The Collapse of Wizarding Society As We Know It: How Hermione Granger’s Parents Will Probably Cause the Apocalypse

This is an essay I wrote for my Harry Potter class a few years ago, and I am still absurdly proud of it. It is here more for posterity than anything else.

There is no pair of characters in the Harry Potter canon that intrigues me more, and yet is mentioned less, than the two parents of Hermione Granger. Over the course of seven books — several of which are the longest children’s books in the modern canon, and all of which cover themes of family, parental strife, and the role that parents play in their offsprings’ lives even after they’re gone — Hermione’s parents appear a grand total of once, and are very seldom mentioned. Furthermore, on several occasions when they are casually mentioned, their behavior towards Hermione, and their treatment by the wizarding community, raises many important and often mind-boggling questions about the relationship between the Wizard and Muggle worlds.

The word “granger” comes from old French and English, and it refers to a farm bailiff — basically, someone who oversees the finances of a farm. That term, in turn, is derived from the Latin “granica,” meaning granary. The farming imagery, plus the rather banal sound of the name itself, connotes a rather ordinary family, and indeed every bit of information we are given on Hermione’s parents seems to confirm this. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Hermione confirms that both of her parents are dentists. We know that Mr. and Mrs. Granger occasionally take their daughter on vacations: in Prisoner of Azkaban they holiday in France, in Order of the Phoenix they take her skiing, and in Deathly Hallows Hermione reveals that they have taken her to both Tottenham Court Road and the Forest of Dean. We also know that they are very smart (there’s no way Hermione only developed her bookworm tendencies after learning she was a witch, and becoming a dentist requires extensive education), and they are very passionate about dental hygiene: in Goblet of Fire they send Harry several sugar-free snacks over the summer when he requests emergency food, and discourage Hermione from using magic to adjust the size of her front teeth.

What we don’t know, however, is any of their opinions on witchcraft and wizardry in general, which is fascinating to me. There are only four Muggles in the Harry Potter series who are both aware of the wizarding world’s existence and are shown having definite opinions about it: these are of course the three Dursleys and the unnamed Muggle Prime Minister in Book 6. The former abhor all things magical and prefer to pretend that wizardry doesn’t exist; the latter grudgingly accepts the Ministry of Magic as something he occasionally has to deal with, but most of the time keeps a similar strategy of pushing that world to the back of his mind. Why, then, do Mr. and Mrs. Granger so readily accept the fact that wizards live among us, and seemingly form what seems to be a normal, healthy relationship with their magical daughter? And what regulations are in place to make sure that these Muggle parents don’t break the International Statute of Secrecy?

To answer these questions, let’s take a brief tour through Mr. and Mrs. Granger’s relationship with the wizarding world. When Muggle-born children are sent Hogwarts letters, we are given to understand (mostly from Dumbledore’s visit to Tom Riddle’s orphanage presented in a flashback in Half-Blood Prince, and the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Granger are clearly aware their daughter is a witch) that someone — perhaps either a Hogwarts teacher or a Ministry of Magic official — makes a visit to their home to break the news that a) magic exists, b) their child is a wizard, and c) that we want to take your child to a magical boarding school. Presumably, there are articles in the International Statute of Secrecy that allow for this, as well as for the use of Memory Charms or other magic in case the encounter does not go well. However, the incentive for the interaction to go well is extreme, as we know from the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them that a Muggle-born wizard who remains untrained, or is otherwise made to suppress their magic, can become an Obscurial if left to stew too long.

When Mr. and Mrs. Granger (and indeed Mr. and Mrs. Evans a generation earlier) were told that their daughter was a witch, they clearly responded in a positive manner, although we cannot know for sure. But judging from the fact that Hermione is already extremely familiar with many wizarding texts not included in her required school list by the time she steps on the Hogwarts Express, it is safe to assume that they accompanied her to Flourish and Blotts in Diagon Alley and allowed her to purchase as many books as she wanted. But what happens when parents put in their situation don’t respond so positively? We know from the Dursleys that Muggle attitudes towards wizardry can vary widely, but even the Dursleys grudgingly let Harry attend Hogwarts after some (frankly) bullying from Hagrid. What happens when Muggle parents stubbornly refuse to let their children attend, even after the visiting wizard informs them of the threat an Obscurial would pose? Can wizards get in trouble with the Muggle government for kidnapping?

