Monday, March 13, 2017

The Never-Ending War on Women

Being able to identify with one or more minorities is much more of an asset than some people realize. Describing myself as "a healthy, happy, Jewish homosexual atheist" is a handy-dandy conversation starter (especially when meeting religious zealots, closet cases, and homophobes). Whether reading Milton Stern's delightful autobiography ("The Gay Jew in the Trailer Park") or Moises Velasquez-Manoff's recent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times ("What Biracial People Know"), being able to assess different aspects of a situation from a variety of cultural backgrounds can lead a person to surprisingly simple insights.

I was recently reminded of this curious phenomenon when, over the course of two successive evenings, I attended performances that were intensely focused on a woman's need to control any decisions about her reproductive system.

During my lifetime, the women's rights and pro-choice movements have continued to gain steam and suffer setbacks. I continue to be appalled and ashamed of the flatulent stupidity by which politicians and religious leaders (who don't even understand how sex leads to procreation) continue to wage war against women's rights.

Following a series of idiotic insults to biology by Republican legislators, the latest piece of inanity came from Congressman John Shimkus of Illinois, who wanted to know why men should have to pay for maternity services that are currently part of the Affordable Care Act. Having fathered three children (David, Joshua, and Daniel), does Shimkus not recall how he got his wife pregnant? Does he not understand that, having penetrated her during sexual intercourse, it was his ejaculation that donated the genetic material responsible for creating their children (therefore making him responsible for at least half of his wife's maternal healthcare)?

As they say in religious circles, "For shame!" Or, as Joseph N. Welch famously said to Senator Joseph McCarthy on June 9, 1954: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

A lack of human decency haunts two new dramas in which women struggling in vastly different cultures (as well as in times of war and peace) must fight for their dignity against the unsympathetic legal structures and uncaring patriarchal practices of the fiercely misogynistic societies in which they live. While there is much humor to be found in each play, the fact remains that it is still a struggle for women and girls to get an education and gain control of their futures. The guilt for so much of their failure to thrive should be profoundly embarrassing to the other half of the human race (see "Man In Suit Humping ‘Fearless Girl’ Statue Is Why We Need Feminism").

Bros Will Be Bros (Photo courtesy of Alexis Kaloyanides)

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I would strongly urge anyone attending a performance of Danai Gurira's drama, Eclipsed, to read Natasha Chart's essay, "This Is How They Broke Our Grandmothers," before heading to the theatre. Armed with a better understanding of how women came to be treated as witches and bitches by men; how the kidnapping, rape, and subsequent ownership of children became institutionalized; and how gang rape and sexual slavery became accepted practices, it will become much easier for them to understand the misery of the characters they see portrayed onstage.

A scene from Eclipsed (Photo by: Little Fang Photography)

Written in 2007, Eclipsed had its New York premiere at the Public Theatre in October 2015 before moving uptown to the John Golden Theatre, where it opened on March 6, 2016. Eclipsed became the first play to premiere on Broadway with a cast and creative team consisting entirely of women of color (in 2016, Liesl Tommy became the first woman of color to be nominated for the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play). With the show's director having been born in South Africa and its playwright of Zimbabwean descent, Gurira doesn't hesitate to state that:
"I think I have a mission to tell stories of my people and the stories that I feel are often untold. There are so many amazing girls and women in the world who are being blocked. All the things that these women are capable of are being snatched from them. Their light is being blocked. The hope is that an eclipse is temporary, and it is on us to make sure this is so."
Ayesha Jordan, Joniece Abbott-Pratt and Stacey Sargeant in
a scene from Eclipsed (Photo by: Little Fang Photography)

Set in an impoverished rebel camp in 2003 (during the Second Liberian Civil War), the five unfortunate African women portrayed onstage exist in the menacing shadow of the putative "C.O." (commanding officer).
  • Helena/Wife #1 (Stacey Sargeant) is the oldest (25), weariest, and least fertile. Although her seniority may count for little, she relies on her rank as a means of demanding respect from those who have replaced her as sex objects. After 10 years of sexual slavery, she regards the C.O. as the one and only man in her life.
  • Maima/Wife #2 (Adeola Role) has left the shelter of the wives' primitive shed to become a soldier. Assertive, aggressive, and determined to maintain her independence, she looks to her weapons as a source of strength and protection. In order to avoid being raped again, she recruits other women into the military and teaches them how to scour the field after each battle, gather up the children, and bring them back to men who prefer to rape young virgins.
  • Bessie/Wife #3 (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) is in her early teens, newly impregnated, and about as mature as a 12-year-old.
  • The Girl/Wife #4 (Ayesha Jordan) is first seen hiding under an overturned rubber bathtub. After she ignores Wife #1's warning not to leave the shed at night -- and is promptly raped by the C.O. -- she becomes strangely quiet (probably in shock) and antisocial. She is the only one of the C.O.'s sex slaves who knows how to read.
Stacey Sargeant, Ayesha Jordan, and Joniece Abbott-Pratt in
a scene from Eclipsed (Photo by: Little Fang Photography)

A late arrival in the plot is Rita (Akosua Busia), a well-dressed, articulate member of the Liberian Women's Initiative for Peace who is searching for her daughter (who was kidnapped and may be living in the rebel camp). Rita's way of trying to break through to women who have been degraded, dehumanized, subjugated by soldiers, and stripped of their former identities is to keep asking them to say the name they were given by their mothers and fathers. In a tense confrontation with Wife #2, she tries to explain that guns are not the answer to poverty and rape. When the war ends, all Rita can do is try to get Wife #4 (who has been recruited into the military by Wife #2) to consider the possibilities presented by the assault rifle the young woman holds in one hand versus the book she holds in the other.

