Review


Diseased nature oftentimes breaks forth
In strange eruptions; oft the teeming earth
Is with a kind of colic pinched and vexed
By the imprisoning of unruly wind
Within her womb, which, for enlargement striving,
Shakes the old beldam earth and topples down
Steeples and moss-grown towers.—Henry IV Part 1 III.i.25-31

NC_H_Derr_photo 1

Hannah and the Dread Gazebo: Mother (Amy Kim Waschke) and Grandmother Tiger (Jessica Ko). Photo by Jenny Graham.

Originally published by HowlRound on January 2, 2018.

August 2017 saw Houston under water, Hurricane Irma headed toward Florida, and large swaths of the Pacific Northwest on fire. In response, the director of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt declared that now is not the time to talk about climate change.

In a way, he was right. The time to talk about climate change was decades ago. Now, the greenhouse effect has caused temperatures and sea levels to rise enough that coping with the seemingly endless succession of natural disasters made worse by climate change keeps us too busy to talk much about the underlying causes.

At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR, climate is an inevitable topic. This summer, smoke from wildfires burning to the west, south, and northwest occupied the Rogue Valley on and off throughout August and into September, drastically decreasing visibility and often holding unhealthy levels of particulates in the air. As a result, the Festival had to cancel nine performances in its outdoor, twelve hundred-seat Allen Elizabethan Theater.

The man-made contributions to these fires are …

Read more on HowlRound

Advertisements

Originally published on HowlRound on May 26, 2017

Johnny Saldaña, author and Professor Emeritus of Theatre in the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts’ School of Film, Dance, and Theatre at Arizona State University (ASU), began his plenary speech on the second day of the NYU Steinhardt Program in Educational Theatre’s Forum on Ethnodrama by asking what role ethnodrama has to play in a “post-truth” world. He identified President Trump’s personal driver as “the art of fabrication,” a description frightfully similar to the definition of theatre. Yet while Trump’s lies are fabricated with the purpose of deceiving, theatre lies to the audience in order to tell the truth.

Ethnodrama is, roughly speaking, the dramatization of data. It is theatre that is made out of research, often conducted in the form of interviews but also including primary sources like journal entries, field notes, and media artifacts. Saldaña calls it “reality theatre,” the ultimate goal of which is understanding.

In his speech, he urged ethnodramatists to blur genres and embrace aesthetics—to think theatrically even as they attempt to parse reality. The artistic offerings I saw in the course of merely the second day of the forum reflected the vast range of subgenres within ethnodrama. (In his seminal book on the subject, Ethnodrama: An Anthology of Reality Theatre Saldaña identifies more than eighty terms that can be applied.) I spoke with the chair of the forum, Joe Salvatore, clinical associate professor of educational theatre at New York University’s Steinhardt School, who said the performances along with papers and workshops digging into the what, how, and why of ethnodrama, ultimately raised a larger question for him: “What is ‘a play’?”

Salvatore’s own most recent ethnodrama, Her Opponent, just closed at the Jerry Orbach Theater at the Snapple Theater Center in New York. An early staging was presented at NYU in February, and for that event Salvatore embraced the term ethnodrama. Yet when moving Off-Broadway, he found that “documentary theatre” made more sense to theatregoers than the more academic term. Her Opponent is, regardless of what the press release says, ethnodrama. It restages excerpts of the 2016 presidential debates with gender-reversed casting in an attempt to understand how reception of the two major candidates was influenced by gender. Salvatore and his partner-in-creation, Maria Guadalupe of INSEAD, discovered that their experiment reveals as much about politics in general as it does about gender.

Guadalupe selected moments from all three debates and wove them into one thirty-five-minute play, then Salvatore worked with the actors using Anna Deavere Smith’s technique, in which the actor memorizes the exact inflections and exact gestures/movements of a real-life subject. Trump’s character is known as Brenda King, and Clinton’s as Jonathan Gordon. A twenty-five-minute post-show discussion follows the performance, in which Guadalupe and Salvatore have been continually amazed to find that even as a woman, the Trump character still comes out the favorite.

Audiences are finding King/Trump to be concise, authoritative, and commanding. Alternately, they find Gordon/Clinton’s incessant smiling to be totally off-putting. When King attacks, Gordon doesn’t fight back; she just nods and smiles. In the body of a man, this response is disconcerting at best and, at worst, at least one audience member found him “extremely punchable.”

