Up Close


In the last scene of Carla Abdala-Diggs’s musical Federal Agent, set in fictional Argos, Ohio, the local undertaker is turned away from the home of the town’s beloved mayor. A former intelligence analyst with the FBI, the mayor has recently dropped dead of an apparent heart attack. It’s a shocking turn in a complicated story in which the mayor’s history-professor daughter squeezes confessions out of him about some shady tactics the agency used in the Filiberto Ojeda Ríos case. When the undertaker arrives at the mayor’s house to collect the body, the mayor’s wife and daughter refuse him with the heart-wrenching duet “Too Soon.” Afterward, the undertaker turns his back to the door just slammed in his face, peers out at the audience, shrugs, and sings, “There’s going to be / a terrible / stench in this town.” He moves downstage with his hands in his pockets, shrugs again, and adds, “But in a few days / it’ll fade away.”

Jacob Carson saw Federal Agent in November 2019, in Minneapolis, where he was attending a three-day academic conference called “Art and Social Justice.” At the school where Carson taught in southern Vermont, the art department had what was called a “rotating chair,” which, despite its intriguing name, simply meant that each faculty member had to do a yearlong stint running things. Carson believed that the English language suffered regular abuse at the hands of academics. At the conference in Minneapolis, he’d learned, among other things, how to balance his claim to his “arts practitioner identity” with the “lived realities” of his “circumambient community.”

He knew Carla Abdala-Diggs—who wrote the book and the music for Federal Agent—to be the daughter of the painter Mason Diggs, an old college buddy. Carson and Diggs had been at The New School together in the ’80s, shared an apartment on Perry Street their senior year, and took studio classes with Herman Rose. They’d kept in contact after graduation—attended each other’s weddings, sent Christmas cards with photos of their children—but as Diggs went on to become famous, they only sporadically got in touch. When Carson saw Carla’s show, he and Diggs hadn’t spoken or written for nearly seven years. For Carson, the ball was in Diggs’s court—Carson had been the one to send the last email. If that made Carson seem petty, he imagined there were other forces at work, having to do with Diggs’s being famous and Carson’s being relatively unknown.

Carla was the only child from Diggs’s first marriage, to the fashion model Ana Abdala, which ended in divorce when Carla was only two. Carson had read in Time Out that Federal Agent was her third work, the first to receive a major production, and though it had got uniformly good reviews and a successful limited run in an East Village theater, it was evidently considered too difficult for Broadway. When Carson saw it, he understood. It was one of the most ingenious things he’d ever seen on stage, and as the house lights came up, he realized he wasn’t the only one who had been moved to tears. But a good bit of Carla’s inventiveness rested in a number of clever, wordy, rapid-fire songs on a variety of tricky subjects: the credibility of information, how our interactions with data are inevitably influenced by cognitive bias, and the role of sunlight in remote sensing. He could see why the average Broadway fan might stay away.

In his hotel room after the show, he got into bed and read Carla’s bio in Playbill, in which she was quoted as saying that her relationship with her father had been one of her main inspirations. That was all, no elaboration, and at first he thought she meant that her father had been a positive influence, which irritated him in some vaguely demoralizing way. His flight the next morning was at 8:30, and he needed to get to sleep, but after switching off the lamp, he just lay there in the dark with his eyes open, mulling over the question of inspiration, and he soon saw that the daughter’s mission in Federal Agent was to expose her father for who he really was, behind the mask of his popular public persona. Carson thought it likely that Carla, who’d grown up in her mother’s house, had struggled to really know her father. And like the beloved mayor in the show, Diggs had enjoyed a good deal of public adulation. Besides his extraordinary commercial success, he was among the first Black artists to sit on important arts foundation boards and to represent the United States in any number of international exhibitions. He’d also won a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

Carson reached for his phone and called his wife, Linda, hoping she would still be awake.

“I wondered if I might hear from you tonight,” she said. “How was the show?”

“It was okay,” he said, surprising himself.

“Just okay?” she said.

“Actually, it was remarkable,” he said. “Actually, it was really good. I don’t know why I said that. Actually, I do know why I said it.”

Login to view the full article

If you are a current digital subscriber, login here.

Forgot password?

Need to register?

Already a subscriber through The American Scholar?


Are you a Phi Beta Kappa sustaining member?

Want to subscribe?

Print subscribers get access to our entire website

You can also just subscribe to our website for $9.99.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Dennis McFarland’s most recent novel is Nostalgia. His short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, and the Scholar, among other places.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up