We Are a Masterpiece
by Gina Femia

We Are a Masterpiece takes place at the dawn of the AIDS crisis, when the disease was still a mystery. In Kalamazoo, Michigan, Joan, a no-nonsense nurse, becomes a sort of fairy godmother to the town’s gay community when no one else will step up to care for them as they die one by one. She becomes their friend, their mother, their sister, as they navigate life and death with this new plague. What follows is an excerpt.

Act I, Scene XV
December, 1982

[JOAN’s car. RYAN is sitting in the passenger seat, staring out.
He wears a winter coat, seems a little cold, maybe.
He sits like that for a moment in silence, like a zombie staring out.
JOAN enters. She’s holding a box.
Opens the car door on the driver’s side, gets in.
Gives RYAN the box.
RYAN holds the box.
Hugs it to him.
There’s a moment of silence]

JOAN
I got you a candy bar.

[She takes it out of her purse]

JOAN
Almond Joy.

RYAN
[Doesn’t say anything]

JOAN
Not my favorite.
I actually, I don’t like nuts in candy, I prefer caramel, just straight caramel and chocolate, no nuts getting in the way.
But they didn’t really have much—their vending machine was half empty, that whole place was half empty, full of people with half a brain and—
Honestly, how hard can it be to keep a vending machine stocked—

RYAN
He didn’t want to be burned.

[beat]

JOAN
I’m sorry, it’s just.
What we need to do—

RYAN
But it’s not what he wanted.

JOAN
It’s too dangerous—

RYAN
Says who, says you?

JOAN
Says the CDC.

RYAN
Great, so they can say that, and?
What else can they tell you, what else do they know,
they’re so sure of that so
what else do they know?

JOAN
We still don’t know enough about it—

RYAN
So they know a lot of nothing, so they don’t know if letting him be buried would have been okay.

JOAN
That’s exactly why, because we don’t know.

RYAN
So why are you here, why are you even here if you’re just going to sit there and defend it.

JOAN
I’m not defending it, I’m just telling you.

RYAN
You are defending it!

JOAN
Look, it’s dangerous, okay?
We don’t know what causes it or who gets it and until we do—

RYAN
They took him out of my arms and wheeled him away.

JOAN
It’s just protocol.

RYAN
And he just was the greatest person in the world and he wanted to be buried, he didn’t want to be turned to ash, he wanted to be buried surrounded by grass and flowers, this, this isn’t what he wanted but they took him away from me, Joan and they wouldn’t let me—

JOAN
I know.

RYAN
I just wanted to say goodbye.

[JOAN hugs him.
It’s an awkward, sloppy sideways hug since it’s in a car and life’s not perfect and all.
After a moment]

RYAN
Why aren’t you scared?

JOAN
I’m too stupid to be scared.

RYAN
Good, we need more stupid people.

[They pass a smile back and forth.
JOAN puts the car into gear.
Stops, puts it back in park]

JOAN
You can bury him.
If you’d like.

RYAN
Where?

JOAN
I have land.

RYAN
You have land like, what, you’re a pioneer?

JOAN
My house, it’s on a couple of acres.
I’ve actually got more land than I do house so.
I don’t know, always thought I’d add an extension or something, to the house? but we don’t need it, me and Lisa, it’s a good enough size for us. That was always what Jack wanted, always talking about we need an extension, we need more house, I never understood why. I grew up in that house, it houses all my memories, I never wanted to change it. Glad I didn’t. He wanted to take the house from me, you know, thought he was owed it since we were married and all, but I kept it because the land is full of my blood and tears and because my mother left it to me and that shit’s more binding than blood.
You can bury him, bury his ashes.
You can come by, pick a spot.
Get a tombstone.
Plant some flowers.
Whatever you’d like.

[beat]

JOAN
Only if you want.

[She puts the car into drive]

RYAN
Can I dig his grave?

[JOAN nods]
JOAN
Okay.

[End scene]

Scene XVI
December, 1982

[Outside of JOAN’s home, her property.
A freshly dug grave.
RYAN stands besides her.
JOHN stands besides him.
After a moment.]

JOAN
Always meant to landscape.

JOHN
You don’t need it.
It’s really nice.

JOAN
There are flowers that bloom, right over there?
They’re dormant now, but they bloom in Spring so he’ll be surrounded.
And you can come by whenever.
Always. Whenever.
And.
I.
Brought out the boombox in case you wanted to play something or.
I can sing!
Or.
[beat]

JOAN
I can go if—

RYAN
No.
Don’t go.
Stay.

JOAN
Okay.

[She stands next to them.
RYAN breathes deep.
Puts the box into the ground.
After a moment—]

RYAN
I guess we.
Cover him now?

JOHN
Are you sure you don’t want to say something?

RYAN
I know.
I should.
But I.
I don’t know what to say because.
He was too young for this.
And
I don’t know what else to say.

[Silence.
JOAN is at a loss for what to say.
JOHN grabs RYAN’s hand]

JOHN
I’ll say something.
But I can’t promise it won’t suck.
So.
Okay.
Okay, so.
Greg was.
He was great.
I met him through you, Ryan, and I was prepared to not like him. I was. Because I liked you so much, I thought nobody could possibly live up to my expectations for you. And, to be fair, you had gone through a revolving door of guys and I could never picture that door stopping its spinning, but I could as soon as I met Greg.
The two of you fit so perfectly together.
Even if he was never going to finish that deck.
He just had the kindest eyes.
And the gentlest soul.
And he was for you, Ryan.
He was for you.
I think the saddest thing about him getting sick was that he couldn’t dance anymore.
Because Greg was a dancer.

[GREG appears in a spotlight, healthy and alive.
He strikes a pose.]

RYAN
He.

[He can’t go on.

GREG begins to do a dance, a solo dance. It’s upbeat and fun.

RYAN picks up a handful of dirt.
While he does, he notices GREG.
Throws it onto the grave.

While JOHN and JOAN throw their handfuls of dirt onto the grave,
RYAN begins to dance with GREG.

Lights go out on JOHN and JOAN
and RYAN and GREG dance in their own little world.
They’re scored by some music when he joins him.
They dance together.
They dance and dance together until
The lights go out and
Blackout.]
End Act I


Gina Femia has written thirty full-length plays which include ALLOND(R)A (Winner: Leah Ryan Prize), We Are a Masterpiece (Winner: The Doric Wilson Award), The Mermaids’ Parade (Semifinalist, The Relentless Award, Finalist, Princess Grace Award), REBELS TIL DEATH (Playwrights Horizons reading series), Annie and the Fat Man (Honorable Mention, The Kilroys), For The Love Of (Theatre of NOTE, Original Works Publishing), and The Violet Sisters (Great Plains Theatre Conference). She is the 2019 Writer-in-Residence with Spicy Witch Productions, and the 2018 recipient of both the Leah Ryan Prize for Emerging Female Writers and the Doric Wilson Award for Independent Playwrights. She is an Alum of EST Youngblood, Pipeline Theatre’s PlayLab and New Georges’ Audrey Residency (Accidental Burlesque). She has received commissions from Retro Productions and Ensemble Studio Theatre. MFA, Sarah Lawrence College (Lipkin Prize in Playwriting). The excerpt from We Are a Masterpiece received honorable mention in A&U’s 2018 Christopher Hewitt Awards.