NC_H Derr_photo 1

Rachel Tuggle Whorton as Brenda King and Daryl Embry as Jonathan Gordon. Photo by Justin Rogers / One March Photography.

At the performance of the off-Broadway production that I saw, audience responses largely repeated these same tropes: Gordon was received as too wonky and phony, while King was easier to understand and more emotionally appealing.

Emotions ran strong in everyone’s responses, with one audience member going so far as to call the performance a “horror show” that felt like a “slow-motion replay of a murder.” Guadalupe, who moderated the discussion, noted that these emotional responses might stem from the fact that this is a theatrical performance and not a real debate. In other words, there are no real world consequences for policy or governance for an audience watching Her Opponent, only the space and time to revisit the election with a little distance, with that distance being provided not only by the passage of time but also by the gender-flipped casting. As with Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect, the emotions of Her Opponent’s audiences are not removed from the equation by this distance, but are, rather, heightened.

Audience members note that King, not being a man, is less threatening than Trump, which allows them to see Trump’s pacing less as stalking and more like a toddler on the verge of a tantrum. The fact that he simply exercised much more ownership of the space than she did also becomes more apparent when the threat is removed. Audiences also note Gordon’s tendency to use uptalk—a feminine tendency to use an upward inflection at the end of a sentence, a tactic we use in order to invite a response from our listener—when they had never noticed it in Clinton before. It was always there, but only once embodied in a man did it come into stark relief.

In fact, even though in real life, Clinton does not come across as all that stereotypically feminine, her behaviors are so inherently feminine that some audience members assume that the actor playing Gordon has been directed to act feminine or even to play gay. In reality he has not been directed that way; that impression arises purely from him exactly imitating Clinton.

All of these responses reveal that we are so programmed to see femininity as weak and masculinity as strong that even when masculine behaviors are embodied in a woman, she comes across as authoritative and confident. Feminine behaviors on the other hand, make even men read as subordinate and even a little laughable.

Whereas people who have met Clinton up close find her easy to connect to and personable, her debate performances and speeches are so heavily coached that she comes across a bit stale. Like most women, she likely has been told all of her life to smile more. Unfortunately, smiling and nodding in response to being attacked may be feminine, but it doesn’t make her any more likable than she would have been had she fought back. In fact, the audience response to King—a woman who speaks and behaves with all the bravado, aggression, and sweeping masculinity of Trump—may imply that women have far more freedom to behave that way than they think without being thought of as bitches.

Aside from the performance of gender, what becomes crushingly clear from this experiment is that even when the debate has real-world consequences in terms of policies and governing, voters are swayed as much by their emotions as by which candidate’s positions they agree with. In a fascinating twist, Salvatore told me that multiple female audience members have been shocked by their dislike of Gordon and their like of King and have realized as a result that perhaps they give women candidates a free pass because they want to have more elected women in government. Indeed, I heard this very comment the night I attended the performance.

One other audience response has fascinated Salvatore: On Show-Score the audience reviews have been largely positive, but even the people who liked it the most have said, “But…it’s not a play.”

What, then, is a play? Does everything have to be entirely made up for the show to be a play? Under that rubric, even Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat by Lynn Nottage and the Broadway hit Indecent by Paula Vogel would not count as plays, as they are firmly based in research.

Just as the term ethnodrama includes at least eighty subgenres, the idea of “a play” needs to be thought of as broadly containing many types of performance. In today’s post-truth world, no doubt we need as many of them as we can collectively muster. In fact, I would argue that ethnodrama, as a kind of play, might be the perfect mode of theatre to meet the moment. If the excitement around Sweat and Indecent tells us anything, it’s that audiences are hungry for theatre that tells them the truth about our past and our present, and this is exactly what ethnodrama aims to do.

1488316135114

photo by Richard Termine

In the aftermath of the presidential election, economist and political science professor Maria Guadalupe of INSEAD wondered, like so many people, whether Clinton would have lost if she were man and whether Trump could have won had he been a woman. Hypothesizing that in a gender-flipped race, Clinton would have come out the winner, she devised an experiment: To restage the debates with the roles flipped, so that Trump is a woman who not only said everything Trump did, but also acted the same way he did, with Hillary becoming a man who spoke and acted just like her. Guadalupe turned to NYU professor Joe Salvatore to direct while she created the script for Her Opponent, a debate between Brenda King (a female version of Trump) and Jonathan Gordon (a male version of Clinton), performed on January 28.

