Monday, November 15, 2010

In the Wake

Marin Ireland and Deirdre O'Connell

Lisa Kron’s terrific new play at the Public Theatre (through November 21st) is about a woman with important ideas who’s not afraid to risk the wrath of her best friends to talk and talk about the things that matter most to her. Ellen (played by the wondrous Marin Ireland) cares deeply about the world. She believes in democracy and has ideas about how it could be improved. She’s a woman with a mission and an analysis, so although she spends her share of time shouting at Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, she’s also writes and speaks around the country about the tax structure and its loopholes and how policies that seem benign can promote the growth of unsightly strip malls—for only one example.

The central conflict of In the Wake is between the private and the public, realms too often (still) mutually exclusive for women. Part of Kron’s argument is that Ellen should be able to have a rich, supportive private life while her public persona as a writer and intellectual grows ever more visible, busy, and intense. Her friends create the kinship structure she calls her “family,” even though she and her male partner, Danny (Michael Chernus), are unmarried, she isn’t sure she wants children, and is closest to Danny’s sister, Kayla (Susan Pourfar), and her female partner, Laurie (Danielle Skraastad). But even this nouveau family can’t tolerate her desire to “have it all,” so Ellen is forced to choose among her multiple desires and her numerous ambitions. [Spoiler alert!] Sadly, she’s left punishingly alone at the play’s end.

Danny, Kayla, and Laurie provide Ellen’s central domestic nest, set in an East Village apartment decorated in early graduate student (smartly designed by David Korins). Jerry-rigged, rickety bookcases line the walls, stuffed with old textbooks, new novels, and both the Merck Manual and the DSM-IV, as though the characters are determined to self-diagnose their issues. But the two women—Judy and Amy—who find the most purchase on Kron’s cool assessment of relationships and offer Ellen alternative life choices are situated outside the cozy coupled-ness of Ellen and Danny’s apartment.

Judy, an old (and older, at 56-years to Ellen’s 30-something) friend, is an oddball curmudgeon, socially inept and disinterested in conventionally female or feminine behavior. Judy (Deirdre O’Connell, terrific in the mordant role) chooses to be an aid worker in Africa but won’t vote in American elections because she doesn’t believe that democracy works. Visiting Ellen’s apartment, she flees to the fire escape to smoke, unable to tolerate the placid domesticity of Ellen’s friends.

Judy is reluctant to mother her biracial niece, Tessa (Miriam F. Glover), who wants Judy to parent her when Judy’s sister gets mired in domestic abuse and drugs. But mothering doesn’t interest Judy and she refuses to pretend otherwise. In one of the play’s most painful scenes, Kayla and Laurie take Tessa out shopping, and the girl returns with a t-shirt she bought especially for Judy. Judy can’t even arrange her face in an obligatory expression of parental pleasure, and has to be reminded to take the gift with her when she and Tessa leave.

In Judy, Kron offers a trenchant rejoinder to those who presume mothering is women’s birthright. Judy makes an effective life otherwise and elsewhere, lending what little she can to the process of peace-keeping in the world’s most troubled and contentious zones. Judy is flawed and not proud of it, but she’s not ashamed of it, either. Conventional standards—whether conservative and heteronormative or progressive and lesbian—leave her cold. Instead, she’s sober about her prospects, an extraordinary realist with clear and appropriately low expectations of herself and of her country.

In the Wake views Judy with some ambivalence. Ellen’s family of choice dislikes her for all the quirks Ellen finds compelling, and Kayla and Laurie implicitly judge her for not parenting Tessa as they would. On the other hand, Kron manages a sharp critique of Kayla and Laurie’s wrong-headed liberal presumptions. The lesbians find themselves shocked that when Tessa complains that her DC school friends criticize her politics, it turns out the girl is a fan of then-President Bush. Kayla and Laurie are eager to support what they assume will be Tessa’s social radicalism, and neither of them knows quite how to handle a tween-aged African American Republican.

Over the play’s decade or so span, Ellen becomes a respected writer and commentator who travels frequently, speaking on panels at high-profile progressive events. At one of her conferences, she reconnects with Amy (Jenny Bacon), a lesbian filmmaker who’s the older sister of a childhood friend. The two women spend hours talking after a conference panel and, as we watch, begin to fall in love.

