David Lawson was sent an elaborate cartoon of Pepe the Frog, a symbol of the alt right, and told “anti fascists like you are oven ready.” This was via Twitter shortly after Election Day, 2016. Not much later, his hometown Jewish Community Center in suburban Virginia was spray painted with Nazi slogans. Lawson looked at the Facebook page of the person who had been arrested for the vandalism: The 20-year-old had gone to the same high school as he had. On Election Night 2016, the man had posted: “The White Man saves Western Civilization once more.”
There is little doubt in “Nazis and Me” that Trump’s election gave organized haters a boost. But those acquainted with Lawson’s shows know to expect something different than just a Michael Moore-like screed connecting the current president to hate.
“Nazis and Me,” running at Under the St. Marks Theater, is the latest monologue by David Lawson, a performer in the tradition of Spalding Gray, who for about a decade has been presenting one-man shows full of often-amusing anecdotes about his life. In most of these shows, he organizes his stories around a specific theme.
As he elaborated when I asked him in an interview I did with him in 2016 when he was performing “Flyer Guy,” about his job passing out flyers in Times Square:
“‘VCR Love’ (which is published through Original Works Publishing) is about how porn has changed in the digital age [It’s also about his own teenage experiences with it], ‘Insomnia in Space’ is how I’ve gotten through being an insomniac by becoming obsessed with outer space; ‘No Oddjob’ is made up of personal stories about video games and how the culture around them represents those in marginalized demographics; ‘Floundering About’ is made up of stories of wild ‘orange alert’ type of things I experienced post-9/11…”
In the hour-long “Nazis and Me,” Lawson acknowledges that hate groups are nothing new; that same community center in his hometown received bomb threats some 15 years ago. In 1999, when Lawson was 13, a Nazi rally was scheduled in downtown D.C. (On the other hand, only four Nazis showed up for that, while in 2017, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia attracted hundreds of Nazis.) Lawson asks us to guess who the three most immigrant presidents of the United States have been — and then tells us Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, and Donald Trump; all “happen to be three of our most hateful.”
He tells us the story of his encounter with a member fo the “Incel community” –“involuntarily celibate” men who have formed into a toxic and violent force. He talks about his Trump-loving relatives in Indiana. He also admits to the ways in which he himself has been complicit. For example, he performed in summer stock in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in a show called “Jeff!” about Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederacy. “One night we had a group at the show from the Daughters of the American Confederacy. That’s right, I have performed for people who belong to an organization that has been classified as a hate group.” Lawson accepted a “gag gift” from the music director of a tiny Confederate flag, which he put up on his wall back home, until a woman friend told him “‘if you have that on your wall you will never get laid.’ ”
“It doesn’t matter how much Roxanne Gay you read,” Lawson says. “It doesn’t matter how small your bank account is. When you’re a straight white male, it’s so important to have people call you on your shit. And sure you’ll maybe have that straight white dude response of ‘Whoa whoa whoa come on I think you’re taking this a little too far here.’ But with all this talk of civility a huge part of being in civilized society is calling people on their shit.” It’s important, he says, to engage with haters, not ignore them.
The stories Lawson tells in “Nazis and Me” are always engaging. I personally would have preferred that he stay more focused on hate groups — his encounters with them, and, if that had not been enough to fill the hour, others’ encounters as well — since that’s the promise of the title, and also because I found it the most compelling part of the show. Several of his stories were full of details that seemed off point, or drifted substantially away from the theme — such as the story of his sister’s wedding to a trans man, which was about love, not hate…and could have been the subject of an entire monologue all its own. But I used to think Spalding Gray’s monologues meandered — and couldn’t wait until his next show. Ditto David Lawson’s.
“Nazis and Me” will be performed three more times — October 16, November 6, and November 13, 2018 — at Under St. Marks Theatre, 94 St. Marks Place. Tickets are $7 to $10.