“Cloud 9” was written nearly 40 years ago but I think its message is strikingly more relevant today than when it first premiered in the 1970s. I walked into Washington D.C.’s Studio Theater not expecting anything. I’m glad I didn’t read up beforehand because the production’s exploration of sexual identity politics is surprising considering that era.
Ahmad Coo is a producer and copy editor for the Global Business America show on CCTV America. His analysis represents his views alone.
Caryl Churchill’s script blurs all lines of gender and race identity. In the first part of the play — set in colonial Africa in the Victorian era — a white man plays the role of a black servant, a man is cast as one of the main female characters, a woman plays the role of an adolescent boy, and a black woman assumes the role of the matriarch of a very British and very white family. While this play may make those who are sensitive about cultural and racial differences a little uncomfortable at first, it’s clear Churchill is poking fun at the rigidity of the world’s sexual and racial identities.
Besides exploring race and sexual identity, the first segment of “Cloud 9” also examines love and desire, both of which, in Churchill’s view, are unpredictable and almost always unrequited.
Everybody loves somebody else, with one character pining for another who desires someone else, which I think is pretty much how the real world works.
But since this play is set at the turn of the century, the demise of traditional gender and racial roles in British colonial society dovetails with the beginning of the long and steady decline of the empire. The play mirrors the dying gasp of the U.K. as a colonial power.
The uncertainty translates into a lot of self-doubt in Clive, the male lead who’s slowly losing control both of the restive area he’s governing as well as his family. He’s also in love with another woman who sees him nothing more than a plaything. He’s so frustrated and threatened by the rapidly changing world around him that he lashes out at the women in his life.
He calls them “irrational, demanding, inconsistent, treacherous and lustful, and they smell differently from us.”
Really, these are the words of any man in any age who is clinging onto the past as fiercely as he can to avoid being relegated into the dustbin of history.
His professional and sordid personal life finally spins out of control at the closing scenes of the first act — and he eventually pays the ultimate price for resisting change in a world in transition.
The second act opens in the free-wheeling 1970s, a time of economic uncertainty for the U.K. and the dismantling of the British empire.
The play’s leads once again switch gender roles and sexual preferences, with Churchill highlighting the sexual liberation of that era. At first it seems it’s a complete break from the first segment but there’s a singular thread that connects both the first and second acts.
Even though the monarchy still exists, 20th century British society is a markedly different creature from Pax Britannica.
The 1970s was a decade of turmoil. Labor unions were constantly battling with the government and strikes pretty much paralyzed the country. The youth were also rebelling against what they perceived as a bleak future and traditional family structures. This is the era that gave birth to the Sex Pistols, punk rockers who openly spat in the face of the British monarchy.
The family at the center of the play emerges in the 1970s even more fractured and confused. Everyone’s wracked with uncertainty. No one is happy with their romantic partners and most are fumbling in the metaphorical dark to gain some sort of footing.
The characters spend most of the second act trying to suss out their lives but never really succeed. But while the circumstances they’re living in are less than ideal, the times they live in provide them with more space and time to grow into their political and social identities, regardless of how fluid they are.
It’s a whole universe removed from the rigid societal structures of Victorian England in the first act, an era that imposed traditional identities and social mores.
But it’s actually the family’s oldest matriarch who highlights the freedom that the era’s fluidity provides. Having been raised in Victorian times, Betty never had the opportunity to assert her identity unlike her descendants. So when the chance to unshackle herself from suffocating traditional roles came in the 1970s, she embraces it wholeheartedly.
At the end of the play, she addresses the audience directly — telling everyone how she’s discovered the wonders of masturbation and how her every orgasm brings her closer and closer to a truer sense of self and most importantly, helps end the oppressive and reactionary patriarchy of yesteryear.