Guadalupe selected moments from all three debates and wove them into one 35-minute play, then Salvatore worked with the actors using Anna Deavere Smith’s ethnodramatic technique in which the actor memorizes the exact inflections and exact gestures/movements of a real-life subject. A 25-minute post-show discussion followed in which Guadalupe and Salvatore were amazed to find that even as a woman, Trump still came out the favorite.

In the discussion and in an online survey completed later, audiences found King/Trump to be concise, authoritative, and commanding. Alternately, they found Gordon/Clinton’s incessant smiling to be totally off-putting. When King attacked, Gordon didn’t fight back; she just nodded and smiled. In the body of a man, this response was disconcerting at best and at worst, one audience member found him “extremely punchable.”

Cut to one-month later and an article about the show on NYU’s news page goes viral. Salvatore is drowned in press inquiries and requests to see the footage they captured when they filmed the performance. Much of the coverage is from right-wing sites and individual bloggers, where they rejoice that two liberals were proved so wrong by their own endeavor. This proves, they argue, that Trump’s win was not the result of sexism but rather of the strength of his message and the inherent unlikability of Clinton.

That Guadalupe and Salvatore’s hypothesis was wrong does not, by itself, prove that Trump deserved to win. Rather, it shows that we are so programmed to see femininity as weak and masculinity as strong that even when masculine behaviors are embodied in a woman, she comes across as authoritative and confident. Feminine behaviors on the other hand, make even men read as subordinate and even a little laughable.

In fact, even though in real life, Clinton does not come across as all that stereotypically feminine, her behaviors are so inherently feminine that audiences assumed that the actor playing Gordon had been directed to act feminine or even to play gay. (Commenters on right-wing websites that picked up the story were thrilled to call him a faggot.) In reality he had not been directed that way; that impression arose purely from him exactly imitating Clinton.

Whereas people who have met Clinton up close find her easy to connect to and personable, her debate performances and speeches are so heavily coached that she comes across a bit stale. Like most women, she has probably been told all of her life to smile more, and even planned when to smile during the debates. Unfortunately, smiling and nodding in response to being attacked may be feminine, but it didn’t make her any more likable than she would have been had she fought back. In fact, the audience response to King – a woman who speaks and behaves with all the bravado, aggression, and sweeping masculinity of Trump – may imply that women have far more freedom to behave that way than they think without being thought of as a bitch.

Guadalupe and Salvatore are remounting the experiment for an off-Broadway run beginning March 22 at the Jerry Orbach Theater and are working on a film that replicates, shot by shot, the debate broadcast. They hope that the discussions after the next round of performances can help them further unpack why Gordon’s femininity was quite so off-putting and how even people who reject Trump’s policies could have found themselves inclined to vote for King, whose policies are exactly the same, rather than Gordon, whom they had in many cases already voted for in the form of Clinton.

Guadalupe told me that her theory is that their experiment says nothing about the appeal of the two candidates’ platforms, because when audiences watch a play instead of an actual debate with real world consequences, they are free to react almost entirely emotionally rather than intellectually. She believes that this decontextualization reveals not the power of Trump’s ideas but rather the power of the way he conveys them. The film, she hopes, can be used as a teaching tool, whether in political science or gender studies classes, to show how deeply reception of content is shaped by context.

Though Guadalupe and Salvatore’s hypothesis that Clinton would have would won were she a man was wrong, their experiment still proved that it is sexist assumptions – in this case, the one that women can be liked only when they act super feminine – that brought her down. Had Clinton had the liberty Trump had to act in a manner as bold as her ideas, or had Trump been forced by coaching to smile the whole time and nod even as his opponent beat the crap out of him, the election might have turned out differently. Trump didn’t win based on the power of his message, nor did Clinton loose on the issues. Trump won because he came across as the most direct, strong, and yes, masculine, candidate.

Originally published by HowlRound on November 10, 2015

This piece is a follow up to an earlier preview of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Read the original piece here.

Was it Oz? Well, it took me about as long to recover from my weekend in DC as I imagine it took Dorothy to settle back in to Kansas. I was on a theatre high for weeks after a visit to see as much of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival as I could over three days—which is actually not much given that forty-eight women have new plays in this festival.