I would suggest a much darker possibility, one that is intimated by Hermione in The Deathly Hallows, when she puts her parents under a powerful Memory Charm to make them forget they have a daughter (as well as think their names are Wendell and Monica Wilkins, and suddenly develop a desire to move to Australia). She does this to protect them from Death Eaters, but I believe that wizards in the past must have done it to prevent young Muggle-born wizards from becoming Obscurials. Especially since the incident in New York in the 1920’s, which resulted in chaos and destruction, it would be too risky to let unwilling, abusive Muggle parents to continue stifling the magic in their wizard children. It would hardly be the shadiest thing that Hogwarts or the Ministry did in that century. But then, of course, would they have to modify the memory of the young witch or wizard? What happens when they grow up and investigate their past?

But that is not even the darkest possibility that the activities of the Granger parents suggests. Let us go for a moment to Chamber of Secrets, when Mr. and Mrs. Granger make their second (and seemingly last) trip to Diagon Alley to help Hermione buy her school supplies. We first see them “standing nervously” at the entrance to Gringotts, where they are greeted with great gusto by Arthur Weasley, who of course finds them endlessly fascinating, goggling at them throughout the day as though they are animals in a zoo. They exchange their Muggle money for wizarding currency at Gringotts, and then have a drink with Arthur in the Leaky Cauldron (we don’t get to see this but presumably they spend the time talking about the machinations of their Muggle lives with a very overeager wizard). The next time we see them, they are in Flourish and Blotts. Here, they witness a photoshoot with the wizarding celebrity Gilderoy Lockhart, as well a fight between Arthur Weasley and Lucius Malfoy that is not only incredibly uncomfortable but quite illustrative of politics in the wizarding world at the time.

But here’s the kicker: at the end of the day, they simply waltz out the door of the Leaky Cauldron, back into the Muggle world. Their memories are not modified, and nobody is shown monitoring Muggle activity in and out of the Leaky Cauldron.

Now, in The Sorcerer’s Stone Harry cannot see the Leaky Cauldron on the street until Hagrid points it out to him, so it stands to reason that Muggles cannot see it unless they are directed to it by one who can. The wizard who delivered Hermione’s acceptance letter most likely informed them how to get to Diagon Alley, as Dumbledore did for Tom Riddle. But the question remains: what provisions are in place to stop the Grangers from going home and blabbing to all their Muggle friends about the wizarding world, how it works, the state it’s in, and how to get there?

In the case of the Dursleys, they are inclined of their own accord to suppress any knowledge of Harry’s oddity. But this is an inherently unreliable system, as not all Muggles share the Dursleys’ aversion to magic. More likely, when the visiting wizard speaks with the family of a Muggle-born, we can deduce that they are required to tell them about the International Statute of Secrecy, and that they are not to tell any of their Muggle friends about the wizarding world. It is logical that the Muggle parents would then be required to sign some sort of charmed nondisclosure agreement, which would magically alert the Ministry if magic was mentioned to someone outside the young wizard’s immediate family: we already know that the Ministry monitors wizard-inhabited Muggle homes to detect underage magic, so this is not that far of a stretch.

But here’s where this system can fail: wizards are consistently shown to have limited knowledge of Muggle technology, so much so that their spectacular ignorance is often played for comedy. Even Arthur Weasley, a man who has devoted his life to studying Muggle inventions, consistently gets things wrong: as late as Order of the Phoenix he refers to a telephone as a “fellytone.”

