Operating Systems: New Scene for Stephen and Benita
WARNING: LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD Learn more about Operating Systems.
Because no one knows how to hurt us like we know how to hurt us. I don’t want us to hurt each other, Bel.
I don’t want that, either.
I don’t want us to compete against each other.
No, I won’t.
You understand how hard it’s going to be? How vigilant you’ll need to be?
Do you understand how you’ll need to forgive me when I fuck up sometimes?
Because they’ll see it, all right? Those kids will see us doing that to each other and then they’ll start doing it to themselves.
This exchange comes early in the play before an act of sexual misconduct makes their relationship even harder to hold together. Benita’s complicated response to Bel’s allegations leads Bel to take covert action herself. When word gets back to Benita, she attempts to deal with the issue without confronting Bel. Then Stephen, the founder of their company and perpetrator of misconduct, uses his power in the field to find incriminating evidence of Bel’s past. He triumphantly presents it to Benita, expecting she will be thrilled to weaponize it against her former student. Their conflict culminates with this exchange:
Never mind, I’ll do it myself, it’s too hard for you, I get that. You’re a teacher, that’s what you do, you can’t hurt your student, even when she’s trying to ruin you.
She is not trying to ruin me.
Of course she is. Of course she is. I know you don’t want to see it. But, Benny. Twenty years you’ve known me. How close have we worked together? If there was something to see you would’ve seen it. And you don’t miss a god damn thing. And I’m out the door! I could fly away from all this. Live in New Zealand and pretend I’m a fucking hobbit. You’re the one who gets hurt by this. She knows that. Do you really think she doesn’t know that? I’m doing this for you.
These two scenes seem inexorably tied to each other. One wouldn’t make sense without the other. And yet, the second scene was written only yesterday. This is one of the great joys of writing plays: how you don’t know a scene is missing until it arrives, and then it’s impossible to imagine the play without it.
Yet in this case, I did know the scene was missing, and I knew it because my collaborators told me. In writing for Lori Elizabeth Parquet (Benita) and Morgan McGuire (Bel), I wasn’t only writing for two actors whose work I love, but trusted collaborators who are super-powered writers themselves. As black women playing black women written by a white woman, they must have agency to say “this won’t work” and trust I’m going to address their concern. It’s one of the reasons I prefer to work in an ensemble, where the traditional hierarchies can be more easily disrupted. And it’s one way I try to balance the freedom of my creative expression with my responsibilities to anti-racism and anti-oppression. For me in a creative process, trust is truly everything.
So when they noted that Benita sided too strongly with Stephen (John Lenartz) near the end, betraying a black woman for a white man accused of harassing her, I knew they were right. I needed to clearly dramatize the ways Benita feels compromised by her longstanding friendship and working relationship with Stephen. Will this new scene address their concerns? Only time, my collaborators, and you, dear audience, will tell.