This is the opening section of my play An American Book of the Dead - The Game Show:
(House lights fade to half. The stage starts to pulse with bizarre, almost sickening colors. Follow spots chase randomly, while strobes flicker and sirens wail. An oddly insouciant voice exudes over the p.a.)
ANNOUNCER (offstage): Listen. Relax. Concentrate.
Begin to become one with the Realization that you have very little control over what is about to happen to you. Think about that for a moment. Face it.
Listen. You’re special. You have chosen or been chosen--how ever you choose to look at it-- to be the audience for tonight’s round of...
(A spot picks up the Host, Blink Bodie, with two gorgeous, besequined Spokesmodels decorating each arm.)
HOST: An American Book of the Dead!
SPOKESMODEL 1 (holding up a paper paddle with an asterisk printed on it): Asterisk.
HOST: The Game Show!
SPOKESMODEL 2 (holding up her paddle with an obelisk): Obelisk.
SPOKESMODEL 1: Not an actual Book of the Dead.
SPOKESMODEL 2: Not an actual game show.
ANNOUNCER: Whether you believe it or not, your entire life--
HOST: From the second you popped up in Mamma’s oven, to this very instant... right.... NOW!
ANNOUNCER: Everything’s been a prologue to the experiences you'll have tonight.
HOST: Yup, something’s about to happen that’s gonna change your so-called life forever.
HOST: It’s nothing bad.
ANNOUNCER: It’s actually very small in the grand scheme of things.
HOST: You’re gonna die.
SPOKESMODEL 1: Asterisk.
ANNOUNCER: Stay calm.
SPOKESMODEL 2: Actual death not guaranteed.
ANNOUNCER: Don’t be distracted. Walt Whitman says: “To die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”
HOST: And today is your lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky day.
(A jet engine screams closer and closer until it finally explodes in a cacophony of sound and color.
ANNOUNCER: There. Now you’re dead. That wasn’t so bad, was it?
Now relax. Concentrate. In a moment, you will see a bright, white light. This is the ultimate, clear light of perfect understanding: pure, empty, and utterly real; the World Soul, your true self. If you can grasp it, become one with it, understand it as your true nature, and face it, you will be enlightened--
(Quick spot up on Spokesmodel 1.)
SPOKESMODEL 1: Asterisk.
ANNOUNCER: And perfect happiness will surely be yours forever.
(Quick spot up on Spokesmodel 2.)
SPOKESMODEL 2: Individual experiences of enlightenment can and do vary.
ANNOUNCER: Relax.... Allow no distractions.... Focus on the fact that this is your chance to achieve true clarity and peace before all the games begin again....
Okay... get ready. Concentrate.... Remember to focus on the white light, become one with it.
(A very bright flash bulb goes off. Then instantly fades back to darkness.
Spot up on Blink and the Spokesmodels.)
HOST: Did ya grasp it?
SPOKESMODEL 2: Any audience members achieving oneness with the clear white light of reality may not wish to sit through the rest of tonight’s offerings. Any enlightened beings who choose to leave will receive a full refund for their ticket.
SPOKESMODEL 1: Asterisk.
Refunds, full or partial, are not available at this time.
HOST: Anyone at all?... Eh well...
Take it away, Don!
ANNOUNCER: Blink, tonight three very, very lucky members of our audience will be selected to play the game.
(Suddenly, shafts of light stab randomly from the stage into the darkness of the audience.)
Relax. It’s true: you may be one of the three chosen; but odds are you’ll just end up watching. So relax. You’re good at that. You’ll do fine.
HOST: Woo-ha! I’m pumped!
Who do you have for us, Don?
ANNOUNCER: Well, Blink. Before his untimely demise, our first contestant was a software tester from Palo Alto, California.
Barry Schroeder, come up and play An American Book of the Dead!
(One of the beams fixes on a bearded, somewhat dumpy fellow in his forties. Barry is then led by a pair of firemen up onto the stage.)
HOST: Christ! This is exciting! Who’s next?
ANNOUNCER: She was a doctoral candidate in political science at Columbia University. Now she’s getting her Ph.D. as in "dead"! How ‘bout a big hand for Tonya Rey: come up and play An American Book of the Dead!
(The light finds a feisty looking young woman, who is escorted to the stage by two police officers.)
HOST: Holy crap! I’m gonna lose it! Do we have one more?!
ANNOUNCER: That’s right, Blink.
HOST: I’m losing it! I’m completely losing it!!!
ANNOUNCER: Blink, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, she worked as a secretary for a corporate real estate broker, with whom she had just broken off an utterly unfulfilling adulterous affair. In this wacky afterlife, who knows what will become of... Kim Pettit! Come on up and play An American Book of the Dead!