In addition, a great deal of wizarding secrecy is predicated on the idea that all Muggles have an inherently Dursley-esque attitude towards magic — namely, that they will go to ridiculous ends to pretend that it doesn’t exist even when the evidence is right in front of them. In Chamber of Secrets Arthur insists that even when Muggles are given Vanishing keys, they will ignore the evidence and insist they’ve lost them. In Order of the Phoenix, Hagrid asserts that the reason mountain-dwelling giants can freely prey on Muggles is that the other Muggles attribute the disappearances to avalanches without bothering to investigate. These are hardly the only examples: countless times throughout the series the legitimate question “How come the Muggles don’t notice this?” is brushed off with “Muggles don’t notice anything!”

I have lived among Muggles for twenty-two years, and in my experience the exact opposite is true. Muggles notice everything: they are paranoid, panicky, and prone to creating insane conspiracy theories based on small amounts of evidence. And this trend has only sharpened in intensity since, of course, the advent of the internet.

That’s right, once again, the internet ruins everything. The Harry Potter series takes place primarily in the 1990’s, before the internet was a universal constant in every Muggle’s day-to-day life. Nineteen years after the Battle of Hogwarts, my smartphone can do much more than simply photograph my meals. It can take instant video of anything I happen to see in public; a wizard Disapparating on the street, for instance, or a family shuffling through a busy train station with an owl in a cage and then disappearing into what is supposed to be a solid brick wall. Then, ten minutes later, my entire friend group has seen the exact same thing — and two days later, so have ten thousand other mystified Muggles.

In addition, if wizards haven’t learned how to pronounce the word “telephone” by 1996, then they certainly aren’t aware of how social media works by 2017. Even the magical nondisclosure agreement I just signed can’t stop me from tweeting about my wizard son — how could it? Wizards don’t even know what Twitter is! Considering the sloppy enforcement of the Statute of Secrecy we witnessed throughout the Harry Potter books, it absolutely stands to reason that the International Confederation of Wizards is shitting their pants right about now. Entire Muggle governments — not just their leaders anymore — are becoming wise to the fact that wizards are living among us in secret, and that they could solve most of our problems with a swish and a flick. As poor as the Weasleys were, food was never a problem for them, not when you can transfigure objects into food, increase food you’ve already got, and cook by magic. And I’m certain that citizens of Flint, Michigan would welcome at least one magic individual capable of shouting “Aguamenti!” Of course, we Muggles are also quite capable of producing enough food and clean water for everyone and still don’t do it. But try telling an angry politician that.

I want you to imagine that your name is Monica Wilkins, and you and your husband Wendell are living your quiet lives somewhere in suburban Australia when suddenly, an unfamiliar girl rushes into your home, points a wooden stick at you, and mutters a strange Latin phrase. All of a sudden, your identity begins to crumble. . . your last name isn’t Wilkins, it’s Granger, and this strange girl standing in front of you is actually your daughter — how could you have forgotten your own daughter? And then, as the daughter you’ve just remembered begins to explain the long, complicated story of why she had to do this to you, of the danger she put herself in, of the terrifying power she wields over your very perception of reality — wouldn’t you feel scared? Wouldn’t you begin to harbor some resentment, not just toward Voldemort, but the entire wizarding world? Wouldn’t you want to tell your therapist about it?

The unraveling of the wizarding world as we know it starts and ends with Mr. and Mrs. Granger, and J.K. Rowling doesn’t even do us the favor of telling us their first names.

Works Cited

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Dir. David Yates. Screenplay by J. K. Rowling. Perf. Eddie Redmayne. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2016. Film.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1998. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, 1999. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Random House, 1999. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Random House, 2000. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Random House, 2003. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Random House, 2005. Print.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Random House, 2007. Print.

Review of ‘Incredibles 2’

I wrote this for Rescripted.org as part of their young critics’ mentorship program, and it can also be found on their website.

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People like Pixar movies for many reasons. But by far, the reason I love this studio so much is that each Pixar movie has a distinct and easily distillable moral center. Each of these has shaped who I am today in some way — ideas like the difficulty of growing up, the importance of preserving childlike wonder into adulthood, and the sham of capitalism, among other things.

