Youth, Art, and Aliebns

It’s easy to play “spot the difference” between “Burn All Night” and “everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too.” “Burn All Night” is an electrifying, immersive theater experience. The audience is thrust into the narrative and encouraged to dance as the actors whirl through the crowd, sometimes brushing against you as they dance with dizzying joy and intensity. The characters yell at each other in anger and passion, and even the rare moments of silence are piercingly bright and loud. “everyone’s a aliebn” is a book, deliberately designed to be as minimalist as possible. The drawings are in black and white and there is rarely more than a sentence or two per page. The story itself is quiet and unassuming, wandering through a small community with only a shadow of the driving narrative structure.

And yet. I experienced both pieces of art within 24 hours of each other, and was struck not by their differences, but by their similarities. While they chose different forms of expression, both works were grappling with the same questions. What is our place in this world? How do we deal with the knowledge that we are all going to die someday? Who are we, really? What does it mean to be a young person trying to “find themselves” in the twenty-first century?

It’s this last question that drives at the heart of what I find most striking about both creations. It’s common for art to be created for and about people coming of age, but it often misses the mark in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. From my perspective, it’s a mounting problem as technology and culture evolve at dizzyingly fast rates—there’s a small cultural divide even between me and my sister, who’s only two years younger than me. While older artists can write beautifully about what it means to be a young person, they can’t capture what it feels like to be a young person right now. The explosion in documentation and publicity, the accessibility and diversification of fame, the globalization of culture and humor and fights for civil rights—being an emerging adult right now means entering a world that is constantly connected, chronicled, and in flux to a degree that it has never been before.

Some shows, like “Dear Evan Hansen,” attempt to capture how modern inventions like phones and social media intersect with age-old issues of relationships, insecurity, and coming-of-age. But even though the show fits together, there’s something clunky about it. It’s too on the nose, too “look how in touch we are.” “Burn All Night” takes a different route. The performers use phones in multiple songs as part of their choreography, but never explicitly discuss social media. They cry out about how they must be documented to stay alive, to be immortal. Instead of making social media a pointed part of the narrative, it’s written the way our phones exist in real life: baked into the fabric of our experiences, entirely casual but always in view.

“everyone’s a aliebn” stretches the subtlety of this narrative to a new level. There is no content about social media; in fact, the world exists outside of phones, modern technology, and humans altogether. However, the author is Twitter personality Jonny Sun, and the form of the story itself is a modern construction. The book could have been divided into distinct vignettes, but instead each storyline gets a few pages at a time and the characters often run into each other. Sun described the narrative style as deliberately modeled after a Twitter timeline: instead of getting disparate stories, you experience gently intersecting narratives that weave through each other. The tales are about loss, uncertainty, love, and many more fears—everything that’s relatable to today’s teens. That sounds like a joke, but honestly, I don’t know anyone who couldn’t relate to Sun’s heartbreakingly simple writing that somehow soothes all of our deepest insecurities.

I could continue writing about these two pieces of art for hours, but for now I will end with this: I am so excited for this trend of media written about, for, and by emerging adults in 2017. As young artists earn wider audiences and break into more traditional media spaces, we will only see more of ourselves represented, not only in how we appear to outside observers but in who we really are.

“Burn All Night” by Andy Mientus and Teen Commandments just concluded its world-premiere run at the American Repertory Theater.

“everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too” is the debut book from jomny sun.