Playwright Explores Whiteness and Privilege in a Time of Pandemic

Eliza Bent photo

By Skyler Aikerson

The multi-talented, multi-tasking writer and performer Eliza Bent (ΦBK, Boston College) has had a busy 2020. The actress moved to Chicago from New York at the beginning of 2020 to take a job teaching playwriting and screenwriting at Northwestern University. Several months later, she applied and was accepted into the Goodman Theatre’s 2020/2021 Playwrights Unit, an annual residency that commissions Chicago playwrights’ new work. As part of the Playwrights Unit, which consists of Bent and three others, she will write a play, which will then have a live reading in July 2021 (barring any changes because of the pandemic).

Her latest play, Karen, I Said, is a time capsule of what it’s like to live in 2020. Set against backdrops like Zoom calls and Instagram Stories, the three-part play follows three women named Karen, Karyn, and Karin, and explores whiteness, micro- and macroaggressions, and privilege, as described in The New York Times. Bent plays all three Karens, the only characters in the play (though in the third section of the play, the audience members become participants). “It’s fun to be Karyn because she is goofy and she almost gets certain things right. It’s fun to be Karen because I get to wear a wig and stomp around in my kitchen and make ‘rage’ faces. Playing Karin is fun in the sense that it’s a delicate line of satire,” she said.

While acting has been a part of Bent’s life since elementary school, she said she stumbled into playwriting 11 years ago. “It kind of was an accident,” she recalled. After reading Hari Kunzru’s short story “Magda Mandela” in The New Yorker, she thought it might translate well into a play. She brought this idea to writers and directors she knew, but said she “could tell that nobody was going to do it.” Then one day, during an internet outage at work, she took matters into her own hands and began to adapt the story into a play. “That was the beginning of the end for me,” she said.

That play led to a performance at undergroundzero, a now defunct independent performance festival in New York (which Kunzru attended). Since then, she has had more than a dozen plays produced or workshopped. Her plays have been performed across the country, from the Long Center in Austin, Texas, to the New York Theater Workshop’s Next Door Series.

Bent explained that her plays explore themes such as misfits, puns, language experiments, and race. “I think a lot of theater has explored whiteness without exactly talking about whiteness but rather assuming whiteness—white characters, actors, and audience members,” she said. “I am interested in a kind of theatre that directly explores whiteness head on for a more inclusive audience. How are white people racialized? How do white people talk about or fail to talk about race?”

Bent’s plays also explore themes of philosophy, which she studied (along with Italian) as an undergraduate at Boston College. After graduating, she spent a year in Rome, Italy, teaching English, then moved to New York after getting a job with Elle. Once she had adapted her first play, she went on to get her MFA in playwriting from Brooklyn College.

She and her dad kept her induction into Phi Beta Kappa at Boston College a secret from her mom to surprise her, Bent recalled. “When my mom saw the ΦBK symbol in the graduation program, she began to cry.” Both her mother and grandmother were educators, making Bent’s induction particularly meaningful.

Bent could talk about the value of a liberal arts education “for hours,” she said. “I feel like the value of a liberal arts education is to teach you not only how to think but how you want to be in the world.”

Skyler Aikerson earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Goucher College, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in May 2020. Goucher College is home to the Beta of Maryland chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.