Paul Sussman talks humanity’s progress in solo show ‘The Wrong Kind of Pessimism’

Watercolor portrait of Paul Sussman
Olivia Staser/Staff

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Pessimism generally refers to believing the worst will happen in any given situation or having a lack of hope for the future. But is there a right kind of pessimism? This question arises in Paul Sussman’s new solo show “The Wrong Kind of Pessimism.”

Written and performed by Sussman himself, “The Wrong Kind of Pessimism” explores humanity’s progress over time, beginning with the Neanderthals and continuing into the present, post-Trump-election society. Switching among characters and stories from his own life, Sussman examines societal evolution and what it means to move forward, even through a pessimistic lens. The show will premiere at The Marsh in San Francisco on Saturday.

As he was beginning to gather his ideas for the play, Sussman reflected on change over time and went way back in time to develop his characters. The two main interacting characters of the show are the last existing Neanderthal and the first homo sapiens. While creating these characters, Sussman was also influenced by current events — namely, the 2016 election. In reaction to the new president, Sussman merged ideas from the present with the characters he was already working with. This convergence makes up the foundation of the show.

“Trump got elected. It was hard not to ask myself the question: ‘Is this just a temporary setback, or is something turning?’ ” Sussman said in an interview with The Daily Californian. As he explained, he shows the death of the Neanderthal largely caused by the takeover of the homo sapiens as a major example of progress gone wrong.

“It’s easy for some people to keep their heads down and say we (have to) fight this. Yes, we can fight, fight, fight, but really, what the hell is going on here? So I ask if there is any such thing as progress while, in (the) background, there is this punctuated dialogue between the Neanderthal and the homo sapien,” Sussman said.

While writing the play, Sussman delved into research on Neanderthals, during which he found out that they were not actually permanently hunched over (it was a fluke in one of the first skeletons that was studied). Despite the truth about the Neanderthals’ posture, Sussman plays into the stereotype to eventually subvert audience expectations.

“I have the Neanderthal hunched over, and he speaks with a bit of a growl to distinguish the character, but it also sucker punches the audience. You hear the Neanderthal and think, ‘Oh, he’s primitive,’ but by the end, you see he is way ahead of the homo sapien. He has more self-knowledge, he’s more reflective,” Sussman said. “While the homo sapien is just a straight-ahead guy — ‘let’s get this done’ — without much understanding of himself or the world. But for whatever reason… well, we know what happened next.”

The relationship between the Neanderthal and the homo sapiens, in which the smarter one doesn’t necessarily come out on top, contributes to the theme of pessimism that hangs over the whole show. The title prompts the question of what exactly the “wrong kind” is that Sussman is referring to, but it also brings up the notion of a “right kind.” Sussman pointedly chooses not to directly address either. Still, he had both notions in mind while writing.

“The wrong kind of pessimism is just sort of mindless dark thoughts and cynicism. … But there are people who have the mix of being very utopian or idealistic and pessimistic, and they don’t stop fighting,” Sussman said. “So you take Martin Luther King — positive and peaceful, but he was very dark, without a lot of hope for human nature. That’s what the struggle is about. The struggle is left to ourselves. … Being pessimistic that way and still fighting. In a way, that’s the right kind of pessimism, but I don’t say that in the piece.”

Upon thinking about pessimism, the opposite — optimism — is bound to come up. And for Sussman, optimism is directly tied to faith.

“Faith is not the private property of religion,” Sussman said. “To me, faith is, ‘Oh there is no evidence that this is going to work, but there’s a lot of evidence that things are messed up.’ If you don’t have some kind of evidence that this is going to work out, you have very little to motivate yourself. So there’s faith.”

Sussman lays out faith alongside the two sides of pessimism, without directly threading everything together or explicitly stating his message. Instead, he allows the audience members to come to their own conclusions. While dealing with these broad, widespread topics such as progress or faith, Sussman found it important to create a piece that sparks thought.

“I just want them to feel stimulated,” Sussman said. “I want them to think, ‘What is the state of our world, how did we get here, what am I going to do about it?’ ”

Contact Nikki Munoz at [email protected].