The scene of their mutual attraction is lovely and nicely handled by director Leigh Silverman and the performers. The women sit in chairs downstage simply talking to one another in warm light sculpted beautifully by designer Alexander V. Nichols. As they discuss ideas and art, sexual electricity begins to course between them, and the yearning shyness of seduction draws them together. Ellen surprises herself by responding physically to Amy’s intensity of being and listening. Amy admits that she’s all “feeling,” while Ellen describes herself as someone who lives in her head. Opposites attract, as Ellen luxuriates in the warm and new pleasure of being with her lover.

At first, Danny graciously accommodates Ellen’s desire for Amy, even though Kayla and Laurie are furious with her for hurting him. As Ellen tries to maintain both relationships, her lesbian friends become more and more condemnatory. Kron depicts the lesbian couple as conservative here; Kayla and Laurie disapprove of Ellen’s affair, not because she’s seeing a woman but because they believe in fidelity, monogamy, and marriage, values Ellen expressly doesn’t share. They wield their assimilationist politics like a club, refusing to condone Ellen’s desire for something more.

Instead of applauding her eagerness to experience a large and capacious life, they shut her down, close her out, and finally, leave her. Kayla and Laurie decide to move to Madison, to pursue graduate school and children of their own. Even Danny, who’s an empathetic and talented public elementary school teacher, gets worn down by Ellen’s love of the liminal and the frenetic energy of her disrupted life. He forces her to choose between him and Amy, and although she chooses him, she never fully returns to their emotional partnership. Chernus subtly transforms Danny from a happy, complacent teddy bear into a disappointed, bitter guy, bemused in spite of himself that he’s not walking away with the girl.

Ireland’s performance as Ellen reminds me of Joe Mantello’s turn as Louis in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. She talks fast, her words tumbling over one another, her ideas rushing to get out, to be tested, to be challenged or defended. Ireland makes every bit of Ellen’s bracingly articulate political analysis sing, in a heart-felt, thoughtful interrogation of what contemporary politics mean. The play moves from Bush’s theft of the 2000 election, through his second election, to the war in Iraq and the assassination of Saddam Hussein to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Newspaper headlines (in projections by Nichols) play over the proscenium between scenes, locating us in time as history hurtles by. The news chants a constant litany of everything democracy can’t fix. But Ellen keeps writing and speaking, unabashed in her belief that democracy can indeed work.

The play truly wants to be about the inextricability of the public and the private, to underline that individual choices like Ellen’s are indeed the stuff of which political change is made. The program includes a wonderful quote from James Baldwin:

Any honest examination of the national life proves how far we are from the standard of human freedom with which we began. The recovery of this standard demands of everyone who loves this country a hard look at himself, for the greatest achievements much begin somewhere, and they always begin with the person. If we are not capable of this examination, we may yet become one of the most distinguished and monumental failures in the history of nations.

But exactly Ellen’s determination that her choices do have a larger meaning leaves her punished. Ellen grieves when she loses both Amy and Danny because she wasn’t prepared for loss. She aspires in ways she believes her country teaches her to, and when she can't have it all, she says she feels “ruined.” Ireland plays Ellen’s grief (especially when she learns Amy has started a new relationship) with palpable, wrenching empathy.

At the same time, as Ellen painfully explores her new depth of feeling, I wondered why it’s always the thinking women who have to be transformed, to be made to feel excruciating emotions that are supposed to teach them something about themselves. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone who feels deeply was transformed into someone who thinks intensely for a change? Or if the two options weren’t so polarized? This is another way in which it seems smart women aren't allowed to have "it all."

Ironically, Judy, the realist, ends as the play’s hero. Judy’s word sticks. The accumulation of newspaper headlines indicates that democracy doesn’t really work, just as she insists, and all of Ellen’s flying around giving talks on prestigious panels and writing for all the right publications doesn’t seem to change anything. Kron, via Judy, suggests the hopelessness of a certain kind of political analysis that doesn’t radically address the fact that entrenched power structures in the U.S. are white, male, middle-class, and straight, and that voting doesn’t really seem to change that (witness the recent mid-term elections).