But these moral centers are usually quite personal, and the reason Incredibles 2 is the best Pixar movie is that it asks a question concerning not just the viewer, but the way the viewer will affect the world around them.

The intervening years between Incredibles 1 and 2 have of course brought a veritable glut of superhero movies, so this movie had a lot to prove. The difficult line that Incredibles 2 walks — nostalgic yet innovative, human yet fast-paced  — is a mammoth achievement in and of itself. But I’d like to focus on the movie’s themes, because Incredibles 2 is a story about people trying to control the superhero narrative. Every character in this film is selling a story, whether to the public or to themselves. Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), media businessman and superhero fanboy, is the most obvious example — he sells the public a controlled narrative about Elastigirl so he can feel better about his father’s death. Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) gets the opportunity in this movie to reclaim her own narrative; the simple glory of saving people and looking cool doing it. And Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) is of course dealing with giving up that same narrative so he can care for his kids, all the while selling the narrative that he’s a good dad so hard that it eventually becomes true.

Even super-daughter Violet Parr (Sarah Vowell) gets in on this theme, in a comic yet crucial subplot in which her high school crush Tony Ridinger gets his memory of her wiped. There’s a reason that as her mom is reshaping the perception of superheroes in the public eye, Violet is trying to rebuild the memory of herself in Tony. And. . . she doesn’t do a great job.

In fact, no hero in this movie does a great job. The day is saved, but in the same way that the Underminer never gets captured, the underlying problem is never resolved. Heroes are legal again, but the reason they were made illegal in the first place hasn’t been addressed.

And that reason, of course, is public complacency! This movie explores in depth the dire consequences of putting too much faith in public figures, of trusting that we can lay back while the powerful solve our problems, and the ways our media reinforces this in subtle and insidious ways. There’s a reason the villain controls people through television and computer screens. There’s a reason Elastigirl earns the public’s trust through a body camera — by literally letting her audience live their own superhero fantasy through her, as every superhero movie does. At its worst, a superhero movie gives you the adrenaline rush of saving the world without empowering you to actually do it. Real world-ending problems are invisible, dull, and entrenched within systems; you can’t stop global warming by blowing it up. And that one celebrity you love, or that one politician you voted for, isn’t going to fix it, at least not without your help.

I like that Incredibles 2 revels in the giddy theatrics of heroism without being afraid to savagely critique its effects. Superheroes are troubling because they teach us that things get better through individuals, and not because we make things better together, through massive civil movements, which I might point out is the only way in history anything has ever gotten better, ever.

Incredibles 2 asks: How are modern superhero narratives making us complacent? And what, if anything, can we do about it?

The fact that this movie manages to make these devastating observations while still being a manic, self-contained, and visually stunning ride is nothing short of astonishing to me.

Our Friend Albus — a ten-minute Harry Potter fan play by Aaron Lockman

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[This week, we’re getting a little weird. Please don’t sue me, J.K.! Let’s do this.]

The Headmistress’s office at Hogwarts, sunset. A large, stately desk, various silver instruments and trinkets. On the wall, portraits of previous Hogwarts headmasters snooze in their frames.

Sitting at the desk is HEADMISTRESS MINERVA MCGONAGALL. She is old but tough. She wears black robes, has her gray hair in a tight bun, and has a small pair of glasses perched on the edge of her nose. She is reading a piece of parchment.

A moment of silence; the soft ticking of a clock.

A knock at the door.

MCGONAGALL: Enter.

The door opens, and SEVERUS SNAPE enters, also in black robes. He is in his late thirties but looks much older. His face is gaunt and stressed, and his long jet-black hair has turned gray at the temples.

SNAPE: Good evening, Headmistress.

MCGONAGALL: Severus. Close the door.

SNAPE closes the door and sits across from MCGONAGALL.

SNAPE: I trust you have been well over the summer?

MCGONAGALL: I am going to pretend you did not just ask me that.

SNAPE: I beg your pardon, Headmistress; I only wish to be courteous.

MCGONAGALL: I care little for pleasantries these days, Severus, and even less for courtesy from traitors. If I had my way, you would be dead on this floor.