Destiny of Desire
First up was Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacarías, directed by José Luis Valenzuela, at Arena Stage. When I spoke with Zacarías in September, she described her show featured a troupe of actors doing a telenovela. The women in the acting company, she said, are not pleased with where their characters are going, so it becomes about “What happens when women take destiny in their own hands and start changing the script? What happens when we go off the path that is expected of us and test new things?”

Esperanza America as Pilar Castillo, Elia Saldaña as Victoria del Rio, and Fidel Gomez as Doctor Diego in Destiny of Desire. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Given this description I was therefore surprised that, though the show contained many Brechtian elements, such as visible lighting apparatus and the interruption of the action by actors delivering sometimes humorous, sometimes sobering factoids about love, marriage, family, and Latina/o life into microphones, the actors in the telenovela never actually acknowledged that they were actors or that they were “changing the script.” The reality was something much more subtle, wherein all of the typical devices of a telenovela were employed (swapped babies, mysterious deaths, fabulous costumes) without question, yet merely by focusing the narrative on the two young women— who according to the usual structure, have little authority over their own lives— Zacarías allows us to watch them, in the most Brechtian sense, nevertheless persist in making their own choices about how to get what they want. The overall effect was hilarious, moving, and a truly insightful look at Latina/o life in relation to pop culture.

Animal
Saturday I treated myself to a matinee of Animal by Claire Lizzimore, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, at Studio Theatre. Animal was in one of the theatre’s smaller spaces, while Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica played the main stage. (Because Chimerica was not a world premiere, it could not technically be part of the festival.)

Animal, on the other hand, is the kind of new play that, like an adolescent human, is still actively forming its neural pathways. The theatre provided copies of the script to attendees at their afternoon panel discussion, “Playwright as Hybrid Artist,” featuring Lizzimore and other Festival playwrights who also act, direct, or design. Studio Literary Manager, Adrien-Alice Hansel, made sure to let us know that the script has changed just since that recent printing.

Joel David Santner and Kate Eastwood Norris (foreground), and Cody Nickell (background) in Animal at Studio Theatre. Photo by Igor Dmitry.

For a play so tender its formation, Animal packs a powerful punch. The artful blend between what is real and what is not subtly invites the audience into the worldview of the protagonist, Rachel—a woman enduring a mental illness, the diagnosis of which we only learn at the end. Kate Eastwood Norris’ defiant yet empathetic portrayal drives the show and the audience’s emotional response, and though she doesn’t miss a beat, our hearts do.

This show is written to be done with a small cast in a small space with a minimal set, so the next time anyone tries to tell you that they just can’t find plays by women that they can afford to do, or that have central protagonists that both men and women can connect to, tell them about Animal.

Queens Girl in the World
Saturday night I saw Queens Girl in the World by Caleen Sinette Jennings, directed by Eleanor Holdridge at Theater J. Developed by Theater J’s Locally Grown: Community Supported Art initiative, this one-woman show tells the story of a young black girl (Jacqueline) whose parents transfer her from a neighborhood school in Queens to a progressive school in Greenwich Village. Set in 1962, references to historical events like the assassination of Malcolm X resonate as strongly as the decision of the heroine to stop wearing bobby socks, a moment that becomes both personal and political when uses this a period-specific metaphor for the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Jacqueline’s encounters with Jewish culture awaken her to the vast world outside her neighborhood just as the Civil Rights Movement is awakening her political consciousness and awareness of her own racial identity. All the while, Jacqueline endures everything most young women do, like crushes and BFFs. Turns out, you can learn a lot when you look at the world through a twelve-year-old girl’s eyes. This show is a tour-de-force for its lead, played by Dawn Ursula.

Dawn Ursula as Jacqueline in Queens Girl in the World. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Women Laughing Alone with Salad
Woolly Mammoth’s production of Women Laughing Alone with Salad by Sheila Callaghan, directed by Kip Fagan, is both the most financially supported production of one of Callaghan’s plays I have ever seen, and probably not coincidentally the best. In fact, the question of whether or not new plays by women can really be expected to succeed when they are given only half the resources of productions of new plays by men came up at Woolly’s post-show panel discussion on gender parity. At the panel, Callaghan and other activist theatre women spoke about the Summit, the Kilroys, the Pipeline, and The Count, and shared their successful strategies and tactics to advance gender parity in the not-for-profit theatre. During the panel, Callaghan barely managed to contain her frustration with inequality in professional theatre. In her play, she gives full voice to the frustration she feels at the way women are treated and places the blame squarely on the media for promulgating the mythology of beauty as value. The production was loud, bold, angry, funny, sexy, disturbing, disorienting, political, and personal, with a second act that is Churchill-ian in both structure and effect.