When Ellen is astonished by the emotional free-fall in which she finds herself at the play’s end, Judy remarks that Ellen’s surprise comes from the privilege of expecting never to fall at all. She gently accuses her friend of particularly American sentiments that would have no purchase in parts of the world where people don’t presume fairness as a given. Judy calls out Ellen’s middle-class- and U.S.-based blind spots.

In fact, blind spots provide the play’s central trope, as Ellen often steps out of the narrative action to comment, in retrospect, on what she failed to see as the events unfolded. Ireland handles these moments of earnest, rueful direct address beautifully. In the tradition of Kron’s solo work in 2.5 Minute Ride and Well (her “solo performance with some other people in it,” which was Tony-nominated on Broadway in 2006 and also directed by Silverman), the monologues are self-excoriations of Ellen’s inability to recognize her own privilege.

But exactly her shock at the partialness of her self-understandings makes Ellen a bit difficult to empathize with as a character. She enters into her romantic, sexual, and political engagements with great good will but also with the tunnel-visioned voraciousness of someone hungry to have as many meaningful experiences as she can. She says she forces herself to be brave in the world because she doesn’t want to die confronting a catalogue of things she didn’t have the courage to do.

Whether or not Ellen is truly “likable” is one of the play’s conundrums, especially for a spectator who doesn’t want to condemn her for wanting two sexual partners of different genders, and doesn’t want to damn her for not wanting to marry either one of them, and doesn’t want to belittle her for her overarching commitment to social change.

Many male playwrights create male characters that have multiple partners and don’t want to settle down as they pursue their noble professional and personal ambitions. But female characters in the same positions too often die from cancer, leave jobs they’re very good at to have uncompromised emotional lives, or give up their personal relationships to have satisfying careers. That’s what makes plays like Wit and Third and Time Stands Still so unnerving—they punish their accomplished female characters for being brilliant or sexy or unwilling to settle down and domesticate themselves.

Likewise, with In the Wake, why should Ellen be judged for pursuing her personal and professional desires? Ireland makes her galvanizing, even when the character’s behavior is self-absorbed and narcissistic, despite her best intentions. And Kron steers clear of pat realist psychologizing that would explain Ellen’s behavior through some emotional deficit like a father complex or a remote mother. In the Wake instead insists that Ellen’s choices are conscious and purposeful, fueled by emotional and intellectual desire.

I wish Ellen wasn't left alone at the play's end. But I love the daring of Kron’s play, her willingness to work through ideas about how political and personal change happens. I love that her characters respond to events in unexpected ways. And Ellen’s bravery, strength of spirit, intelligence of mind, and depth of feeling make her one of the most complex women characters I’ve encountered onstage all year. I love that even though her choices might leave turbulence in their wake, she refuses to take the easy way through her life.

In the Wake ends on a melancholy note, but in the hands of such a talented writer, director, and cast, I can’t help but find its optimism. The program includes a poem by Mary Oliver called “The Uses of Sorrow”:

(in my sleep I dreamed
this poem)

Someone I loved once gave

a box full of

It took me years to

that, this too, was a

So is this play.

The Feminist Spectator

Sunday, November 07, 2010

For Colored Girls

Tyler Perry's For Colored Girls:
Anika Noni Rose, Kerry Washington, Janet Jackson, Kimberly Elise,
Phylicia Rashad, Loretta Devine, Tessa Thompson, and Thandie Newton

Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf was one of the first feminist performance texts of the 1970s. Shange wrote the choreopoem in bars and performance spaces in Berkeley, often performing the monologues herself, until she stitched them together and turned them into a tour de force ensemble piece for an African American female cast playing characters named only by the color of their outfits (Lady in Red, Lady in Brown, etc.).

Wearing loosely draped, flowing skirts and leotards that let them move in unison and in counterpoint, and capped with head scarves that opened their faces and emphasized their gold hoop earrings, the performers (including Robbie McCauley and Laurie Carlos, who continue to write and perform work about women of color) glowed with the power, anger, and inspiration of Shange’s rallying cry to female agency.

