Wielding Words

She learned from her Aunt Charlene that a poem can change a life. These days, she has traded poetry for plays, but she still craves that same effect.

By Pia Wilson '93

 

I learned about the power of words early in life. At seven, I was a poet. Poems spoke my small world of stuffed animals and snow cones to adults. Sometimes, though, I would describe the grown-up world from my knee-high soapbox. That's what I did for my Aunt Charlene one day.

She was crying about being broke, having fed all her money to Atlantic City slot machines. I didn't want Aunt Charlene of the nice perfume and pretty, pink lipstick to cry. Crying caused wrinkles. My mother had told me so. I didn't know what wrinkles were, but they sounded so horrible, I never wanted anyone to catch any. To save Aunt Charlene from the dreaded wrinkles, I wrote her a poem called “One-Armed Bandit.” The poem stopped the crying and earned me all kinds of hugs and kisses. There was no turning back. I was hooked on changing lives.

These days, I've traded poetry for plays, but I still crave that same effect: to touch people's consciences, to incite action. I want to save the world from wrinkles, and I weave threads of social justice into the fabric of my plays.

I've focused on characters like a bathroom maid who is so much more than people's presumptions about her. A professor who is tortured and then becomes a conduit for violence. A Hurricane Katrina refugee who is looking for a new home.

The professor was modeled after a man I'd read about in the Washington Post. After torturing him, the government deemed him innocent and dumped him in a little apartment in Washington, D.C. He couldn't eat. He couldn't sleep. He couldn't concentrate. He could only cry. I felt so many things for this man, and I took those feelings — anger, compassion, hope for a better future — and wrought a play.

The man in the article became Hakim al Mashoor in my play, The River Pure for Healing. Hakim's words, feelings, and pain took to the stage as part of the Resilience of the Spirit festival in San Diego this July. I was so proud to be a part of this festival, which raises awareness of human rights and supports artists creating human rights-related works. I believe that there is room in the middle of great storytelling and entertainment for talking about global issues like racism, war, violence against women, and poverty.

I read recently that philosophers in ancient Greece wanted to drum the dramatists out of business. By tapping into the emotion instead of reason, playwrights were considered too powerful. We still have that power.

After each of my shows, I've been fortunate to hear how my words have affected people, helping them see an issue in a new light. I can't say my work has earned me hugs and kisses like my poem did those many years ago, but I do have the sense that I'm still saving people from wrinkles — of the soul.

 

Pia Wilson '93 is a member of the Emerging Writers Initiative of The Public Theatre of New York and is an editor and designer for WHY.