In Urinetown, a long-standing drought has led to a terrible water shortage. Citizens struggle with the government-imposed ban on private toilets and strict restrictions on where and when folks can go. One malevolent company holds the keys to the only option for relief, but not everyone is willing to pay the price anymore. As the people fight for their rights, a hero will rise and bring forth an uprising to lead them all to freedom. This irreverent story brings perspective and comedic flair to the story of a young man who gives all he has for his right to stand for what he believes.
In 1995, during a poorly-budgeted trip to Paris, playwright Greg Kotis and his theatre group were shocked and frustrated to find out that almost every public restroom in the country is pay-to-use. While annoying at the time, it did give Kotis an idea: what if there was a world where every bathroom wasn’t free? That the simple biological act of peeing was monetized? Kotis pitched this idea to his college friend and composer Mark Hohlmann who loved the idea, and then wrote the first draft of what would become “It’s a Privilege to Pee”. Thus, Urinetown was born. But that world, where anything, even our most basic needs, can be capitalized upon, that’s a world only fit for satire, right?
The world of Urinetown is sardonic and full of cynicism, filled to the brim with ridiculousness. Biting commentary finds a comfortable home alongside literal toilet humor. It’s a world with a very clear facade and no fourth wall to speak of. Playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose work The Threepenny Opera directly inspired much of Urinetown, believed that theatre was best utilized when the audience is completely aware that what they are watching onstage is a performance. That way, the writer’s message is at the forefront and a greater understanding of their own world dawns upon the audience. Heightening our own world to ridiculous, clearly fake extremes to more easily show the possibly unseen cracks. But it comes to a point where the world of Urinetown and our own are starting to resemble each other more and more. And when the line between satire and reality becomes blurred, people should be very, very worried.
There are little things, like the wealthy being able to buy their children into elite universities or large corporations propping up scientific studies to excuse what they’re doing, but then you notice the bigger things. Like the megadrought that is just starting in California, or giant corporations like Nestle telling us that water isn’t a human right, or anti-homeless architecture making it even more difficult to exist in this country while poor, or even just the fact that having basic access to water and sanitation isn’t guaranteed to around 25% of the world’s population. Not long ago the stock market began to trade water itself, as investors know that that is a resource becoming more valuable by the day. And yes, even pay toilets are once again becoming a thing in America. In 2015 a company called Looie was founded, an Uber-like service promising people access to clean bathrooms (for a fee, of course). To quote the company’s founder, “if you can monetize the liquid going into a human body, you should be able to make a buck when it comes out”. Our world and its cracks are resembling that of Urinetown every day, and with environmental disasters like droughts becoming more common and the wealthy and privileged gaining more money and power, it seems like the two could become one and the same.
The world of Urinetown is one that puts privilege on full display: where the rich can exist as if nothing is wrong, where people struggle to survive due to the sin of being born poor, where a minor decision for one person can mean life or death for another. It’s heightened, it’s ridiculous, but only reveals what already exists. A lot of people in America only hear about the effects of climate change, while people in developing countries (but in America too) are having their homes and livelihoods destroyed. How people can only conceive of water not always running freely from their tap or having to pay to use the bathroom. It’s important to note that privilege is not the presence of advantages, but the lack of obstacles. Obstacles that are hard to see when not in front of you. Having privilege is often not a choice, overlaps in different ways, and can often change. And it definitely will change as our world changes into one that once seemed like a ridiculous postulation.
Our world is not Urinetown’s, at least not yet and not for all of us. But as our world continues to change, these problems will only grow. Obstacles will appear where they once weren’t and become even more insurmountable for many. Those without obstacles need to work to acknowledge, understand, and take down those impediments others must contend with. It is a process that is neither easy nor linear. But that is a key way that our world does not become one that was a wild fantasy inspired by a frustrated writer with a full bladder. Because for so many, it already is a privilege to pee.
-Connor McKenna, Dramaturg
Corporations and Water Rights: https://www.zmescience.com/science/nestle-company-pollution-children/
Water and Sanitation (CDC Information): https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/global/wash_statistics.html
The Cost of Disaster: https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/03/1005012
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