The monologues chronicle abuse of the most egregious and casual kinds. A psychotic, alcoholic returning Vietnam veteran named Beau Willie Brown abuses his girlfriend and finally drops their two children from the window of their fifth floor apartment because he thinks she is cheating on him and because she refuses to marry him. A woman is raped by a casual acquaintance she thinks she’s dating. Another woman is played by her lover’s chronic infidelity. Another woman gets pregnant and undergoes the trial of an illegal abortion. And more.

After describing in visceral, searing detail the various ways people—mostly men—messed with their “stuff,” the women form a circle of collective strength and declare that they found god in themselves and love her fiercely.

On stage, the 20 different choreopoems are danced and spoken, creating whirls of color, movement, and non-narrative interaction, as each of the seven “ladies” takes center stage to share her story. The others listen and react, and offer gestures of support or comfort. But they aren’t really characters engaged in a psychologically oriented narrative with a beginning, middle, or end. Shange’s play derives its universality from the specific stories she tells, but they aren’t attached to characters with conventional through-lines, objectives, or actions.

The performers are essentially themselves, except when they pick up the thread of their individual monologues to deliver a slice of life that could belong to anyone—especially anyone, that is, who’s African American and female. But the feminist power of Shange’s play comes from how it generalizes across experience, to women who’ve felt disappointed and betrayed by placing all their hopes and dreams in relationships and finally decide to put themselves first and perhaps even last. Although the play is thoroughly grounded in the experiences of African American women, many women of all races find common cause with the stories the “colored girls” relate.

for colored girls triumphed on Broadway in 1976 after its initial run at Joe Papp’s Public Theatre in downtown Manhattan. The play was the first I ever saw on Broadway. As a young college-aged white girl from Pittsburgh who’d never seen theatre like this or heard these stories before, I was overcome by the experience. I still vividly remember those powerful African American women talking to the audience, wearing their colorful costumes and moving with the grace of dancers.

In the years after I first saw the play, I learned much more about feminism and theatre, and now rotate for colored girls through the Women and Performance or Theatre and Social Change courses I offer. It teaches beautifully. Even its typography, which eschews capital letters and sets each monologue as a verse poem, represents Shange’s refusal to bow to the conventions of theatre, and its stories remain vivid indictments of a society that disempowers people because of their gender, race, and class.

I’ve seen revivals of the play over the last 30-odd years, but none as striking and powerful as that original Broadway production, none that spoke clearly to the specifics of its contemporary moment. Filmmaker Tyler Perry, however, has adapted Shange’s play into a movie called simply For Colored Girls, and has found a way to make it meaningful in the 21st century by suggesting that so many of the issues it assays remain urgent even now.

To make the film more than an archival documentary of the play, writer/director/producer Perry creates a framework around the monologues, devising an interwoven story of ten African American women and five men whose lives touch in unexpected ways. Crystal (Shange’s Lady in Brown, played by the wrenching, powerful Kimberly Elise) inhabits the horrific story of Beau Willie Brown, playing the woman he abuses physically and then emotionally by forcing her to watch her children die.

Around Crystal’s story, Perry layers in the other poems as adjacent narratives. Crystal works for Joanna (the Lady in Red, played by a steely Janet Jackson), her boss’s face an impassive mask of wealth and cruel, haughty class and race superiority until her demeanor finally breaks and she finds common cause with the others. Crystal lives next door to Gilda (Phylicia Rashad), a character Perry invents as the story’s conscience and lynchpin. Gilda calls Kelly, a social worker (Kerry Washington, the Lady in Blue), when she becomes fearful for Crystal’s children’s lives.

Gilda also meddles in the affairs of her neighbor, Tangie (Thandie Newton, the Lady in Orange), a floozy who beds man after man to mask her own history of sexual abuse and psychological pain. Tangie’s younger sister, Nyla (Tessa Thompson, the Lady in Purple), lives at home with their mother, Alice (Whoopi Goldberg), a religious zealot dressed in spiritually indicated white, who can only see her own daughters as angels or devils. Alice’s father, though, “gave” her to a white man because he didn’t want granddaughters as “ugly” as Alice.