Kimberly Gilbert, Janet Ulrich Brooks, and Meghan Reardon in Women Laughing Alone with Salad. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The post-show panelists repeatedly pointed out that no hard evidence suggests that shows by women do worse than those by men when they are given the same resources for development and production. If you invest in the works of Sheila Callaghan, you will reap the rewards.

Uprising
Uprising by Gabrielle Fulton, directed by Thomas W. Jones, at MetroStage was my surprise find of the weekend. As industry weekends are intended to do, I met Fulton at the “Playwright as Hybrid Artist” panel and was able to get tickets to see her show in Alexandria, VA, on my last night there.

Set in pre-Civil War America in a community of free blacks, the inciting event of this play is the arrival of Osbourne Perry Anderson, the only surviving African American at the Harper’s Ferry Raid, seeking refuge after John Brown’s failed revolution. The play with music goes on to question the nature of freedom, work, love, motherhood, and history through an epic use of music, dance, sound, dialogue, and projections. The quality of the production rivaled all that I saw at the area’s more metropolitan theatres and the intimacy of the space was well suited to a story at turns philosophical and heart-wrenchingly personal.

Anthony Manough as Ossie and Cynthia D. Barker as Sal in Uprising. Photo by Chris Banks.

Union is particularly adept at decentering the historical figure of Anderson in favor of the fictional Sal, a free black and a repository of the history of being enslaved, raped, and separated from family that is particular to women of color. While Osbourne remains a fixed figure whose fate is determined before the play begins, Sal, though influenced and affected by the forces around her, makes her own decisions, using what little freedom she has to determine her own fate, ignoring the dire warnings of everyone around her. Despite all she’s lived through and even when no one else seems to trust her, Sal trusts herself.

Trust in women is not something you find often today—in some cases we are not trusted to make our own medical decisions, to raise children, to be single, to be married, to manage budgets, and to work at the highest levels. But the people who put together the Women’s Voices Theater Festival and the collaborators that made world-premiere productions possible for so many playwrights clearly placed not only their trust, but also their resources, behind women.

The Women’s Voices Theater Festival has also set a precedent and created a template that can be used across the country. Assuming you invest in the production, there is simply no truth in the excuse that producing plays by women is a financial risk. In fact, I’m willing to bet that almost any producer in DC who participated in the festival will tell you: Trusting women pays.

Originally published by Ms. Magazine on October 30, 2015

Film.12664.linh-hon-lai-vangApparently the spirits of Halloween can be quick to respond this time of year, because no sooner did I wish for a Gothic horror-based film that enables its young heroine to save herself and even her family without the help of men, whether dead or alive, than I found one on Netflix: Haunter, starring Abigail Breslin, is this feminist guide to horror movies’ runner-up for top pic this season.

Like all Gothic thrillers, Haunter centers around a house: A large house, full of mysterious rooms, previously unnoticed doors, and its fair share of ghosts. Like most Gothic thrillers, it also centers around a young woman who has become, against her will, trapped in that house. Like the good Gothic thrillers, whether the young woman in Haunter is seeing ghosts or something else or is simply going mad is gradually clarified through a series of carefully placed dramatic reveals. And like the best story in any genre, Haunter empowers the young woman—well, women, really—at the heart of the story to solve their own problems.

Breslin’s disenchanted teen could have lived in any era, but the “Siouxsie and the Banshees” tee and the posters on the walls of her room place her squarely in the early ’80s. Her house, on the other hand, has seemingly been occupied by similar young women since the late Victorian era—women trapped there by one particularly insidious person, first as a boy and then a man, who commands his house even after his death as if it were his castle. This legacy of patriarchal terror is so powerful as to be able to infect every family that lives there, even after the home’s original serial killer has died. Only one individual in each of three decades, all 30 years apart, is able to step outside of the cycle and break it, and that is the 16-year-old daughter. Despite its twists, turns, and well-timed reveals, Haunter delivers a pretty clear message: It is up to young women to save themselves, and the best way to do that is to ally themselves with other young women.