SNAPE: Straight to business, then?

MCGONAGALL: Straight to business.

SNAPE: Very well. You must know by now, well-informed as you are, that the Ministry has fallen. A quiet coup, but an effective one.

MCGONAGALL: I don’t know if I would call rounding up Muggle-Borns and putting a price on Harry Potter’s head “quiet.” The wizarding public is not as stupid as you think.

SNAPE: Be that as it may, you must have known this day was coming. The Dark Lord requires Hogwarts.

MCGONAGALL: Yes, I deduced as much from this rather illegible letter from our new Minister. I must say, Pius’s handwriting is even more atrocious than I remember — has he been Imperiused and Confunded?

SNAPE: Minerva —

MCGONAGALL: It was a matter of several minutes before I could work out that it was you who had been appointed Headmaster of Hogwarts, and not a Sincerest Snail, or possibly a Satirical Snake.

SNAPE: The Minister is well within his rights to appoint a new headmaster.

MCGONAGALL: Severus, I grow weary of Death Eaters couching their barbarism in legality and pretending that any of this is normal. You know perfectly well I refuse the authority of this new Ministry, and I will turn my position over to you the day that hell freezes over and the sun falls from the sky.

Pause. SNAPE stands, and looks out the window.

SNAPE: I did miss this place.

MCGONAGALL: I weep for you.

SNAPE: Minerva, how long have we been colleagues?

MCGONAGALL: Clearly, we never were.

SNAPE: Sixteen years is the correct answer. I know that we had our differences; long-standing House rivalries that long preceded us. But throughout our time here, you consistently earned my respect and my admiration. Your dedication to teaching, your fierce loyalty to your students —

MCGONAGALL: If you are ramping up to something —

SNAPE: My point is, I should like to think that I earned your respect as well. Before, of course, the unfortunate incident this spring.

MCGONAGALL: Is this really where you would like to steer this conversation, Severus?

SNAPE: Oh, I could make all the threats you expect me to make. The might of the Ministry versus Hogwarts’ meager magical defenses, the fact that quietly stepping aside will bring far less suffering to the students of Hogwarts than an open act of defiance against the Dark Lord — but I think you would find that argument as tiresome as I do. So, I have decided to be honest. And to rely on a sense of mutual respect —

MCGONAGALL: Mutual respect?!? I. . . I am at a loss for words, Severus. I did not think I would ever hear that phrase come out of your mouth.

SNAPE: Before this spring —

MCGONAGALL: Before this spring, any less forgiving headmaster than Albus would have sacked you ten times over! The blatant bigotry against Muggle-borns, the shameless abuse of any child not in your own House! Your entire tenure was plagued with very nasty stories from down in that dungeon, let me tell you — and every time I or any teacher complained to Dumbledore?

He would say he’d speak to you about it. That’s it. Nothing changed. Not even when you bullied poor Neville Longbottom so severely that his Boggart turned into you.

One of the first policies I implemented as headmistress is that if any Boggart presents us with evidence that a student’s worst fear is a teacher, that teacher should be immediately terminated. That’s you, Severus. That is your legacy. I should have seen you for what you were ages ago. But Albus trusted you, so I did too. And would you like to know what the most damning —

SNAPE: Dumbledore was already dying.

A long, potent pause.

MCGONAGALL: . . . what?

SNAPE: I killed him, but it was not murder. You remember his blackened, withered hand throughout last year?

It was a curse. In his travels, he encountered a cursed ring that would have killed him immediately had I not quickly contained the dark magic in his hand. But it would have spread soon enough.

You are aware of the Dark Lord’s plan to have Draco kill Dumbledore?

MCGONAGALL: Yes.

SNAPE: Dumbledore asked me to kill him instead when the moment came, so as to preserve my standing with the Dark Lord.

Pause.

MCGONAGALL: Why should I believe you.

SNAPE: Because you know it is true. Because it makes sense. Because you need to trust me.

