobs until she retired and lived very frugally on her social security cheques. She lived in Section 8 housing, but she traveled often, about every few years. That is a lot for a person on a fixed income. She would save a little from her cheques every month. Stayed in bargain motels/hostels, traveled by Greyhound, things like that. She would take occasional buses to Atlantic City. They gave you quarters to play the machines, but she did not, ever. She would walk down the boardwalk and go to the 99 cent stores until it was time to go. A few times, she took me. However, she did have mild arthritis, and if I take a cold, hard look at life back then, I believe that she could have possibly had some high-functioning depression.

She stood out for being relatively healthy, unlike most of the rest of the family. I remember various uncles waking up with the shakes, and years later finding out it was from alcohol withdrawal. I would laugh as a small child because I did not know what it was. I thought when I saw it it was comedic, like The Three Stooges or something like that. I look back now pretty horrified. I had an uncle who had a heart condition and scleroderma, two uncles who had cancer and eventually died. All three of those uncles made some money under the table with their painting, but some of it was above table. I did a 1040EZ for one of them one year for taxes when I was in high school and he made seven grand. That was also something that I would not have noted or been surprised about because no one in my family made much money. The three who lived in Havre de Grace (two others lived in Delaware and did a bit better financially; they weren’t affluent in any way, but they were stable) lived in a housing project owned by my grandfather’s wealthy brother: my great uncle. We lived there at various times as well.

How does all of this inform the play? Well, Ronnie’s working under the table loading trucks at night in Riverside, Maryland, a real place with a manufacturing centre because of its proximity to Route 40 and I-95. That’s about 6 miles from Havre de Grace. The play takes place in Aberdeen, a real-life small town that is even more economically depressed than Havre de Grace. It is easy to talk about all of this in a detached, sociological fashion, but the play reflects a lot of what I saw. I can write this stuff without thinking about it. I grew up without thinking about it (until I started middle school and those differences become highlighted), but when I look back, I start to think about it because there are wider dynamics at play. My people and those in their circles were so sick for political/economic reasons: poverty, lack of decent healthcare, my grandfather dropping out of school and working so he could help the baby in his family who grew up to be rich and to rent project units to many people, including my grandfather, my uncles, my mom, and their kids. By the time I was an adult, my great uncle sold the housing project. My grandfather, uncles, and cousins were a cheap supply of labour for this side of the family as well. My great uncle, his kids and grandkids did not have all of these health problems. Not only under US capitalism do people with means can get better care, but the poor get sicker more often because of poverty, and because they go without medical care. This was also the 80s, the birth of Reaganomics, which we still live under and have done so since 1980 under both Republican and Democratic Party presidents. I think that this play is more about Reaganomics than health care.

You’re living in Canada and your premiere opening will be at the Toronto Fringe Festival. You are an immigrant without Permanent Residency status. How does the Canadian health system impact on you?

I now have OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Program). I got it in December. I was ineligible for a while until I found a permanent job. I walk in, present my card, and I see my doctor. They have a program to help you find a family doctor. If you do not like their referral, call them back, and they will connect you to another. They will keep doing that until you find someone. They are okay with that. I lucked out the second time. My doctor is an immigrant also, from England. 51% of Torontonians were born outside of Canada. I love this system, but it needs improvement. It does not cover dental or pharma, and we have a two-tiered mental health system. The Fifth Estate, a CBC documentary series, did a show about a 12 year old child who committed suicide after his parents tried for so long to get him the help he needed. The mental health system is fragmented and not adequately funded. The system is run provincially, with provincial and federal funds. It should be federal. Compared to France, it is lacking. Compared to the US, it looks perfect. For prescription drugs, vision, counseling, etc, you have to either get benefits from your employer or buy insurance. They don’t have it at work, but I can get it through the playwright’s guild. Thing is, it only covers 70% for prescriptions. 70%, which means that it’s pretty much an Obamacare plan for drugs and vision. Now prices are not as high for drugs here because there are price controls, but Canada has the second highest costs in prescription drugs. The Ontario NDP came out with a Pharmacare plan last year, covering over 200 prescription drugs. It doesn’t go far enough, but it was a start. The Liberals, who sold off 30% of of the public utility Hydro One and who have been in power since 2003 and have overseen an over 60% in tuition fees, last year they suddenly stole the NDP’s thunder and give free Pharmacare to everyone under 25. Now both are promising free pharma because there is a June election; it may happen if the Conservatives do not get in. The Liberals are now in the tank, so it will be either the NDP or the Conservatives. Strategic voting (supporting Democrats) does not work at all in the US, but there is justification for it in Canada.

Tell me about the characters in the play. What keeps them going, what keeps them alive and where do you see them winding up?

Well, there’s Ronnie and he is living on his sister’s couch and working at nights until he can get enough money to get his own place. This is going to take time because he’s not pulling in a lot of money unloading trucks under the table. He’s generous and likeable. Many of the women in the county are crazy about him, he gets around, but he is also a gentleman. His sister, Wendy, four years older, is a nursing assistant who has to get out of the profession because it is taking a toll on her physically, back problems. My own mother did that work for years and I did as well in my early 20s before I started college. Her mother, Lena, also lives with her, and is an emotional drain because Lena is crazy and distrustful of pretty much everyone. She lost the plot when her husband lost his factory job and eventually died years before. No one in my family had a good factory job. Lena would have been one of my relatives, honestly, my mother, and she would have married up by marrying someone who had that kind of job. No one in my family, at least back then, married up in this way. Wendy also has a 13 year old son. And there is a co-worker of Ronnie’s: Chuck. He has bad emphysema and has found Jesus. He’s just trying to hang in there until he can retire, collect social security, and “take it easy” by working as a Wal-Mart greeter. And Rosa, a Mexican-American woman who winds up meeting the family, and dating Ronnie. Finally, there is Kenny, who sells pills to Lena, and Kenny tries to ensure that Ronnie does not see him doing that.

This would be a prime area for political organizing, better jobs, more pay, benefits, etc. but I think a lot of today’s activists would not be of much use organizing here because so much of the modern left has lost the class analysis. I am not arguing for class reductionism, I am arguing for actual class inclusion. Some of today’s organizers would be preoccupied with calling out these characters for using the wrong pronoun or for saying something homophobic, and there is that in the play. These characters are uneven and have contradictions, like all people, which is unacceptable to the sjw crowd. Lena is the extreme case and too far gone to bring around in any way, but I would not say that about the others. If anything, I would seek to protect these people from some of today’s organizers: they’re too vicious.

Except for fear of, running from, or avoiding, there isn’t much about the police in this story. Was that intentional?

Yes, most of the characters of this play avoid the police. Not good experiences at all. In the beginning of the play, Chris finds a severed finger in the backyard of a rich, miserly man, Mr. Jameson, and police take forever and coming out is not a priority. However, halfway through the play, the same miserly rich man discovers that some of his money was stolen from his house, calls the police, and the cops immediately knock on the door to talk to Chris.

Do you find any of your characters to be stereotypical of a sort, or lend the audience to believe them to be so?

I hope not. I cannot say, others will have to make that call. If that comes out in this play, perhaps it is from some eternal hatred of/shame from poverty that I will never shake, but I really do hope not.