Fem Points:

+4 for a central female character who is a badass teen but has nothing at all to do with Katniss Everdeen

+2 for getting that when teenage girls describe their experiences, they may sound crazy, but they are actually the only ones speaking the truth

By contrast, there’s at least one on-demand film that you can, without a doubt, not waste your time on this year. The Hole has all of the promise that Haunter lives up to, yet falls far, far short. Obviously scripted to appeal to Gen Xers in its depiction of a modern-day latch-key kid and the vaseline-y looks of many of the shots, The Hole could have been an endearing film about a family making do in circumstances they didn’t foresee. Instead, it merely re-indicts single moms for opening up a hole for evil to enter and destroy their children (get it? open up a hole?). If it weren’t for the eldest male child in this family, no fewer than three teenagers would have lost their lives before the adult in charge so much as noticed. Note to filmmakers: I am a member of Gen X, and guess what, we lived! Even the ones who had divorced parents! They did not die by anything that came out of or went into their mother’s holes!

Fem Points:

-4 points for making something that should have been easy such a failure instead

-2 points for use of sexy-teenage-girl-next-door trope without any commentary at all

-A million for dissing single moms

If you can only watch one horror movie this season, the winner is clear: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is not only written and directed by a woman, but it’s also truly suspenseful, conscious of all the tropes it evokes while still being truly original, and … did I mention written and directed by a woman?

Fem Points:

A jillion bazillion

title_bannerThis article was originally published by Ms. Magazine on July 8, 2015.

A sighting of that rare bird called feminist science fiction is truly a thing to celebrate. It does exist, sometimes by accident (see Alien), and sometimes on purpose (see almost anything by Octavia Butler). With Advantageous, a film written by Jacqueline Kim and Jennifer Phang, directed by Phang and starring Kim, the feminism is entirely purposeful.

Influenced during her studies at Pomona College by the work of such experimental filmmakers asCheryl Dunye and Alexandra Juhasz, Phang has always tried to represent a diverse world in her films and to tell stories about identity, specifically Asian and Asian American identities. Speaking on the phone from her San Francisco office, she told the Ms. Blog that when the Independent Film and Television Service approached her seeking proposals for science fiction shorts, she jumped at the chance to make an Asian American woman the center of the film. When actor Ken Jeong (The Hangover, “Community”) saw the short, he was so moved that he offered to help turn it into a feature, and that feature went on to win the Dramatic Special Jury Award for Collaborative Vision at Sundance.

The central character in Advantageous, Gwen Koh (Kim), is the spokesperson and head of The Center for Advanced Health and Living, a cosmetic surgery company that has developed a way for the aged and infirm to move their consciousness into a younger, healthier body. When the center decides that Koh is too old to continue as their spokesperson—just as her daughter is entering an elite and very expensive private school—she decides to undergo the body-changing procedure herself.

In reality, she has been manipulated into making this decision by the real head of the center, played by a (somewhat ironically) beautifully aging Jennifer Ehle. Though this happens in a future in which cosmetic surgery has become much more than a matter of lift and tuck, Koh’s struggle with whether and how to change her body for the sake of her daughter and her career, combined with the behind-the-scenes machinations of the corporation, casts a complicated light on the present struggles of women trying to succeed in both career and motherhood while facing the social pressure to stay young and be perfect.

Not coincidentally, Koh, in collaboration with the company, chooses not only a young body into which to transition, but also a more ethnically ambiguous one (Freya Adams). Phang said that she cast Adams “not just because she’s a great actor, but also because she was able to play someone with a universal look. So the audience has to explore what is it about her that makes them want her to be the look of their company.”

Koh isn’t eager to take the extreme step of cosmetic surgery, so before undergoing the transition she attempts to find work through an agency she has worked with in the past. She discovers, however, that the voice on the other end of the phone is not only not a genuine supporter of her work, but isn’t even human, leading to one of the most profound conversations in the film:

Gwen: Drake, are you human being?

Drake: That’s a funny question. How do you define a human being?

Gwen: Do you have blood running through your veins? Do you get thirsty?

Drake: That is a definition of a human being?

Gwen: I didn’t know.

Drake: That sounds more like a human being. Not to know.

To say that Advantageous is a meditation on the meaning of life sounds cliché, but I can find no more fitting phrase. Both the mother and daughter at the center of the film spend the film’s duration in the pursuit of fulfillment, improvement, and a seemingly ever-elusive kind of achievement, and the tempo of the film ensures that both the characters and audience have plenty of time to think about what fulfillment really means.

