In 2017 the Hebrew Home at Riverdale in the Bronx in New York City hired Rachel Kauder Nalebuff to investigate resilience among nursing home staffers. Why, it wondered, do some people have the fortitude to work alongside death and dying for decades, while most people burn out? Kauder Nalebuff is trained not as a social worker or an anthropologist but as a playwright; her report was to take the form of a play. In interviews, staffers of every rank and function described their work to her, its challenges, and its rewards. A housekeeper named Rosa ran errands for residents with her own money and on her own time. Keresha, a cashier in the cafeteria, insisted, “You cannot have a job like this and think it’s just a job.” Compassion and patience emerged as clear through lines, linking all care workers who were able to endure and find meaning in their profession. But so too did a deep and daily grief, which staffers had little time or support for metabolizing. Residents die every day, and there’s always more work to be done. “We’re losing money with an empty bed,” an anonymous employee noted bluntly. In the resulting play, A Knock at the Door, the staffers performed monologues drawn from these interviews, creating space for mourning out of the material of their lives.
Kauder Nalebuff’s new book, Stages: On Dying, Working, and Feeling, interweaves her nursing home interviews with a first-person account of her play’s development—or, rather, of the life she was living as the play developed. Lovers, friends, and grandparents become implicated in her research into our society’s failure to incorporate death and grief into the fabric of public life. Stages is not quite a memoir or a performance text or an ethnography; Elif Batuman says it’s “one of a very few recent books I have read that feels truly revolutionary, in both form and in content.”
I’ve known Kauder Nalebuff for 10 years. She has a great gift for shaking people loose from habitual relation, which originally drew her to the theater and has since begun to drive her from it. Through her work as director of 3 Hole Press, she has created a home for books that reimagine the relationship among performance, the printed word, and the professional worlds in which each circulates. In addition to being the author of Stages, she is the editor of My Little Red Book (Hachette, 2009) and, with Alexandra Brodsky, The Feminist Utopia Project (The Feminist Press, 2015).
We spoke by phone in early June, nearly three weeks into the uprisings that have rocked our nation in rage and grief over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and a growing list of police killings of other Black people. We had spent the previous two and a half months learning how to grieve in isolation amid mass death, socially distancing as an expression of care for one another. A more familiar kind of mourning, for the routine and violent devaluation of Black life, broke our solitude and brought us back into the streets. We discussed Stages, the politics of care work, and how each might be rethought in light of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter.
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That reaction has been surprising, and I’m trying to make sense of it. It shows me that facts can be really hard to swallow. Fifty percent of nursing homes were already understaffed before Covid-19. One-third of our national deaths have happened in nursing homes. Median wages for nursing home workers are so low. They’re, like, $13 an hour. Elder care needs to change. We know these facts, but we still need to feel them. Maybe it’s premature, but it does renew some of my faith in art and performance.
SH: The part of your book that I find most helpful for thinking through the politics of care work right now relates to the valorization of essential workers, which can be a way of deflecting from material support or labor rights. In your interviews, the nursing home staffers talk about how much they love their work but they’re also always out of time. They’re describing their genuine emotional investment but also expressing needs.
RKN: With Covid-19, the conversation did move pretty quickly from thanking essential workers to understanding that a real thank-you would mean adequate wages, hazard pay, and sick leave. The changes that are needed go beyond what a single nursing home can do. What’s required is millions more nurses on the ground, compensating the 43 million unpaid caregivers in this country, and changing the way Medicaid and Medicare are structured so that people can better receive support for home care, as opposed to incentivizing people to be cared for in nursing homes. Disability justice activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha has also pointed out that if the labor conditions were better, more people would want to work in the sector, and we could live in a world with “more than enough care to go around.” These changes are really big, and if you want to be optimistic about it, maybe the individual thank-yous can be a foundation for caring about larger systemic change.
SH: Could you feel that larger systemic horizon during your interviews? Was that something that nursing home staffers seemed to have an eye toward?
RKN: There’s so little transparency around how the system works. Things like Medicaid reimbursements are designed to be illegible, so even people on the ground don’t have knowledge of it. I really felt so much resignation from everyone that I spoke to. People knew what needed to change and also had no hope that it was going to happen. A lot of people who worked at this nursing home had been there for 30 years and have only seen their pay and their protections go down over the years, so what reason is there to hope?
The only person I spoke to that seemed to have a bigger-picture view was someone who worked in the finance department of the nursing home and really saw that these more local decisions are predicated on state funding and the larger funding structures of elder care. At the time—this was in 2017 to 2018—I don’t think things like single-payer [health care] and Bernie Sanders’s disability plan were part of the public discourse, and they definitely hadn’t reached this nursing home. I still don’t know if they’ve reached nursing home workers. I work in senior centers, too, and when I’ve brought up Bernie’s disability plan to staff, it’s the first time they’ve heard of it. So I think that these political possibilities haven’t trickled down to the people that they would affect directly, but hopefully that’s changing now that there is a public outcry around health care and elder care.
SH: You just mentioned some work with elders that you’ve done since Stages. What does that look like now, under lockdown?
RKN: I teach memoir and theater classes at two senior centers in Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Together with a community of other theater artists, I use theater and oral history as a way to get people to share life stories.
This spring has been really challenging because the senior centers are physically closed, but our programming is running, and seniors need attention and physical activity more than ever. So we’ve made a—I call it a podcast, but it’s definitely not—a dial-in audio program that seniors can access by calling a phone number, and it guides them through 15 minutes of movement and creative exercises. It’s felt like such a shot in the dark. At first, no one at the senior centers was picking up their phones. And we didn’t have any of our students’ phone numbers, so we didn’t know how to reach them. We managed to get fliers out to seniors through Meals on Wheels delivery drivers, and now the senior centers are also distributing this phone number. We’re unable to talk, but seniors can leave us messages. We just got a voice mail from one of the seniors we work with, and it felt so wonderful just to hear her voice and to know she’s alive.