(The last shaft of light lands on an attractive but somewhat diffident young woman, who stands and allows two E.M.T.’s to guide her onstage.)
ANNOUNCER: And now... Ladies and Gentleman... it is my unspeakable pleasure... to give you... your host... Blink Bodie!
(A follow spot lands on Blink.)
HOST: Thanks, Folks. Thank you! You’re the most. Thank you.... Quit it!... Thank you! You’re too much. Thanks.
Folks, I gotta tell ya: what a threesome have we got for you tonight! Check out these contestants. Are ya kidding me? I’m looking at tripartite delight. I smack damn guarantee ya we’re in for a rockin’ roller-coaster ride of the extra ordinary. I just can’t wait. Can you?
EVERYONE: NO WAY, BLINK!
HOST: Well, then let’s jump to it! What do you say!?!
EVERYONE: SOUNDS GREAT, BLINK!
HOST: Barry Schroeder.
(Barry just stands grinning, shaking his head.)
Barry extra-ordinary Schroeder.
BARRY: Hi, Blink.
HOST: So tell me, Barry. Did you have any idea what you were in for when you came to the show tonight?
BARRY: Gosh, Blink, I uh... no. No, sir.
HOST: Did you think you’d die?
BARRY: Eventually. But not tonight.
BARRY: Shoo!... Wow!
HOST: Kinda takes your breath away, hunh?
BARRY: I’ll say.
HOST: Great. Now, Barry it says here, you’ve got two kids, a girl, nine, and a little boy, five years old.
BARRY: That’s right, Blink.
HOST: That’s great. I mean, they’re orphans now, but still... you gotta be proud.
BARRY: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
HOST: So Barry... what do you know about the rules of the game?
BARRY: Um... not much, Blink.
HOST: Well then, whaddya say we run through ‘em for you, your opponents, and all those other fresh corpses you left out there in the audience?
BARRY: Sounds great to me, Blink.
HOST: Barry... Tonya... Kim,... each of you is about to begin a series of lifetimes. During these lifetimes you’ll be trying to achieve something, some objective of your own choosing. Here at An American Book of the Dead--
SPOKESMODEL 1: Asterisk.
SPOKESMODEL 2: Obelisk.
HOST: -- We like to call it your soul goal. The first person to reach their soul goal wins the game, and the grand prize.
Don, tell us a little something ‘bout that grand prize.
ANNOUNCER: Well, Blink, the winner of tonight’s game will receive complete, perfect, and instantaneous enlightenment!
That’s right, folks. Picture yourself slipping into a state of imperturbable bliss as you come to the perfectly crystalline understanding of the entire truth of all existence. You’ll be the envy of all your friends with your utterly unwavering knowledge that emptiness is form and form emptiness; that there is no such thing as birth, growing old and dying, and no end to birth, growing old and dying, no suffering and no end to suffering. Indeed, no enlightenment to be attained and no end to attainment.
HOST: Sounds great, Don. And what’s second prize?
ANNOUNCER: An all-expenses-paid trip to Cabo!
HOST: Great. So really either way you’re golden.
But first you gotta pick a soul goal. It can be anything. It can be--
SPOKESMODEL 1: To have a million dollars.
HOST: Or to have a ménage a trois.
SPOKESMODEL 1: Or to be a supermodel.
HOST: Or to be in a ménage a trois with a supermodel.
SPOKESMODEL 2: Or to write a play.
HOST: Or to write a play that people actually come see.
SPOKESMODEL 1: Or to be a Supreme Court Justice.
SPOKESMODEL 2: Or to be Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.
HOST: Or to be in a ménage a trois with Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.
SPOKESMODEL 1: To break the chains of slavery.
SPOKESMODEL 2: To live a life fulfilled.
HOST: To live a life for Phil Donahue.
SPOKESMODEL 2 (reading from a slim, well-thumbed volume): To live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to put to rout all that is not life, and reduce it to its lowest terms and if it proves to be mean, why then to get to the whole and genuine meanness of it; or if it proves sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in your next excursion.
HOST: Thank you.
SPOKESMODEL 2: Sorry.
HOST: No, really, thanks, Puddin’. Totally inspiring. Though, next time let’s do more of our own work, and not crib so completely off ol’ Hank Thoreau,‘kay?
‘Kay... Where were we?
SPOKESMODEL 2: Soul goals.
ANNOUNCER: Yeah, Blink.
HOST: Anything else?
ANNOUNCER: Well, Blink, just that time and space are open to the contestants in pursuit of their soul-goals, so long as they stay with in the limits of the history of the United States.
HOST: Right. After all this is an American Book of the Dead.
SPOKESMODEL 1 (raising her paddle): Star.
