Field Work: Table for Two

SONY DSCSheila Tousey is a writer, actress, director, and producer with numerous film, television, and film credits to her name including co-starring with Van Kilmer and Sam Shepard in Thunderheart and appearances in Signature Theater and Magic Theater’s Late Henry Moss by Sam Shepard. Her visit was sponsored by the Drama Department, American Studies and Native American Studies Programs and the Beatrice Snyder Foundation Drama Program Fund.  

On November 3rd, Sheila Tousey presented a work in progress to the Vassar community: Ghost Supper (Spalding Gray, you’re invited, too). “I want to share with you where I am in the process,” she told the audience as she introduced her piece.

Ghost Supper is the result of Tousey’s work at the Sundance Institute Theater Lab, with Leigh Silverman as director and Mame Hunt as dramaturg. Prior to the presentation on Monday, Tousey directed the workshop Acting for the Camera for VCDF students, lead a conversation on The Politics of American Representation and gave a talk at the ALANA Center.

It’s Monday night at the Streep Studio’s stage: a man dressed completely in black sits facing a stand with the script. His garb denotes an inconspicuous presence. He delivers stage directions to Tousey, who now sits center stage in a comfortingly familiar setting, a dining table. There isn’t a discernible connection between the elements on the table yet, but as the play progresses the relationships are made known. An empty pan, Kit Kat bars and a candle take part in the ominous landscape.

A space that is ritualistic in nature is occupied solely by one body: Sheila’s. Though she sits alone, she expects company–this is the premise of Ghost Supper. The speaker prepares dinner for someone whose name she is unable to utter–if she does, she risks summoning the spirit of her brother before the journey is completed. She now believes in the power of stories, but it wasn’t always like that.

Maybe it was growing up, or maybe it was death, but she had started to question magic. Her name, meaning the listener of elements, had once allowed her to listen to the trees. Sitting on the table now, age upon her, she says she doesn’t hear anything anymore. She became cynical and felt the loss of something important. She turned into a “terrible Indian” and declared herself an Atheist. She even ate Jesus–that is, a cake with his image, and was proud of getting away with it when it was a scandal to everyone else. She had played with the thought of her own death, but what really shocked her was when her brother went through with it. She had no option but to come back to what kept the thought of him alive: a ghost supper.

As a viewer with Latino background, the parallels between a ghost supper and a day of the dead celebration are undeniable. Each action and object are an instrument to evoke someone’s memory. They are meant to bridge the distance between the tangible and the ethereal worlds. The deliberate exercise of remembrance in these ceremonies becomes a medium to embrace loss. Thus the ghost supper’s table mirrors a Day of the Dead altar; the food offerings in both cases lure spirits in, and ultimately, the hope to summon loved ones is inherent.

What I found particularly telling was the way in which the speaker was selective in her practice of customs. She acknowledged her Native American background and only adhered to certain rules–she drank (against “Idiotic rule number 4002”), but believed her brother would come back from death. She outgrew the thought of flies being witches that fed on sadness, but she still carried around a patch of tobacco gifted by her grandmother–and just as the speaker practices or obviates certain traditions, she modifies others. For example, originally the food leftovers from a ghost supper would be buried by the end of the night–so she wraps hers up in a towel and deposits them in a trashcan across the street. These changes could be an exercise on practicality, and more obviously a reinterpretation that fits her own needs.

The speaker repeats this ritual year to year, working against the break of dawn only to realize she’s alone each time. Her brother’s suicide was a forfeit to life, and a betrayal to her. She had tried taking her own life at an earlier age and to her disappointment, survived. The siblings then made a pact never to kill themselves as a way of sticking up for each other, even in the distance and across time.

Ghost Supper dissects the hope that remains even when age casts a shadow on optimism. The speaker overlooks her better judgement and gives into the superstition she so despises. It’s her roots that keep her alive–the thought of reconnecting regardless of the process. Sheila Tousey, through Ghost Supper, reveals the power that relationships exercise in the psyche of each and every one of us. She speaks to love and loss with a compelling symbolism that encourages us to reconnect.

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