This reflection comes to us from Kyle Holton.

A few months ago in a suburban movie theater, I wept uncontrollably. I was watching Incredibles 2 with my family. The tears came on me like gale force winds. My body silently shook while a storm surge of emotion flooded my senses. It was a category-4-Hurricane type of storm. It swept through me at 150 mph and passed on into the darkened air within minutes. I had to muffle my mouth; otherwise, I would have alarmed everyone sitting around me. To be honest, it was embarrassing. Triggered by a particular scene in the movie, I had trouble grasping the idea that I was falling apart over a cartoon.

No, it wasn’t just the cartoon. It was the synergy of a moment when the potency of a text, a poem, a scene reacts with the chaos and fragility of life. The words of a story, the imagery of a moment, syncs with our life setting and creates a vortex of wind that strips us down to our foundations. Biblical and literary scholars have a wonderfully hoity-toity German phrase, Sitz im Leben. The phrase is a cornerstone for historical-criticism of the late 19th and 20th centuries that attempts to analyze ancient texts. Sitz im Leben is “setting in life.” As a scholar’s term, Sitz im Leben is part of the philosophy of modernity that argues the reader of a text cannot understand it until the historical setting of the text can be ascertained. In the high school classroom, Sitz im Leben translates into teachers providing biographies of authors before students read a novel. For many English teachers, the Sitz im Leben is usually reduced to a few simple talking points, compressing the historical context into vacuum-sealed bullet points ready for transposing into multiple choice or short answer questions.

Unfortunately, Sitz im Leben often carries the cultural hubris of modernity. Born in the modern ascent towards objective truth, Sitz im Leben as a scholastic tool was a form of textual harassment. Scholars assumed the fertile ground of meaning within the sacred text could be controlled through a kind of historical positivism. They ogled the text, dissecting its parts, and trapped meaning in ancient authorial intentionality. Such grand textual archaeologies objectified the word in search of the naked truth. Under the umbrella of biblical criticism, priests of Sitz im Leben stripped the text of its voice by building a patina of historical time around every syllable. The text was put in a straightjacket. This modern worldview turned scholars into aggressive creeps waiting in dark alleys for a text to wander by. The project was about control. Winning arguments. It’s always about control.

But what happens when we lose control? When the stories we read or watch strip us down into the raw core of our trembling selves?

A few weeks ago, I found myself in a different theater to see Yale Rep’s first production of the 2018-19 season and the world premiere of El Huracán by Charise Castro Smith. In collaboration with the Sol Project that works to highlight the work of Latinx playwrights, El Huracán is a story told about a Cuban immigrant family that is torn apart by the historic, natural, and cultural storms of the mid- to late-twentieth century. The story asks hard questions: Who are we in the midst of massive change? Where do we go when the winds of age sweep our memories away? How do families, especially poor immigrant families, survive the cataclysmic injustices not only of climate change but bad luck?

The play begins with a high-tech, visual, sing-song magic show. A grandmother remembers her past, and her memory ignites a truly spectacular show of her younger self performing magic. Doves appear and reappear. Flowers grow out of handkerchiefs. Immediately, we the audience are clapping and laughing. However, the moment only lasts a few minutes until the teetering mind of Ximena, a central character brilliantly played by Maria-Christina Oliveras, loses her focus and lapses into senility. And just as suddenly, the scene opens in Miami with Hurricane Andrew of 1992. From here the story unravels into a cyclone of fear, suffering, anger, and destruction. Despite Ximena’s family’s attempts to board up windows, the hurricane blasts into their personal and economic lives. Everything changes after Hurricane Andrew passes. Everyone, everything, is stripped. Ximena’s mind, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is blown away. The family’s possessions, artifacts of their collective memories, are blown away. Even the relationships that tie this family together are blown away.

The curtains never close on the stage. Instead, as the play progresses, the set is stripped. In one of the most powerful moments of the play, our characters walk out on stage and address the audience. Each one narrates the passage of over two decades in their lives. As they speak, they undress. They are stripped down to their body suits. Wigs are removed. Behind the actors lies the bare stage with exposed lights and catwalk. It’s as if the hurricane continues to wreak havoc. The set falls apart. The fictional individuals are deconstructed, revealing actors transfigured by their characters. Stagehands help the actors dress with the decades of time. Gray wigs and padded hips and arms are applied. And suddenly, the story begins to unwind into its final storm.

T. Charles Erickson, 2018

Throughout the play memories from the minds of the senile interrupt the present. Dead people populate the stage, talking, imploring, and playing with those who are losing their minds. These are the memories of the aged. The fabric of time compresses, and Ximena lives in the past and present. But as the play progresses, these memories show themselves to be autonomous. They react to the present. They ask for forgiveness and access to other family members. On the surface, the play seems to promote the tired idea that life beyond death exists only in the memories implanted in those we love. We live in the minds of those who remember us. Often termed limited eternal life, we exist for only as long as those we leave can recall us. From this standpoint, the play ends in existential angst. There is just too much fragility in human habitation and the human mind to hold eternal life. We are simply blown away.

But I don’t think this is an accurate account of the play. As I said, dead characters cajole and plead. They haunt the minds of the living not as mechanical memories but living persons. In the last scene of the play, the audience realizes that the memories of the senile are alive. And it is in this moment that the final stripping occurs. Reality itself is stripped to reveal the bones of it all. The sane are stripped of their status, while the stripped self, the confused self, the Alzheimer’s self, is revealed to see clearly. The dead still walk among us. There is a radical idea embedded in El Huracán. Our minds are peopled. Memories aren’t things, but presences.

Of course, the play is thematically multivalent. This is a story about the macro-injustices of climate change, of immigration, and of poverty. However, none of these issues will resonate with the audience unless we are stripped ourselves. I am sure the audience did not miss the irony. As we watched El Huracán, Hurricane Michael continued to plow through the Carolinas. Many of us will smirk to ourselves, knowing the irony of the moment. We will continue to live in our hubris. After all, we understood much of the Spanish spoken in this English play. We even laughed at ourselves. We named the irony and silently mocked the climate change deniers of our day. But some of us were stripped down to our trembling selves. The story spoke to our own national and personal Sitz im Leben. El Huracán is a story that pierces our own life setting. We are the characters. We have Alzheimer’s. We are losing control. And the hurricane is coming.