And there’s ice cream: a meditation on life, death and Everybody

by Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg

I have a recurring nightmare that if my plane goes down over the Pacific, my husband Paul will have to go through all my stuff and realize that I was even untidier than he imagined (#dontlookunderthebed); that I had trouble ever throwing anything away; and that the replication of foodstuffs in our un-closable pantry (Did I forget to buy coconut milk? What if it’s gone off?) shows just the periphery of my life of anxious perturbation. Waking from such dreams, I try to remind myself that when the plane goes down I’ll be dead—it doesn’t matter. But it does matter. Because while we are living, breathing, sentient, reasoning (and deeply unreasonable) beings, we are the sum of how we’ve chosen to live—of what we’ve bought, what we’ve thought, what we’ve said, what we’ve allowed to be done to us, and what we’ve done to others. Each of us is known in very different ways in different contexts. And while each of us journeys through the world in a unique way, the most fundamental part of our experience unites rather than differentiates us: everybody is born—and everybody dies. And everybody knows that nobody knows what “not being alive” will feel like. 

Wow, heavy stuff. But can we just have fun today and think about death tomorrow? No, we can’t. In Everybody, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins plays, in a certain sense–well, God. He wants us to think about death today, at the California Shakespeare Theater, in 2018: in a wonderfully deep-delving, hilarious, poignant, 90-minute-long encounter with our utterly impossible, incorrigibly self-centered humanness. 

Lance Gardner, Jenny Nelson, Sarita Ocón, Jomar Tagatac, and Stacy Ross will draw their roles via lottery during each performance of Everybody.

Everybody’s preoccupations could be described in a number of ways: What am I without my stuff? Who are my friends, really? Is there anything in the term “blood relative” from which I can learn about my death? Might it be Parkinsons? Might it be cancer? Might it be heart disease? The only thing we know for sure is not that it “might be”—but that, in some form or other, at some time not yet to be named or known, death will be. It will be. It is the only inevitable, unbudgeable truth of our entire lives. 

Detail from frontispiece of Everyman first edition c1530.

Coming into Everybody at Cal Shakes, imagine the same moment 520 years go, when a group of semi-professional actors performed a short, rhyming “morality play” called Everyman in an inn, or even on the street. Most people who watched the performance would have lost at least one brother or sister or parent. Some would die very shortly thereafter—there were none of the drugs and procedures that are routine today, and without which, back then, lives were lost: antibiotics, vaccines, internal surgeries, even chemical painkillers (aspirin wasn’t manufactured till 1899). The character of Everyman played an unremarkable human being, a person sauntering along (or in a chair, on a horse, at the dinner table, in bed) who is suddenly called to their death. Quick! How does he account for his life in order to make a good death? How can he be sure that the checks and balances of his life will guarantee an entry into heaven? Everyone (in this place and time, listening to this incarnation of the story) was Catholic then—and Everyman was called a morality play because it reminded human beings that their deeds would be weighed and measured at death, possibly ameliorated by a cleansing detox in purgatory–that everything is accountable and nothing gets by the all-seeing eye of God.

“I want my lawyer, my tailor, my servants, my wife to believe in God, because it means that I shall be cheated less often… If God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent Him,” wryly noted Voltaire in a much more pagan era a few centuries later. Today, not all of us believe in God; but there’s no escaping death–except that there’s earthly gratification and insatiable appetite. There’s lush, verdant, death-defying, all-consuming life. And there’s ice cream.

I absolutely love Everybody. It is an encounter with the human self, the fact of being mortal. Re-shaped by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and in the hands of director Nataki Garrett—and with this cast of remarkable actors—Everybody is one of the most moving, painful, joyful, funny experiences I have had at our theater in 15 years. 

Come talk with me about Everybody. I’ll be in the grove—a lot!

Everybody begins performances July 18. Click here for more information and to buy tickets!

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