The cycle of abuse and degradation, Perry implies, begins in and ends as a family legacy. Unlike in Shange’s play, entrenched social inequities are left mostly off the hook. In fact, social systems—particularly medicine and the policy force—are represented as rather heroic in Perry’s film. The one exception is the racism and governmental negligence that are to blame for Beau Willie Brown’s inability to collect his veteran’s pay or to get help for his post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, when Kelly, the social worker, makes a home visit to the apartment he shares with Crystal to check on the kids, Beau Willie is furious that she’s worried about them and not about him, and becomes forbidding and violent enough to chase Kelly out of his apartment.

Beau Willie’s anger boils that the Veteran’s Association won’t even return his calls. But when he dangles the children out the apartment window and Perry’s camera focuses in on his hands letting go of their little wrists (mercifully not showing them fall or land on the pavement as the horrified neighbors watch below), his murderous act is depicted as the result of his inability to control himself when he’s drunk and his fury at Crystal’s refusal to marry him.

In Shange’s play, the tragic monologue ends with the chilling, agonizing words “and he dropped them,” which echoes out into the theatre like a curse you can’t take back. The story is placed nearly at the play’s end. In the film, the event takes place closer to its middle. The other women, whose lives have already been connected by Crystal’s brewing tragedy, gather around her in the hospital as she’s sedated, psychologized, and released into the good Gilda’s care. Bringing her back to life and helping her take responsibility for not leaving Beau Willie before he murdered their children becomes the women’s collective goal.

All of them, though, in some ways blame themselves instead of the constraining social order. Kelly (Washington, as smart, lovely, nuanced, and empathetic as ever) feels guilty for not removing the children from a man she knew was abusive. But she’s been preoccupied with her inability to have a child because of an STD she got from a womanizing man who interfered with her and her girlfriends by seducing and dividing them when she was young.

Even Gilda, who calls in the warning that prompts Kelly’s site visit, can’t stop the inevitable tragedy, as much as she meddles in the others’ lives. (She’s the building’s superintendent of sorts, and has all the keys—to their apartments and their psyches.) Gilda knows that Tangie’s promiscuous sexuality covers emotional wounds because, Gilda finally admits, she’s been there herself.

All of these revelations and interrelationships are pat and essentially unbelievable. But Perry makes the structure work to communicate the collective community Shange conjured on stage through the proximity of the performers’ bodies as they told their “colored” ladies’ stories. If Perry needs to put them all into a contrived, Crash-like closeness to make the play work as a film, it’s easy to forgive him, because it so elegantly makes his larger point. These women need one another, like it or not. They support, harbor, and encourage one another, finding god not just in themselves as individuals but in each other as a group of women suffering similar tragedies and triumphs.

Perry weaves Shange’s choreopoems into the women’s every day exchanges, borrowing the structure of musical theatre to literally let the monologues sing. He also sometimes integrates Shange’s poetic language into more prosaic dialogue between the women and their boyfriends, husbands, lovers, or friends. The film’s tone doesn’t quite shift for these moments so much as it intensifies, letting the language and the performers do its emotional work.

Perry brings the camera in close on their faces during the monologues, and the performers beautifully capture the pain and poetry of Shange’s words. Their acting in these moments is almost theatrical, reminiscent of monologues delivered directly the audience, as the performers did in Shange’s play. I felt like I had the best seat in the house for those filmed soliloquies. On the other hand, Perry’s habit of switching focus between the characters in the foreground and the background of the shot became distracting.

Occasionally, Perry successfully opens the monologues out to other characters in the film. For instance, the nurse, Juanita (Loretta Devine, strong and compelling as the Lady in Green), delivers the “I almost lost alla my stuff” monologue to the group of women she counsels about safe sex and relationships. They respond joyously to her declarations of independence. Watching the faces of the actors reacting to Juanita’s speech makes their collective empowerment pleasurable and infectious.