Phang considers herself an idealist, and it is true that in this film, to a certain extent, daughter and mother both secure the kind of success for themselves that this near-future world believes to be paramount. But, as with the kind of feminist art that intends to make its audience think, most of the questions about the actual meaning of human existence are left unanswered. The 12-year-old daughter, Jules, (Samantha Kim) states twice—once to her original mother and once to her mother-in-a-new-body—“I don’t know why I’m alive.” Though her mother offers a few answers, and different ones each time, the meditative quality of the daughter’s question and her mother’s answers makes it hard to believe that either finds much comfort in them.

In fact, even the background moments of buildings being blown up by terrorists are greeted not with terror but with an attitude of resignation that such things cannot be helped, and the process of changing bodies is more like the passage of time during sleep than the usual explosive, special-effects ridden climaxes of most science fiction movies. The most gripping moments of the film are found in the reactions of Gwen’s family to the consequences of her choice, beautifully revealing that even in a world where technology has become advanced enough to change the nature of life, being human is still a matter of feeling intimacy, love, and loss, of wanting to understand something that is inevitably just out of our reach and, ultimately, of accepting that no matter how successful or rich you are and no matter how technologically advanced our culture is, being human is mostly a matter of not knowing.

Phang is already hard at work on her next two films: One is a science fiction romance adapted from a play by Dominic Mah called Look for Water. The other is a film about climate change based on the work of real-life scientist Inez Fung, which she hopes will inspire audiences to reengage with climate change issues before it’s too late. She was recently awarded a $40,000 Kenneth Rainin Foundation grant from the San Francisco Film Society to support herself while developing these projects, something Phang told the Ms. Blog she wouldn’t be able to live without:

I am fortunate to live in a time when organizations understand that in order to have sustainable media careers, women need support of some sort. The SFFS has a visionary program called Filmmaker360 that aims to change the representation of women in genre films by supporting women creators, which is a big deal for me and a big deal for women.

Advantageous is currently streaming on Netflix.

This review is dedicated to Michele Kort, who taught me how to be journalist and how to live in the human state of not knowing.

DSC_0045

Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom.

Originally published by HowlRound on March 26, 2015

Hayes Thigpen, Austin Smith, and Amber Gray. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, first presented in New York in 1859, bears more than a striking resemblance to its better-known stage sister, George Aiken’s adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which premiered in 1852. Both plays, in their attempts to create sympathy for slaves while also depicting actual black people as minstrels, have been called both abolitionist and racist. Both writers attempted to appease Southerners by making the villain and “bad” slave owner a transplant from the North, while the Southerners themselves are shown as loving and gentle with their slaves. Both plays encourage the kind of spectacle that mid-nineteenth century audiences expected: Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s flight of Eliza with her child across the river, while being chased by bloodhounds, can easily be likened to the explosion of a steamboat in Act Four of The Octoroon. Most importantly, both plays aim to create sympathy for enslaved people by centering their plots on a female octoroon (a person who is 1/8th black). White audiences then, were encouraged to empathize with a slave who looked just like them—not only do real octoroons often look white, but in both original productions, the characters were also played by white actors.

The book Uncle Tom’s Cabin spawned dozens of different adaptations, and the stage plays quickly became proto-minstrel shows, advertising the use of “real negroes” alongside live dogs and, in one case, an elephant, as part of their spectacle. But while Eliza’s flight across the ford has lived on in shows as recent as The King and I and resonances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s Topsy can be seen everywhere, The Octoroon has largely faded from American memory and is only occasionally taught in American theatre history classes, probably because anthologists and professors find it slightly less offensive than Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Until now, that is. Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has adapted The Octoroon into An Octoroon. A Theater for a New Audience remount of Soho Repertory’s original production, directed by Sarah Benson, runs through March 29th at the Polonksy Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. Jacobs-Jenkins’ version keeps many of the original characters, much of the dialogue, and the entire plot of The Octoroon. In fact most of his take on the story is embodied in the actors and staging instead of the text: Whereas in the 1859 production, the black characters were played by white actors in blackface, in An Octoroon, a black actor (Austin Smith) plays both the white hero, George, and white villain, M’Closky, in white face; a white actor (Haynes Thigpen) plays the Native American character, Wahnotee, in red face; and a “racially ambiguous ” actor (Ian Lassiter) who looks Native American plays two black characters, Pete and Paul, in blackface.