SPOKESMODEL 2 (raising hers): Dagger.
HOST: My only word of warning is that your soul-goal better be something you really, truly want, or I can pretty much flat out guarantee you won’t get it.
Now Barry, you’re first.
BARRY: Oh. Okay.
HOST: Give me a soul goal.
HOST: What is it you want?
HOST: Something you’ll die happy having achieved... though I can pretty much guaran-damn-tee ya you’re gonna die more times than you’d care to count before you get it, if you get it.
BARRY: Well, Blink, I’m uh... I’m drawing a blank.
HOST: What do you love?
BARRY: Well, of course I love my kids...
HOST: Goes without saying.
BARRY: I love... uh.... I love... uhhh....
HOST: Got any hobbies?
BARRY: Well, yeah, I’m an avid reader. Uh... I’m interested in very large prime numbers. Uh... I’m a re-enactor with the Palo Alto chapter of the New York Fourth Battery.
HOST: Come again?
BARRY: I’m a Civil War re-enactor.
BARRY: I’m part of a group of men who dress and act exactly like a company of cannoneers who fought for the Union during the Civil War. And... you know what, Blink? I think I know what I want for my soul goal.
HOST: Hold up for a second. You dressed up like Civil War guys and what? Pretend to--
BARRY: Well, we re-enact battles sometimes. You know, fire the cannon... stuff like that, though it’s never actually loaded of course. Mostly we try to replicate as best we can the way these brave men lived, fought and died.
BARRY: Well... I guess.... if I had to put it in one word, it’d be “honor”.
BARRY: The idea of living, fighting and sometimes dying for other people’s freedom, other people’s future.
HOST: Unh-hunh.... How did you find time to do all this... reenacting? Didn’t you have a job?
BARRY: Mostly we got together on the weekends. About thirty weekends a year.
HOST: Thirty weekends!
HOST: And what did your wife think of all this?
BARRY: Well, uh... we’re separated.
HOST: Ah. Right. Okay.
BARRY: Two years now.
HOST: Sorry to hear that.
So. Barry. You’re sort of a Civil War nut.
BARRY: Uh... buff.
HOST: I’m surprised I didn’t get that on my card. I’ll have to talk to those bozos in research.
(He tosses the card over his shoulder.)
So tell me something: who’s your favorite, uh... you know, Civil War guy?
BARRY: Oh, well... I’d have to say Stonewall Jackson.
TONYA: Uh, correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t he fight on the wrong side?
HOST: Uh... Tonya, correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s not your turn, is it?
Barry, did this joker Jackson fight on the wrong side?
BARRY: Well, he did fight for the Confederacy, Blink, but he was a man of... of great honor in addition to being this like incredibly talented warrior. See, he believed he was doing the right thing. A lot of Southerners thought slavery should be abolished eventually, but they didn't think the North had the right to invade the South to make it happen. Stonewall even built a Sunday School for slaves.
TONYA: That was mighty white of him.
HOST: Tonya, not gonna tell you again. Zippedy zip. ‘Kay?
So, Barry, you said you had a soul goal in mind.
BARRY: That’s right, Blink.
HOST: Well, give it up, Care Bear.
BARRY: Well, you said we could go back in time, right?
HOST: Backwards, forwards: all depends on the karma, baby.
BARRY: Well, for my soul goal, I’d like to fight in the Battle of Gettysburg.
HOST: The Battle of Gettysburg.
BARRY: That’s right.
HOST: For all the marbles.
HOST: Well... good luck, Barry.
BARRY: Thanks, Blink.
HOST: Jasmine’s gonna help you into your isolation booth there, and you’ll be on your way.
(Spokesmodel 1 helps Barry into a blue colored booth, while Blink moves down the line to Tonya.)
HOST: Ah, now, Tonya Rey. My little over-eager beaver.
TONYA: Sorry, Blink. I just have a little trouble keeping silent in the face of hypocrisy.
HOST: Don’t sweat it.
TONYA: In fairness, I should tell you, as regards the game here, I have an unfair advantage, since I’ve already done extensive past lives work.
HOST: Is that a fact? Do tell, Ton-ton.
TONYA: Well, Blink, the fact is my last incarnation was George Jackson, author of Soledad Brother, which is the primer of Black Militancy and Prisoner Rights Advocacy in America. I knew even then I’d be back. I said in my book, “The monster they’ve engendered in me will return to torment its maker from the grave. Hurl me into the next existence, I’ll crawl back to charge them reparations in blood. War without terms. This is one nigger who is positively displeased”.
I’d already served ten years for a 70-dollar robbery, when the Man shot me in the back, claiming I was trying to escape. Then, seven and a half months later, I was reborn, Tonya Rey. Premature: overeager, as you say, to exact my revenge.