MCGONAGALL: All that story proves is that Albus trusted you, and look where that got him.

SNAPE: Minerva, please. There are. . . tasks I must complete this year, on Dumbledore’s orders. Things I require the station of the headmaster to accomplish.

MCGONAGALL: Things he couldn’t leave to me.

SNAPE: Things he only told me about.

MCGONAGALL: . . . right. Of course. The sad part is, that is entirely plausible.

MCGONAGALL stands up. She walks over to the painting of Dumbledore, who is sleeping.

She stares at it a moment.

MCGONAGALL: (quiet, to herself) Dammit, Albus. Why’d you have to go believing the best of people?

(turning back to SNAPE) I cannot discount the possibility that Dumbledore left you crucial information. But I also cannot trust that you will use that information well.

SNAPE: Minerva, you must believe me when I say I am thoroughly devoted to bringing down the Dark Lord.

MCGONAGALL: And why the hell should I believe that?

SNAPE: Dumbledore did.

MCGONAGALL: But why? If you’re telling me you’ve secretly been on my side, Severus, you’ve got to give me proof!

SNAPE: I. . . would rather not say exactly why.

MCGONAGALL: No! The line must be drawn here, Snape! Proof!

SNAPE: I can’t!

MCGONAGALL: Proof or I shall not budge!

SNAPE: I — I was in love with Lily Evans.

Pause.

MCGONAGALL: Is that it?

SNAPE: . . . yes.

MCGONAGALL: Well, that’s not exactly a secret, now is it? I doubt there was a teacher or student at Hogwarts in the seventies who couldn’t tell that.

SNAPE: . . . really?

MCGONAGALL: You were not a subtle teenager. Are you telling me this is the great secret that made Albus trust you?

SNAPE: The Dark Lord lost my loyalty when he killed her. Everything since has been in the hope of keeping her son safe.

MCGONAGALL: Merlin’s beard, Severus, we’ve all got baggage! Did Albus never tell you to get the fuck over yourself?

SNAPE: No. In fact, he seemed to think it was my only redeeming quality.

MCGONAGALL: Yes, well. He would.

SNAPE: Have I earned your trust?

MCGONAGALL: No. There is still every possibility you’re lying out your teeth. And as it stands, I would still very much like to kill you.

But killing you would of course provoke retaliation, as would kicking you out, and you are not wrong about Hogwarts’ defenses. There will be a hostile Death Eater takeover of this school sooner or later, and I should like for it to be on my terms when it happens.

And on the off chance Dumbledore did leave you a mission. . . I don’t suppose I have much choice.

SNAPE: I assume you have conditions.

MCGONAGALL: A modicum of responsibility for the safety and well-being of my students is all I ask, Severus. That, and an acceptance of the very close eye I shall be keeping on you from this point forward.

SNAPE: You have my word.

MCGONAGALL: For all that’s worth.

SNAPE: I cannot promise there will be no Death Eaters on staff.

MCGONAGALL: We’ve had scum on staff before. I presume I will teach Transfiguration again.

SNAPE: Indeed. I have the paperwork here.

They sit at the desk. SNAPE takes parchment from his cloak: MCGONAGALL takes out her quill and examines the parchment.

She holds the quill just above where she’s meant to sign.

MCGONAGALL: Headmistress for one summer. The irony is potent.

Oooohhhhh, I do not like this. I am not a happy woman.

I do very much hope you were telling me the truth today, Severus. It would be a great comfort that all the pointless cruelty in your name at least had a point.

But I don’t suppose I’ll ever really know, will I.

SNAPE: I suppose not.

MCGONAGALL: Very well then.

She signs the paper. Sudden darkness.

End of play.

(Artist for picture of Headmistress’s office: https://forums.unrealengine.com/community/work-in-progress/113089-dumbledore-s-office)

On Avenue Q and Growing Up

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This essay was posted earlier this year on Metropolis’s blog.