Today, Jacobs-Jenkins seems to say, race is less a matter of what we can see and more a question of how we ask to be seen.

Jacobs-Jenkins also reframes the play by writing a sort of prologue in which Smith plays a character named BJJ, who introduces himself as a black playwright and bemoans the tendency of critics to assume that all of his plays—even the one about farm animals—are attempting to deconstruct the race problem in America. Thigpen enters, watching BJJ a while before introducing himself as Dion Boucicault and bemoaning the fact that today he is all but forgotten as a playwright at all.

Smith and Thigpen don their respective white and red faces on stage, and, after Thigpen performs a stereotypical Native American dance to techno music under rave-like lighting, we enter Boucicault’s world, where George; M’Closky; Pete; Paul; the white woman, Dora; and the octoroon, Zoe, speak much of Boucicault’s text with the same melodramatic flair one can imagine actors in 1859 employing, but without most of the spectacle. Set designer Mimi Lien beautifully evokes a plantation with nothing more than a white stage covered with cotton. The playwright characters of Smith and Thigpen narrate the explosion of the steamboat. Director Sarah Benson adds to this Brechtian style by ending several violent scenes with the actors helping one another off the ground and offstage, as if to remind us that these people are not really trying to hurt one another.

Through these devices, as well as performance on stage by cellist Lester St. Louis  and the occasional appearance of a mystery man in a rabbit costume, Jacobs-Jenkins keeps reminding his audience that race, and therefore “the race problem in America,” is not just a matter of DNA (as it is for the octoroon), but rather a matter of DNA and history, heritage, and performance. All the time that has passed since 1859 serves only to make this mix more complicated. Today, Jacobs-Jenkins seems to say, race is less a matter of what we can see and more a question of how we ask to be seen.

What is conspicuously missing from the play is any commentary on the intersection of sex and gender with race. Though Jacobs-Jenkins keeps the original plot, in which George falls in love with Zoe but is prohibited from marrying her because of her racial heritage, all the while being courted by Dora, a rich white woman desperate for a husband to spend her money on, none of the narration deals with the disenfranchisement of these women. Additionally, while the three male actors play characters of different races, the central character, Zoe, is played by a light-skinned, bi-racial actor (Amber Gray), the white woman is played by a white woman (Mary Wiseman), and the two female slaves are played by black actors (Maechi Aharanwa and Pascale Armand), indicating that the same fluidity of identity embodied by the men does not apply to them.

Maechi Aharanwa and Pascale Armand. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Furthermore, both Zoe and Dora speak the original text written by Boucicault, with only the length of Dora’s dress in any way removing her from her historical position, and are not given any opportunities for direct address or to engage in contemporary dialogue. And whereas Boucicault’s Zoe is given the opportunity, after she is sold to the villain M’Closky, to kill herself on stage, making a profound point about her unwillingness to go back to being a slave, Jacobs-Jenkins’ Zoe leaves stage with her poison never to be seen again. Finally, the two female slaves, played wonderfully by Aharanwa and Armand, speak neither in the manner of the educated playwright characters nor in the slave dialect of Boucicault’s slaves, but rather in a kind of urbanese reminiscent of Orange is the New Black’s Tastee and Poussey. Whether Jacobs-Jenkins intends to draw a straight line from slavery to contemporary urban culture, however, is unclear, as neither he nor the actors offer any explicit commentary on the women’s characterizations.

Without the deconstruction of sex and gender that would be accomplished by cross-racial casting, cross-sex casting, or having those actors speak for themselves directly to the audience, as the men do, the use of the dialect can be read to imply that contemporary black women willingly maintain a slave mentality—one of them uses modern language to repeatedly declare her excitement at being sold to work as a slave on a boat!—despite years of progress. On the other hand, if the playwright intends to show that ghettos have replaced slavery as a means of oppressing African Americans, or that black women have not gained as many rights as black men have since slavery, some commentary from the on-stage playwrights about the women characters would have helped clarify that point.

Instead, in the midst of a very funny, very moving, wonderfully designed, directed, and acted production of a play about the complexity of American identities and their unresolvable connection to our legacy of slavery and genocide, the central female character has become not more complex but rather more generic. She is no longer the octoroon, she is an octoroon.

Next Page »