In April, I asked a Meals on Wheels driver, Julia, if she had any news about the seniors we work with. All she could say was that about half the time, there was an ambulance waiting outside before she could drop off someone’s lunch. It’s going to be a really hard year. It’s just the beginning.
SH: You mentioned earlier that this moment might be restoring your faith in performance. I’ve heard you talk a lot about your ambivalence about theater, and 3 Hole Press works around the edges of performance. How did your relationship to theater change while writing Stages?
RKN: I think what gives this book some of its velocity is that you can feel me searching for answers to this question, and it’s really driven by the fact that I feel unsure of my place in the arts and of the function of the theater. I was carrying Aleshea Harris’s work What to Send Up When It Goes Down with me. That play is a ritual that can be staged at any time to commemorate the life of a Black person who has been killed by the police. I saw it for the first time in 2015, after the death of Sandra Bland, and it felt so clear that we needed to come together and grieve and that we also needed structure for that, and this amazing, compassionate performance held the space for that and guided us through it. That has been a touchstone for me, and I’ve kept searching for other works like that in the theater. But increasingly I just feel like there’s no need to have allegiance to a professional field. I can have allegiance to Aleshea Harris and to other artists, but I’m ready for institutional theater to burn.
At the nursing home, I was hired to make a play with their staff, and we ended up feeling like the play needed to also hold space for their memories and account for their losses. Art can create that space for reflection and for feeling, but I also think that so many other things can do that. Community can do that. Friendship can do that. Nature can do that. Therapy can do that. A very wise art therapist in the nursing home said that we hurt in community and so we also have to heal in community, and I think that that’s why I keep coming back to theater. It’s the closest thing that I personally know that can do that, but I don’t think that is what the institution of American theater was ever designed to do, so trying to do that can feel like working against the grain of the medium. But I still believe in that thing, wherever it exists.
SH: I admire how you’ve used your platforms to also participate in formal politics. You interviewed New York State Assembly and State Senate candidates Phara Souffrant Forrest and Jabari Brisport for your e-mail newsletter, and you’ve used 3 Hole Press’s office in Brooklyn to register voters. I’ve been happy to see New York theaters open their lobbies for protesters, which makes good on ideas you’ve expressed about material ways that theater might be useful to people.
RKN: It’s both great and so annoying. This moment is strange because theaters suddenly purport to care about people’s bodies and safety and needs but they have never before considered opening their doors to house people, to feed people, to be civic spaces. Are these theaters going to keep their doors open after the protests stop for folks in the city who need to use the restroom? I’m wary because I’ve never seen this kind of commitment in New York before, except from a few smaller theaters like the Bushwick Star, which has been doing the work of investing in its community for a really long time.
At the same time I wonder, is it unfair to put pressure on these theaters and their underpaid staff to provide all of these social services that the city should be offering? There should just be clean public restrooms. Where are the theaters that are advocating for that?
SH: Thick Press, which published Stages, is a more sustained experiment in the relationship between art and politics. Did working with it feel different from other publishers you’ve worked with?
RKN: It felt so different. One reason is that their fundamental commitment is to slowness. Everything that I’m doing at 3 Hole Press feels really urgent, and I don’t know how long 3 Hole can last because of that. But Thick Press was built by a social worker, Erin Segal, and a graphic designer, Julie Cho, who are both working parents, so it’s designed around a slower timeline and without any expectations around annual output. Also, being edited by a social worker is such a fulfilling and provocative experience. I got amazing line edits from Erin, but I also got edits that were like, “Would you like to resolve this issue?” [Laughs.] “Do you want to maybe call this person?”
So many of our editorial conversations were about ethics and responsibility and making sure that this book is built on trust. We gave all of the nursing home staff permission to edit their own interviews, and a lot of people cut segments that overtly criticize the nursing home, which makes sense because people’s jobs are really precarious. That was hard, because those criticisms are important. But at the same time, I feel much better about a book that protects its contributors.
Can I ask you a question? Is that allowed? I’m curious how you’ve been thinking about care work. You’ve studied the history of feminism and of movements like Wages for Housework, for which valuing care was at the forefront of discourse. Where are you in terms of what feels possible now?
SH: One of the things I love about your book is that it shows how thinking about care work requires you to think about everything else. It’s a book about health care, but it’s also a book about time and workers’ rights and intimacy, which is part of what makes it deeply feminist. And that’s daunting in the same way that the gambit of wages for housework is daunting. By demanding a wage for housework, that movement revealed that capitalism depends on huge amounts of uncompensated labor, and if that labor were to actually be valued as it should be, then capitalism would fall apart. We simply couldn’t afford to pay what social reproduction is worth. Capitalism depends on keeping it uncompensated. Something that seems like a simple demand—wages for housework—actually very quickly requires you to throw everything out and start over.
RKN: One person in Stages, Agnes, who worked in the nursing home for 26 years, said, “There is not enough money that could pay for this kind of work.” How do you even put a dollar value on care?
SH: In a bleaker political moment, that might make one very despairing. But on the other hand, right now we’re seeing that people have a real appetite for throwing everything out and starting over if that’s what it takes to make the world livable. Which is cool.
RKN: I really wish that I could talk with these nursing home workers now to see if they feel any sense of possibility or if they think it’s something we’ll get to see in our lifetimes.