Of all the weird, turbulent periods for us to inherit from history, the period of the 1960s–1980s have to be near the top of this list. Nixon, missile crises, assassinations, the Grateful Dead and mind control experiments seem to be the defining features of these decades. It was also a time when the United States was labeled in certain ways that carry on to the present, leaking into how America is currently defined, for better or worse.
That is to say, we’re still dealing with the fallout of what happened then, and the problems of today—as always—have some of their roots in yesteryears. This is not groundbreaking; this is a fact that we all know. The climate here at Vassar is one that seems to respond to this fact with silence—and why would we respond with anything but silence? We all just live here, and not all of us are history majors.
“Orange Julius,” directed by Emlyn Doolittle ’20 and running from April 19 to April 21, looks to address this silence that accompanies U.S. history. Originally written by Basil Kreimendahl, the play will have its first ever collegiate premier with this performance at Vassar.
The play takes its name, in part, from one of the disasters that occurred in the ’70s: the use of the chemical weapon Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and the terrible effects it had on the country. Doolittle described the plot and structure of the play, saying, “Orange Julius is a play about Nut, a transmasculine person traveling between memories and imaginings. Forming an emotionally if not temporally or spatially linear plot structure, these scenes focus on Nut’s relationship with their father, Julius, a Vietnam war veteran and victim of Agent Orange.”
The protagonist’s father’s name is thus where the play gets the rest of its title from. With its complex intersections of identity, emotion and historical trauma haunting the present, this play isn’t a meditation on simply one theme. Rather, it tackles the complicated issues of life as life presents itself: all at once and from many different angles. While these are the markers of any good play, “Orange Julius” directly embodies this complex and kaleidoscopic way in which life moves.
The theme at the front and center of the play is the conflict between what has historically taken place and how it affects the present. Having these ethereal and entangled ideas of history and identity presented through a play is a direct engagement with Vassar’s community and setting. In his proposal for the play, Doolittle stated his vision for the final production: “I envision realizing this piece in a fairly surreal manner in order to encompass the breadth of settings and scene types, and to capture the introspective nature of Nut’s journey.”
Furthermore, “Orange Julius” brings questions of masculinity to the forefront, using Vietnam War films as a means for both Nut as well as the audience to explore emotional relationships as well as how masculinity is constructed. Laura Collins-Hughes mentioned in her New York Times review of Dustin Wills’ production of the play, “Nut’s fancies are shaped by those war movies and animated by Nut’s need to be seen more like a son” (“Review: An ‘Orange Julius’ Bond Is Complicated,” New York Times, 01.22.17).
The play aims to describe how masculinity has a chaotic and self-sustaining creation that stems directly from America’s wars. In much the same way that “Orange Julius” examines Nut’s relationship with his father, the play examines how American citizens inherit ideas of masculinity from war and the recreations of war.
Nicholas Franzén ’20, who plays the character of Old Boy (Nut’s image of masculinity personified), was quick to point out how masculinity is shaped through the trauma of war and how this trauma still affects the imaginations of those nowhere close to the war. He stated: “Old Boy is the essence of masculinity, and what draws me to him is his immense childishness.” “Orange Julius” strives to present how America’s ideas of masculinity are underdeveloped and traumatized by the country’s questionable political activities in the past.
Doolittle is hopeful that this play will bring a critical examination of masculinity to Vassar’s campus. He elaborated, “As a trans man, I am constantly caught up in trying to parse what positive masculinity means to me and how toxic and positive masculinity affect others personally and socially.” Further meditating on the campus climate regarding its negative impact, he continued, “On Vassar’s campus, particularly within the theater community, there are far too many examples of toxic masculinity and its consequences.” Doolittle hopes that the play will not only serve to add to the conversation about how we define masculinity on campus, but will also help to address specific communities within Vassar at large.