It’s the year for women. I know that’s not exactly a news item because, of course, women doing amazing things and getting credit for it started way before this year. However, what I have in mind when I say this is, it’s the year for women’s solo performances. Since January 20, 2018, the very day of the second, annual women’s march, when I saw Eve Ensler’s solo performance, In the Body of the World, in between participating in the march so that should tell you something about just how many people participated in that march since it was still going on AFTER the performance, I have seen not one, not two, but three women-driven solo performances. And, it’s just barely February! And, what powerful, rule-breaking, and inspiring performances – all for very different reasons – they have been. Eve Ensler turning her 2013 memoir of cancer, activism and healing into 90 minutes of power. Dael Orlandersmith’s Until the Flood giving audiences 75 intense minutes of Orlandersmith channeling various people living in and around Ferguson, Missouri – white, black, male, female, young, and old—responding to the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer. Robbie McCauley’s Sugar weaving together stories about her life-long battle with diabetes as well as about her life in the theater and about racism in down South and up South America.
If you look more closely at what I have only sketched out, you will see that underneath the narrative, there is a lot of potential for rule-breaking. One reason each of the performances is rule-breaking is that each of them also gives voice to a critique of systems that too often narrowly constrict or harm our lives. The performances provide critiques against a hyper-masculinity infiltrating systems and too often channeling itself into violence against women, as well as a capitalist system that too often sacrifices people for the bottom line, as well as a racism that, as Robbie McCauley puts it, “is a condition like diabetes…some people are born with a tendency to it, but you don’t have to die from it…it can be managed.”
What else makes the performances rule-breaking? Well, for one thing, there’s Robbie McCauley, a woman well into her 70’s, giving the lie – oh so gloriously – to the thinking that women of a certain age have no more acting to do or stories to tell. But then there’s also the point that each of the women talks about things, people in general and women specifically, have been told for too long not to talk about. Things like what happens to a woman’s body after she has been told she has a tumor on her uterus and then not only the uterus, but various other female and human parts, are taken out of the body like part of the vagina and part of the intestine and the ovaries and fallopian tubes. Or things like daring to continue the conversation addressing the matter of white police officers killing young, black men. Or things like daring to talk about bodies getting sick and not receiving the proper diagnosis or treatment because of the color of their skin. And while these are certainly heavy topics, there’s also space for laughter and joy and movement and empathy in each of these women’s performances.
Rule-breaking because two of the women make us see their bodies in ways we are not used to seeing. In the case of Eve Ensler, she bares her torso, revealing a prominent surgical scar running vertically down her abdomen. In the case of Robbie McCauley, she shows us exactly what it is entailed when one regularly has to pierce one’s abdomen with an insulin-filled needle.
Ok, ok, I realize that some of you may be skeptical, for good reason, regarding whether this really is the year for women and whether my report really suggests progress for women in the theater world. After all, at the same exact time that these women are performing, not one, not two, but three solo performances written and performed by men are currently running on Broadway: Bruce Springsteen, John Lithgow and John Leguizamo. However, I do take some solace in the idea that women continue to create and perform outside of spaces not always conducive to them. And the theaters where these women are performing are really cool ones. Robbie McCauley performed her piece at New York Live Arts which is a theater space established by the choreographer/dancer Bill T. Jones and by Janet Wong to cultivate “a safe place for the exchange of ideas.” And both Eve Ensler and Dael Orlandersmith are performing at theaters which focus on the playwright and at the start of 2018 it would appear that the playwright is indeed female. Eve Ensler is performing at Playwrights Horizon at City Center and Dael Orlandersmith is performing at the humble – in terms of resources — Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. And though Orlandersmith is not performing on Broadway, she did attract Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon to the audience on the day that I was there, and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater hosted an invigorating talkback afterwards led by two impassioned young people from the transgender and African-American communities.
And, while there’s still a lot of work to do with respect to encouraging women writers and artists, especially if those women writers and artists are persons of color, it’s got to mean something important when I can say that out of the four plays I have seen in the past week, four of them have been written by (and in two of the cases also performed by) women of color: Dael Orlandersmith, Robbie McCauley, Ngozi Anyanwu, and Adrienne Kennedy.
So, yeah, I have high hopes that this year continues to be the year for women performing us out of our various states of denial.