On Tulpa, or Anne & Me
“be careful. this might bring out things you might not be ready for.”
Playwright Shawn C. Harris (aka RVCBard) asked me to write a response to her play Tulpa, or Anne & Me. Having seen the staged reading directed by Flux’s Heather Cohn and featuring Flux collaborators Raushanah Simmons, Lori Parquet, Antoinette Broderick and Katie Hartke; I was pleased to add my thoughts to the fascinating discussion of the play already happening here.
“it’s it’s too big. too deep. too much.”
The plot of Tulpa, or Anne & Me is as simple as it is unique. White actress Anne Hathaway crawls out of a television and into the life of [Name], a Black lesbian web comic book artist. Through a series of visitations, Anne and [Name] draw closer until Anne’s racism explodes at the end of act one; in the visitations of act two, they deal with consequences of that explosion, reaching through pain to the possibility of legitimate intimacy.
The simplicity of the play’s plot is made thematically complex by two fascinating elements: the series of role-playing games that define the action, and the concurrent instability of identity for both characters.
In Tibetan mysticism, a tulpa is a thoughtform, a manifestation of mental energy. According to anthropologist Walter Evans-Wentz:
“A master of yoga can dissolve a Tul-pa as readily as he can create it; and his own illusory human body, or Tul-ku, he can likewise dissolve, and thus outwit Death. Sometimes, by means of this magic, one human form can be amalgamated with another, as in the instance of the wife of Marpa, guru of Milarepa, who ended her life by incorporating herself in the body of Marpa.”
The illusory nature of identity, and the desire to dissolve oneself into the Other as a form of intimacy is essential to dealing with the slippery meanings of Tulpa, or Anne & Me. Is the role of Anne the real Anne Hathaway, or rather the manifestation of [Name]’s mental energy? Or is Anne real, and [Name] a manifestation of her desires? Because [Name] remains on stage, and Anne comes and goes through the TV, it’s easy to assume the former, but the play frequently slips out of any easy definition.
It does so most thrillingly through games, story-telling and role-playing. Both with her GABs (acronym for Guardian Angels of Blackness) and with Anne, [Name] acts out variations of her fears and desires. Those games escalate until Anne invites [Name] to follow her through the TV, where “there is no flesh to hide behind here. here there are no lies to clothe us…it all comes out here.”
They both want that perilous intimacy of dissolving (at least for a moment) into the other, but there is an important difference between their desires. [Name] wants to feel what it’s like to be wanted, believing “i’m a hard person to feel like that about.” Anne wants [Name] (boy, does she ever want [Name]!) but pivotally, that desire is as much about power as it is about mutual connection.
“i want…i want to devour you…it’s your brilliance your beauty your hopes your dreams your love your wonder all that good stuff inside i wanna eat it all up…because if i take the goodness in you the badness in me might go away”
They fall into role-playing Master and Slave, but when [Name] backs out of the game, Anne retaliates with a ‘Dr. Laura’ moment. The rest of the play concerns itself with what is possible after such a moment, and one of the daring possibilities the play considers is that such an ugly moment actually creates space for legitimate intimacy.
“i hate her so much I ain’t give her no name”
That painful quote comes from [Name] describing a Black doll her mother gave her as a child, and it extends to her own uncertain identity in a world where “there’s only so much humanity y’all can see in me.” And while the role-playing between them leads to heartache, it also shatters the silence where Anne doesn’t have to think about her own racism, and creates the possibility for genuine dialogue and even forgiveness.
Tulpa, or Anne & Me suggests that we often see tulpas – creations of own unconscious fears and desires - instead of the real flesh and blood human beings in front of us. To exorcise those spirits, we must be willing to really listen, take full ownership of our actions, and not turn away when we dig up the mandrakes of our souls. The play seems to believe it’s possible, ending on that sweetest note of hope, a kiss; not of devouring, but of tenderness.