My high school was a bit of an aberration in terms of social structure, at least compared to the fictional high schools I saw on TV. In your stereotypical American high school, there is a strict triangle of social hierarchy in place, with the athletics and cheerleaders at the narrow top, and then working its way down through the normal kids, the speech team, winding down through the anime club, finally landing on the wide base of sad, lonely nerds.

I don’t want to say that my high school was completely free of this triangle – we were, after all, a generation raised on John Hughes knockoff movies – but largely, the sheer size of Thornton Academy rendered such a strict caste system unworkable. Instead, a bizarre sort of highly tribal anarchy took over. The jocks, the cheerleaders, the anime club, and the nerds still existed, but each separate tribe just sort of floated along in an uneasy lateral equality, and there was little power that one clique could hold over another. If any Yertle the Turtle figure ever tried to climb on top, they were subjected to what is perhaps a more realistic interpretation of the physical capabilities of turtles than Dr. Seuss’s, and the neat stack of reptiles collapsed into a wet, messy pile.

Of course, each individual clique had its own micro-hierarchies. The clique I found myself in around my sophomore year, the theater geeks (as if you had to guess), valued onstage talent and physical attractiveness above all else. But other factors were considered as well. And familiarity with the musical Avenue Q was one of them.

Ever since my brother and I had stumbled across “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” while listening to Sirius XM radio in my dad’s car a few years previously, I had been a fan of the Avenue Q soundtrack. And so you can imagine my joy when knowledge of these obscure, raunchy show tunes turned out to be precious social capital in my new surroundings – such an occurrence in the district where I went to middle school was highly unlikely. My new friends and I listened to Avenue Q, talked about Avenue Q, and imagined how we would cast ourselves if the school ever got the balls to do it as our spring musical. We ragged on the Avenue Q School Edition when it came out (rightly so, I’m afraid). We memorized the harmonies and sang them together as we swerved through the suburban sprawl of southern Maine in each other’s cars.

I’m not exactly sure why this musical resonated with us so much. There was the artistry of it, sure, and the previously unheard-of combination of bacchanalian humor, Broadway-style music, and Muppet-like voices. Teenagerdom is a strange, interstitial time when you have the brainpower of an adult but none of the emotional discipline to handle that power – and so this music, that juxtaposed the earnestly childlike with the hilariously adult, probably struck something quite deep. But still – none of us were dealing with the central emotional question in the show, the question of how to exist in a meaningless, post-college world. You can’t wish you could go back to college if you haven’t been to college yet. We just thought it was funny.

In the past couple of years, I hadn’t thought about Avenue Q much until I heard from a friend that Metropolis was planning on doing it in the spring of 2018. I auditioned, and got cast as Nicky. We started rehearsals roughly a year after I graduated from college myself, and I was fascinated by the ways it had changed in my mental absence from it.

Some of the comedy, for instance, has not aged well. The way we talk about racism in this country, for instance, has changed so completely post-Obama and post-Ferguson that the jokes in the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” mostly seem awkward now. They’re still quite hilarious, don’t get me wrong, but the song seems to perceive racism primarily as individual people being mean to each other – instead of a systemic issue that is ingrained into every aspect of society. Nowadays, accepting that “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” is just the first step of a much longer and more difficult process, rather than an end unto itself.

The show’s final number, “For Now,” faces a similar problem. There’s a spot in that song where we shout “TRUMP. . . is only for noooooww!” as we sing about the many things in life, good and bad, that are temporary. The original Broadway cast shouted “Bush!” of course, and various casts in between have shouted various political references. Our audience in the mostly white, mostly affluent Arlington Heights always went crazy for that joke, and I won’t pretend it didn’t depress me a little. The truth is, we are living in the aftermath of George Bush as we speak – and the damage wrought by the Hairy Tangerine’s presidency could take decades to unwind. Politics, sadly, is rarely “For Now.” Things do have lasting consequences. Satire is important, of course, but so is perspective.

