At least a third—if not half—of this play is silence. Pauses should be at least three full seconds long. Silences should last from five to ten seconds. Long pauses and long silences should, of course, be even longer.”
Meet Annie Baker—a playwright who has constructed a play around silences rather than dialogue. The Aliens, the award-winning show that had a limited run off-Broadway in 2010, is about two friends, Jasper and KJ, who are “professional slackers.” They spend their days in the employees-only outdoor patio of a café, The Green Sheep, talking about poetry, music, and Jasper’s recent failed relationship. A 17-year-old high school student, Evan, who is working at the Green Sheep, finds himself fascinated with the lifestyle of KJ and Jasper, and through the two men, finds the acceptance he lacks at his high school.
Like most of the shows that I write about, I could write a good ten blog posts on the different aspects of this beautifully constructed show. But for now, I want to briefly focus on the character of KJ, and specifically, how Baker uses silence to contrast his sometimes much-needed dialogue.
The beginning of the play centers on Jasper and KJ. From a plot standpoint, the first scene hardly accomplishes anything, other than introduce a few names that will come up later, and the idea that Jasper likes the smoke while KJ likes to drink “tea” (which, as we learn later, is “shroom tea”). The first scene begins and ends with Jasper and KJ just “basking in the sun.” This isn’t to say that KJ doesn’t talk—in fact, he does most of the talking in the first scene—however he’s talking about nothing. What’s important to note about the first scene, however, is that KJ gets just as much enjoyment out of saying nothing as he does speaking. He basks in the silence of Jasper, and in the silence of himself.
However, in Act II, it is up to KJ to communicate to the audience—as well as Evan—that Jasper has died of a drug overdose. And yet, for a good portion of Act II, KJ lies to everyone; he is unable to communicate properly what most needs to be said. He tells Evan that Jasper “has a cold.” He talks about his girlfriend from high school. He even tells Evan that he loves him (and then quickly retracts the statement), but cannot bring himself to say that Jasper has died. He does ultimately say it, but can only do so after a heart-wrenching monologue, where KJ describes a time when he was little where he only said the word “ladder” over and over again. It is here that KJ is able to feel all of the emotions of Jasper’s death, where the only thing he says is “ladder” (albeit with varying degrees of intensity). In the ladder monologue, KJ is loud, because he needs to be—and yet he is misguided in the things that he needs to say.
I think what makes KJ’s silence and noise so effective draws from this idea he brings up towards the beginning of the first act, where Jasper has reminded him that it’s the beginning of July, and not, as KJ thought, June. KJ muses:
“July second. That makes sense.
‘Cause the other night I heard like… preparations or whatever.
People were like setting off fireworks in their backyard.
Have you noticed that? That everybody always starts practicing like the week before the Fourth of July? Why do they need to practice?
Don’t they just light it?”
Even though he’s making a joke here, KJ too, needs to practice being loud. I think what’s most telling about KJ is that right before he tells Evan that Jasper is dead, he practices. The “ladder “monologue works both ways, as KJ reciting the word “ladder” is him reliving a childhood memory, as much as it is a way to channel his grief in the present. It is a way that Baker can demonstrate to the audience that KJ has always had to practice his noise. He has never been good at communicating what he needs to say. He fumbles around words. He takes pauses. He lives most of his life in a half-silence, which, as Baker demonstrates, is a really difficult thing to do. Through KJ, Baker reminds us that we all need practice at saying the things we should be saying.
I don’t want to make this blog a political space, but I do want to bring up the idea that in times like these, where it feels as if the world is hurting from Mizzou to Beirut, that there is as much silence as there is noise in the world. Look at what the media covers versus the stories that get left untold. Look at Facebook, at the places we honor with profile pictures and hashtags (I, by the way, am guilty of participating in the phenomena I have just described). Think about the places that need words, the dialogues that we can have. If anything, please allow KJ to reassure you that it’s okay to sit in silence. It’s okay to talk around the issue, for a while, at least. It’s okay to practice saying what truly needs to be said. Find ways to make your silence and noise effective. The world desperately needs to hear some sense this month.