By Sarah Downs
n her one woman show Yes, I Can Say That!, Judy Gold shoots from the hip, right across our collective bow, in an impassioned wake-up call to remind just us what ‘free speech’ means. And of how crucial comedy is to such freedom. Comedians tell truth to power. Muzzling their speech robs society of an essential voice that bears witness to society’s madness. Honesty matters; courage matters; resilience matters.
Gold draws from personal experience, and that of family and friends, of how laughter has carried us all through the darkest periods in our lives. Even the Holocaust. (Imagine how bleak that humor had to be…). Nothing pisses a fascist off more than laughing at him, which is of course why Hitler made the telling of or merely listening to anti-Nazi jokes an act of treason, punishable by death. How is that different from the Left forbidding the use of certain words? Banning words and burning books — it’s all the same. It’s too easy. It’s a cop out and it is dangerous.
We’ve become nauseatingly precious, and the more we wrap ourselves in cotton wool, cushioning every blow, muting every conversation, ignoring reality, the weaker we become. We don’t all get to feel good all the time; we aren’t happy all the time; we don’t like what someone is saying all the time. None of us is the center of the universe, and the more we cater to that sense of entitlement, the more rob our children of the capacity to self soothe. Instead, we are teaching them to be victims. Well, victims don’t rock the boat. Victims don’t tell truth to power. Victims don’t make change happen.
Gold mines her experience for ways in which to express how seriously she takes her role as guardian of laughter, taking aim at ‘safe spaces’ and ‘brave spaces’ (a new one on me), and the tortured boredom of political correctness. The neutering of language for the avoidance of any perceived offense at all costs renders it meaningless. Gone are the opinions and authenticity. Gone are honest reactions. A homogenous experience isn’t a real experience. It is a fiction of artifice. As she says, we might as well eat a Styrofoam sandwich.
Even the departure of a disenchanted audience member on Friday night, who didn’t like the direction a joke was going in was in itself instructive. He didn’t give the joke a chance, which is his loss. However, his very departure reinforced what Gold was saying about the need for unchained speech. The audience member had self-agency in expression, and without the catalyst of an uncomfortable moment, he would not have had occasion to make his point. And that opportunity won’t exist in a world that increasingly says “you can’t say that.”
I have a sense that Gold is feeling her way through the material, working out the flow. She will fall into a more practiced rhythm as performances progress. In his direction, BD Wong has encouraged her to inhabit her memories, pacing the small stage among various localized spaces, as delineated by Anshuman Bhatia’s specific, colorful lighting changes. She covers a lot of territory, in terms sincere and sarcastic. Set designer Lex Liang has physically immersed Gold in a sea of her own thoughts, in the form of slips of paper that line the walls, on which jokes and ideas have been handwritten. This show is personal, as Gold lays herself open to attack. And that’s the whole point– we have a choice: to stifle ourselves or to choose to take a risk. There is no freedom in silence.
There is no safety in being safe.
Yes, I Can Say That!, written by Judy Gold and Eddie Sarfaty, based on Gold’s book Yes, I Can Say That: When They Come for the Comedians, We Are All in Trouble; directed by BD Wong. Scenic and wardrobe design by Lex Liang, lighting design by Anshuman Bhatia, sound design by Kevin Heard and projection design by Shawn Duan.
Presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 (59 E 59th Street), Theater A; running March 21 through April 16, 2023. For go to www.59e59.org. Run time: 80 minutes, no intermission.