In his extraordinary open letter to his teenage son earlier this year, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the challenge of growing up in contemporary America (in his case as a black teenager, surrounded by everyday racism and brutality) as an assault on the body. He talks about the visceral, physical challenges demanded of the American teenage body, and of the social structures that enforce those demands. “You must always remember,” he writes, “that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”
Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land is miles away from the racism of Coates’ Baltimore, but something of its spirit, and anger, runs through her play. To be a high school kid, here, is to have a body, a machine – one primed for swimming championships or defined by its disability; one leered at in swimwear or flaunted at parties. The story of being a teenager is the story of what you do to your body: pump it full of Gatorade; shave every last hair (even the invisible ones) to reduce resistance under water; ask your friend to punch it in the stomach when you discover you’re pregnant.
High school swimmer Amy’s search for a DIY abortion – neither wanting nor being able to afford a medical route – is Dry Land’s main plot-line. She enlists the help of fellow swimmer and new-girl-in-town Ester for moral, and physical, support. Ester, too, has vulnerabilities; she battles an eating disorder, and her mind is set on achieving success in the college swimming trials. Neither woman talks in much detail about their circumstances – we don’t know the detail of Amy’s pregnancy, or very much about her home life; most of what we know about Ester’s is only revealed when she tries to run away. Instead, and again, Amy and Ester’s narrative is presented as bodily – physical and visceral – with responses to a given circumstances achieved through an action on the self. Pills, vodka, razors and calamine lotion are all temporary stand-ins for aspiration; the physical change they enable is a method of escapism or denial. “Sometimes I get so drunk,” says Amy, “I think I’m someone else.”
While third swim team member, Reba, and friend of Ester’s, Victor, provide context to their relationship, Dry Land is essentially a study of Amy and Ester’s friendship. Hannah Hauer-King’s smart production creates a tense, illicit sense of claustrophobia, and draws nuanced performances from Milly Thomas and Aisha Fabienne Ross as the two leads. While occasional moments are over-drawn – notably a long scene in which Ester skips town to stay with Victor – Hauer-King’s staging has a meticulous attention to detail, epitomised in a stunning silent scene in which a middle-aged janitor (Mark Keegan) cleans up the locker room after Amy’s abortion has taken place.
But the star is Spiegel’s script – praised in some parts for being a remarkable achievement for a 21 year old, it’s a remarkable achievement because she’s 21; her writing is stoked with the burning, brutal anger of American youth, vividly aware of the everyday social injustice that surrounds her yet left with no course but to play the game. While Dry Land’s closing moments offer a flicker of hope for Ester, the options aren’t (and have never been) as straightforward as they’re made out; Spiegel shares Coates’ sense that the narratives of the Dream are a pretty thin comfort blanket. “I want you to be free to make your choice,” Ester tells Amy. “I’m the one that’s fucked,” she replies.