Other aspects of the show, however, have only grown in meaning since my high school days. I am now essentially Avenue Q’s target demographic – a broke, twenty-something college grad fumbling for meaning as I try to find my purpose in life. Since my teenage years, I have gained experiences like pining for a same-sex roommate whom I knew could never reciprocate (like Rod), engaging in a swift, ill-advised relationship in order to stave off loneliness that ended up making it worse (like Princeton and Lucy), and having various dreams crushed over and over again as Kate does.

And the realization the characters get in the final number is something that I’ve been trying to internalize since. . . well, honestly, ever since I started going to therapy last year:

Nothing in your life is too terrible to recover from. But also, your life will never be as meaningful or happy as you want it to be. And that’s. . . okay?

Life, I’ve observed, is better when you accept that it’s mostly gonna be a whole lot of medium. And what Avenue Q does so well is making that medium feel miraculous by bringing it into razor-sharp focus. No character really gets what they want. Not everyone is happy or fulfilled by the end. But they have each other, and they have the music, and they have themselves.

There is palpable joy to be found in the tiniest, simplest things. And those are what let you soldier on.

Review of “Rightlynd” at Victory Gardens Theater

This is another piece I wrote for Rescripted.org as part of their young critics’ program — you can see it on their website here.

Rightlynd takes place in Chicago’s fictional 51st Ward, from which the play gets its name. The L doesn’t run in Rightlynd anymore, crime is on the rise, and crumbling apartment complexes and abandoned storefronts abound. People here feel crushed by the system: they are angry. But in playwright Ike Holter’s world, anger is a positive driving force in our current dystopia. Out of this bubbling sea of anger rises Nina Esposito (Monica Orozco), the one woman determined to change things around here. This play is the story of her struggle — not only to get herself elected Alderman, but to wield that power responsibly once she gets it.

Orozco is nothing less than a tour de force as our protagonist. Her Nina Esposito is forceful, ambitious, and badass — but she is also grounded, human, and terrified. Much of this comes from Holter’s dialogue (“I’m inspiring as fuck!” Nina shouts at one point), but Orozco’s accomplishment in keeping Esposito relatable cannot be understated. One monologue, where she spends a minute looking in the mirror after getting elected, deciding how she should address her constituents, is particularly powerful. It made me think of the anxiety I might have in her position, and makes us feel the weight on her shoulders.

Backing up Orozco is an ensemble that alternates between narrating Nina’s story and embodying a wide array of characters. The enthusiasm and passion for this play, from every actor onstage, is palpable. Holter’s language crackles with intent; each character is brazen and motivated and doesn’t have time for your shit. You can see how the writing and the actors fuel each other, and they are woven together with manic yet pinpoint direction from Lisa Portes. It’s exhilarating to watch, and funny enough that the drama never gets depressing.

We all know that power corrupts, but Rightlynd is more interested in the mechanics of that corruption. As Nina claws and scrabbles to the top, she often uses shady methods. But we root for her at the beginning because she’s the underdog, because the change she’s fighting for is sorely needed, because the struggle and suffering of the 51st Ward is so real, so clear, so present, that we want to see her succeed. And while the play is careful never to deny the undoubtedly evil power structures — racism, poverty, wealth, corruption — that Nina is fighting, it also makes clear that not all problems in government stem from evil. Sometimes, it’s just plain old human folly. Nina is flawed. That makes her likable, but it doesn’t make everything she does forgivable.

In order to fight poverty and racism, it’s not enough to reject the system; you have to change it from the inside. But in order for Nina to get inside that system, she has to adapt to it. And by adapting to it, she becomes part of it. This is not a fun transition to watch, because of course the system that enables poverty and racism is not broken. It is working exactly the way it’s supposed to.

Rightlynd makes you experience the grueling consequences of gentrification firsthand — and as a middle-class white kid who is a part of that gentrification, this was a difficult but necessary watch for me. No other show I’ve seen in Chicago has made me so keenly aware of my own whiteness while watching it, and this is part of what makes it genius. Like its protagonist, Rightlynd is not afraid to offend its audience with loud opinions. It is an unabashed tale of the South Side told to a Lincoln Park audience, and it is intensely aware of this, and therein lies its devastating effectiveness.