HOST: Wow!... That’s... amazing, and... strange! I have it on my card here that your last life was as Mrs. John Middlebury of Jefferson City, Missouri, devoted wife of a dry goods wholesaler. It says right here: three handsome daughters, and a wonderful high-yellow maid named Henrietta, whose diligent service allowed you time for pursuits outside the home like vice-chairing the local chapter of the D.A.R. and organizing a trip to the 1964 World’s Fair for the Jeff City Symphony Boosters.
HOST: But, who knows--
TONYA: That’s crap.
HOST: Well, you know, what can I say? Bozo’s in research. Probably just a screw-up.
(He tosses the card over his shoulder.)
Anyway, it’s all beside the point. All we need from you, Tonya, my Soledad Sister, is a soul goal.
TONYA: Well, that’s easy, Blink. My singular aspiration is to tear people’s eyes open to the truth and expose the hypocrisy at the heart of the American system, and once exposed, destroy it.
HOST: And that’s your soul goal?
HOST: Well, okay! Good luck.
TONYA: I won’t need luck, Blink. Just courage.
HOST: Fair enough. Good luck finding the courage. Josie here will show you to your booth.
(Spokesmodel 2 guides Tonya into a red booth.)
HOST: Missy Kim, from Sioux Falls.
KIM: Hi, Blink.
HOST: Hi, yourself, Kim. Do you prefer Kim or Kimberly?
KIM: Well, it’s funny. I do think Kimberly’s prettier. Um... I mean, I probably prefer it. But you know, everyone calls me Kim. So.... Kim’s easier I think. Don’t you? Um... but... Kim’s fine. I like Kim. I prefer Kim.
HOST: Kim... sweetie... soul goal.
KIM: Oh, I don’t know.
HOST: Oh, but you do.
KIM: Not really.
HOST: Kimberly, what is it you want? What keeps you up nights just from the longing for it? What is it that you’ll keep dying and coming back to find?
KIM: Um... love?
HOST: Is that an answer or a question, Kim?
HOST: I can’t hear you.
HOST: What kind of love?
KIM: True love.
HOST: What kind?
KIM: True love!
HOST: True love, it is then. Good luck.
Now, Kim, since you were the last of our three contestants to be chosen, you’ll be the first to play the Bardo Wheel.
KIM: The Bardo Wheel?
ANNOUNCER: That’s right, Kim.
(Curtains part to reveal the Bardo Wheel.
One Spokesmodel ceremoniously places a Powhatan headdress on Kim and blindfolds her, while the other displays an Indian tomahawk with great flourish.)
ANNOUNCER: Kim, you are holding in your hand a genuine tomahawk used by the Powhatan Indians.
BLINK: Now Kimmy, I want you to wing this whacker at the Wheel to select your special after-life experience. ‘Kay?
KIM: Uh... all right.
(Kim gets ready to throw, then turns to Blink.)
Um, stupid question?
HOST: There are no stupid questions, Kim. Shoot.
KIM: What's a bardo?
HOST: Hey, Don. Stupid question for ya: what's a bardo?
ANNOUNCER: Kim, a bardo is a layover between dying and living where all kinds of wacky things can happen. Things you should know about the bardo: nothing is real there; everyone and every-thing you see is merely a projection of your own disincarnate consciousness. The more clearly you see this, the more likely you’ll be to move toward your soul goal. What’s more, in the bardo, as in life, you always have the additional option of achieving enlightenment instantly.
On the other hand, if you lose perspective, see the bardo beings as real and start to become frightened by, or worse, attracted to them, well, then you risk slipping way off course.
HOST (to Kim): That clear things up?
KIM: Um... sort of?
HOST: Well? You wanna have a wack at it, Kimmy?
KIM: Do I have a choice?
HOST: Hey, who's holding the hatchet?
Ladies, spin that wheel!
(Blink points Kim toward the wheel while the two Spokesmodels set it spinning. Kim then flings the tomahawk, hitting a section of the wheel labeled "The Bardo of the Salted Wife".)
ANNOUNCER: Congratulations, Kim. You've selected the Bardo of the Salted Wife. Get ready. In a moment you'll be going in.
HOST: Why yes, Don!
ANNOUNCER: You know, if the audience wants to hitch a ride inside Kim's consciousness, they can visit the Bardo as well.
HOST: Hmmm. Sounds interesting.
Well, whaddya say, folks? Sound like fun?
EVERYONE: SOUNDS LIKE FUN, BLINK!
HOST: Well, all right! Let's go!
(Everything fades to black except for the yellow light of Kim’s booth, and a panel of the Bardo Wheel that glows with the words "Bardo of the Salted Wife". . . .