Sometimes, one of the women delivers a monologue to a character who in Shange’s script is an abstraction instead of a real man with a back story and his own dialogue. Juanita’s scenes with Frank (Richard Lawson), for instance, her unfaithful boyfriend, are staged in her small apartment, where he insists she take him back and where she finally tells him off. Frank’s dialogue—like that of the other men—is stilted and less vivid. Shange’s words, after all, were written for women, and Perry has difficulties writing appropriate rejoinders for the men he creates to people his more realistic movie world.

Anika Noni Rose is elegant and heartbreaking as the Lady in Yellow, Yasmine, the artistic, energized teacher empowering young Harlem women by teaching them to dance. Perry puts Rose in a dance studio, where she delivers monologues as though she’s rehearsing for a one-woman show, watching herself in the mirror. She wears a costume and head scarf reminiscent of the iconic design of the original Broadway production (signally captured on the 1981 Bantam Books edition of the play). Yasmine adores her girls, and her belief in the transformations of art helps them finish high school and go to college.

When Yasmine is raped in her own apartment by a man she dated just once, it’s clear that all of her talent and faith can’t keep her from the degradation of being a sexual assault victim in a system determined to prove that she deserved it. Rose’s performance of the monologue in the emergency room, where she clutches a hospital gown to her bruised collarbones and bitterly indicts such a world, is one of the few in the film that blames systemic injustice instead of individual bad luck. When Perry contrives for her rapist to be killed by the next woman he assaults, Yasmine marches into the morgue where she’s been asked to identify him as her attacker and slaps his dead face. Then, she begins to rebuild her life.

Because each subplot only receives a modicum of time (in a film that feels long at two hours), the characters don’t deepen or develop. Some feel like caricatures. Poor Whoopi Goldberg, as the evangelizing Alice, has to describe how her father called her “ugly,” which prompted hoots of laugher for some reason from the audience with which I watched. Goldberg was “ugly” in The Color Purple, too—why can’t anyone cast this woman as a character who’s as strong and radiant as she is in reality, even in her work on a talk show like The View?

Thandie Newton, playing Alice’s oldest daughter, strikes some of the film’s falsest notes, partly because her role as a man-hungry but man-hating, emotionally damaged virago is so two-dimensional. By contrast, Tessa Thompson, as Tangie’s sister, Nyla, performs a beautiful, affecting turn with her opening monologue about losing her virginity to a boy whose smile charmed her. That this boy also gets her pregnant and switches the focus of Nyla’s story is unfortunate in Perry’s adaptation. One of the few monologues that celebrate female sexuality turns too quickly into a victim narrative.

When Nyla visits an abortionist, Perry films the scene as a descent through the circles of hell, full of card sharks, drug addicts, vicious dogs, and a back-room abortionist with dirty instruments, bad teeth, and a drinking problem. In scenes like these, For Colored Girls devolves into heavy-handed melodrama, despite the actors’ effort to make more of their material.

The most egregiously caricatured relationship is between Janet Jackson’s imperious Joanna and her on-the-down-low husband, Carl (Omari Hardwick). Perry blames Joanna’s icy remoteness for her husband’s sexual desires, implying she emasculates him with her financial and emotional control. Their confrontation scene, in which he confesses that he has sex with men (but not that he’s “gay”), ends with her revelation that she’s HIV+ and contracted the virus from him.

The script emphatically links homosexuality and disease. It strongly suggests that the cost for being a too powerful woman is turning your husband gay and risking infection with the gay disease all gay men inevitably get. This is cheap, loathsome even, and the audience’s loud antipathy for every scene in which gay sex or even just same-sex male longing was represented underlined Perry’s irresponsible politics around sexuality.

For Colored Girls isn’t a particularly good movie, but it’s worth seeing because the women’s performances are terrific (especially Elise, Devine, Rose, and Washington). It’s also worth watching because it remains Shange’s feminist exhortation for women of color to find strength in themselves and to protect it fiercely.

For that reason alone, For Colored Girls is an important, necessary, significant film. It’s not just an homage to Shange and her 1970s feminism (what Alice Walker would soon come to call “womanism”), but a continuing clarion call for women to band together to end our social and sexual inequality. That’s a movie I’m happy to see and to recommend.

The Feminist Spectator