Ayesha Jordan and Adeola Role in a scene from
Eclipsed (Photo by: Little Fang Photography)

With scenery and costumes designed by Clint Ramos (and lighting designed by Jen Schriever), Broken Chord's sound design and original music help to create a sense of living in a war zone where food is scarce, depression and fear are rampant, and there is little hope for the future. Under Liesl Tommy's astute direction, the cast (especially Adeola Role) delivers powerful and deeply affecting performances.

A scene from Eclipsed (Photo by: Little Fang Photography)

There is one structural problem, however, which handicaps the production -- the fact that, in order to lend authenticity to the dramatic experience, the cast speaks in heavily-accented English. As a result, nearly 30% of the dialogue was incomprehensible on opening night.

At the end of the performance I was less deeply affected than many others in the audience. Ironically, the final scene (during which each woman must decide what to do with her life after the war) made me feel like I was watching the Liberian version of the "Anatevka" scene from Fiddler on the Roof.

Akosua Busia in a scene from Eclipsed
(Photo by: Little Fang Photography)

Performances of Eclipsed continue at the Curran Theatre through March 19 (click here for tickets).

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The atmosphere was much rowdier at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's opening night performance of Roe, a rambunctious dramedy about the fight to protect a women's right to have an abortion. With the action centered mostly in the Lone Star State, the thickly-accented cast brought back memories of 1978's popular musical, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas.

Sara Bruner, Sarah Jane Agnew, and Susan Lynskey
in a scene from Roe (Photo by: Jenny Graham) 

Written by Lisa Loomer and directed by Bill Rauch, Roe is part of a fascinating project by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. In 2008, OSF launched a major program entitled American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. OSF's goal was to commission and develop 37 new plays inspired by moments of change in American history, with the writing and development process designed to last through 2027. Of the plays that have premiered to date:
 Sarah Jane Agnew as Sarah Weddington with Sara Bruner as
Norma McCorvey in a scene from Roe (Photo by: Jenny Graham)

Working on a unit set designed by Rachel Hauck with lighting designed by Jane Cox and projections designed by Wendall Herrington, Roe tracks the relationship between the free-wheeling Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner) and Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew), the young attorney who recruited McCorvey to become the anonymous Jane Roe in the case of Roe v. Wade (Weddington ended up arguing the case in front of the United States Supreme Court at the age of 26).

Catherine Castellanos as Connie Gonzalez with Sara Bruner as
Norma McCorvey in a scene from Roe (Photo by: Jenny Graham)

In describing the challenges she faced while trying to dramatize the societal impact of Roe v. Wade in the United States, playwright Lisa Loomis explains that:
“I take the issues very seriously and write about very serious issues, but my plays often have an unusual theatrical style. I was not interested in doing a play about a case or a courtroom drama. But when I did the research, the real story of Norma McCorvey (who was Roe) was so amazing, so inherently theatrical, so... bent...that following this fascinating character allowed me to tell the story from a unique point of view.”
Amy Newman as Gloria Allred with Sara Bruner as Norma McCorvey
in a scene from Roe (Photo by: Jenny Graham)
“I see theatre as people sitting together in the dark to look at the human condition. If we can open our minds enough to even consider a position that is different from the one we brought into the theatre, that is the beginning of compassion. Compassion and curiosity are, I think, great things to leave the theatre with. If we go to the theatre just to encounter what we already believe, what’s the point, really?”
Sara Bruner, Amy Newman, and Gina Daniels
in a scene from in Roe (Photo by: Jenny Graham)

With 45 years of history to cover (not to mention McCorvey's relationship challenges, erratic behavior, and hunger for publicity), director Bill Rauch keeps the action moving at a rapid clip. From an early gathering of Texas women who are struggling to view their vaginas to McCorvey's surprising conversion to a born-again Catholic, Loomis's script is like riding a roller coaster through four decades of the women's movement as seen through the eyes of the people who were at the center of a pivotal legal case.

As key women orbiting around the stormy winds of Norma McCorvey's life, Catherine Castellanos portrays Norma's loyal lesbian lover (Connie Gonzalez) while Amy Newman shines brightly in her scenes as feminist attorney Gloria Allred as well as the devout Christian who tries to lure patients away from the abortion clinic where McCorvey works. Kenya Alexander makes a strong impact as a young African-American student (Roxanne) while Pamela Dunlap creates an indelible impression as Norma's bullying and verbally abusive mother.

Pamela Dunlap, Sara Bruner, and Catherine Castellanos
in a scene from Roe (Photo by: C Stanley Photography)

Several cast members appear as multiple characters:
Costume designer Raquel Barreto rises nicely to the challenge of demonstrating how Weddington and McCorvey's bodies and fashions changed over the course of four decades. Sarah Jane Agnew follows a more conservative path in life, moving from an ambitious young attorney to a childless legal professor while Sara Bruner's highly energetic performance captures the restless spirit of a woman who, in her never-ending quest for approval, develops a perverse talent for using anyone who crosses her path (at one point, I found it amazing how much Bruner resembled Imelda Staunton's portrayal of Mama Rose in Gypsy).

Sara Bruner as Norma McCorvey with Sarah Jane Agnew as
Sarah Weddington in a scene from Roe (Photo by: Jenny Graham) 

After a first act that moves with the furious momentum of a freight train, the second act of Roe gets bogged down in moments when Norma's betrayals of the people in her life become painful to witness (as well as whenever a religious zealot enters the scene and starts to proselytize with the zeal of a drooling velociraptor). The audience responded enthusiastically when Norma called one such woman a "cunt Christian" and spat in her face.

Performances of Roe continue at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through April 2 (click here for tickets).

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