Believable: changing the story on how plays address violence against women | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Believable: changing the story on how plays address violence against women

The fall theater season has brought several shows about women surviving trauma—and reclaiming their stories.

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The fall theater season includes several plays that incorporate narratives centered on violence against women and how they deal with that trauma. But how do these shows break away from using those stories in exploitative ways? Freelancer Kaylen Ralph (who writes frequently about feminist issues and the performing arts) and Reader theater and dance editor Kerry Reid discussed their experiences with a few of these productions.

This is edited from a written dialogue that took place on Saturday, September 28.

Kerry Reid: So I thought maybe we could start with what drew you to the idea of writing about Lucas Hnath's Dana H. which is where our initial conversation about this apparent trend in fall shows started. I've reviewed it for the Reader obviously, but I want to know more about your thoughts on that show in particular and on what you think might be happening in this moment with so many plays this fall dealing with how violence against women is dramatized.

Kaylen Ralph: I was originally drawn to the story of Dana H. because in using Dana's own recorded rendition of the trauma she incurred, there was so little room for further dramatizing what was already an incredibly sensational and horrific experience she had. Obviously Deirdre O'Connell [who plays Dana] brought her own interpretation of Dana's story to the stage, but there was only so much she could do in terms of exacerbating Dana's trauma. I also thought the manuscript Dana refers to throughout her recounting was an important and noteworthy layer of additional protection against editorializing in the name of entertainment, as we do perhaps see in other mediums such as TV.

Reid: Yes. And I also thought, as I noted in the review, that the lip-synching helped embody the physical dissociation that people who have been through profound trauma like Dana's talk about. Yet at the same time, we the audience are aware the entire time that we are hearing not just Dana's own words, but her actual voice. Not that we should require such things as "proof" of the trauma, but it reified that this was a real story.

Ralph: I completely agree, especially with your point about how such "authenticity" shouldn't be required proof. On that note, another reason I was drawn to Dana H. was because of the fact that her son wrote the play. As Dana alludes to at one point in the production, these experiences she had were ones she never felt comfortable sharing with Lucas, in part to protect his own physical safety, but also perhaps to protect him emotionally, as well. I thought Lucas's deference to his mother's own voice in his production, rather than a "watered down" rendering that would have certainly been tinged by his own reprocessing of this information if he were reproducing it for the stage, was really poignant.

Reid: It's funny, because I've seen some comments about how Lucas is largely absent from the narration, and I think maybe he decided that he didn't need to be present in his mom's story onstage for it to be powerful.

Ralph: I agree. I think recognizing when, and when not, one's own perspective on, or experience with, violence against women is warranted can make or break this type of art.

Reid: Also relevant that Dana asked him to do this play. I've interviewed him in the past and I know he's rather reticent about discussing where the ideas for his plays come from, but this one is from a direct request. I wonder how different—if at all—it would be if he were a woman writing about his mother's experiences instead.

Ralph: My instinct is that for this particular production, it wouldn't be that different, so ironclad is Dana's perspective thanks to the medium through which it's delivered. I compare that to Tiny Beautiful Things, for example, which we both saw. Compared to Dana H., the "dialogue" of which was ripped straight from Dana's own mouth to stage, the contents of Tiny Beautiful Things went through several iterations—advice-seeking letter to anthologized book to stage adaptation. The first-person voice is similar, but the delivery so, so different.

Reid: Right. And I think a key point is that, while we the audience know that "Sugar" is actually Cheryl Strayed, the writers and readers of the original letters didn't know who she was. So that's an interesting point to consider in terms of relatability and reliability. The letter writers trust her, even though they don't "know" her—and yet the details that Strayed provides of her own experiences (especially her childhood sexual abuse) are so specific, unvarnished, raw. We're talking about this practically on the anniversary of Christine Blasey Ford's testimony, when one of the things people seemed surprised by was "well, how can she remember all that, it was a long time ago?" The role of memory in violence and abuse is so potent dramatically. Certainly Dana apologizes for the time line getting "fuzzy," but that doesn't mean we don't believe the substance of what has happened to her.

Ralph: Yes, the substance is so there. Without having read Tiny Beautiful Things (the book-length collection of Dear Sugar columns), I was really struck by the extent to which Sugar (Strayed) reveals her own trauma in her responses. There was an underlying narrative arc to the columns, especially as portrayed in the stage adaptation we're discussing. I walked out of Tiny Beautiful Things with a sense of catharsis on behalf of Sugar—when her responses were verbalized, especially so thoughtfully by Janet Ulrich Brooks [who plays Sugar], the effect was really powerful. That's another similarity to Dana H., too, the catharsis that can come from writing about one's own trauma, as we see in both of these productions.

Reid: So I saw a show just last night, Traumarama, which you haven't seen yet. It's a solo piece written and performed by Liz Greenwood, who is also a stand-up comic, and based on her recovery from being assaulted after getting into what she thought was an Uber. Greenwood uses a series of character monologues to take us through the whole thing, including a cop, her therapist, and a woman who runs a podcast called Traumarama (clearly based on the Seventeen column of that name) where people share anodyne embarrassing moments.

What I appreciated is that this show is the closest to someone onstage telling their own truth, but she's still finding different narrative/character approaches. At one point, she's re-creating being at a party with a guy who tries to give her an open beer and he's insulted that she won't accept it. She gives him the thumbnail version of what happened and he keeps pressing for more information and she finally tells him, "I don't owe you any details." And that really hit home with me. From a dramatic standpoint, we always talk about how details strengthen the narrative, yet we're also wrestling with a great deal of unknowability in these stories. Liz doesn't remember everything—particularly how she got away. But she knows it happened, and by doing this show, she's claiming the narrative but also recasting it in voices and in an order that makes sense to her.

So let's talk about The Delicate Tears of the Waning Moon with Water People Theater, part of this year's Destinos festival. What are your thoughts about how this narrative fits in the mix of the themes that apparently keep coming up with so many shows this fall?

Ralph: The thing that hit me the hardest with The Delicate Tears of the Waning Moon was actually something Rebeca [Alemán, playwright and performer] said during the talkback after the play, which was that what happened to her character, Paulina, could happen in any Latin American country. It wasn't addressed during the play whether it was significant that Paulina and her friend, another journalist investigating human rights violations in Mexico, were both women, but as a female journalist myself (and perhaps you can relate) I so identified with their almost obsessive pursuit of justice, and whether they were targeted because they were women in their field or not, their dogged determination to find the truth against the government's wishes made them uniquely susceptible to danger.

Reid: And also that the human rights violations Paulina is investigating are often targeted at Indigenous women. I felt that Alemán was respectful of both the character of Paulina and of the people that Paulina was writing about. The women Paulina talks about (which she does as she regains her memory after being attacked) weren't in the narrative as devices themselves—"look at these poor downtrodden voiceless women I'm trying to help!" They have their own voices, even if we don't directly meet them onstage.

This also points out that while all violence against women is, I would argue, rooted in systemic oppression, there are layers of added trauma and pain for women of color, Indigenous women, transwomen, and others from marginalized groups. We both read the essay in HowlRound that Melisa Pereyra, an actor with American Players Theatre in Wisconsin, wrote recently about the costs of performing trauma onstage for women of color. In that light, I found it interesting that Rebeca not only wrote Paulina, but played her. It's not her story in the way Dana and Strayed and Greenwood are sharing their real stories, but she's embodying the trauma nonetheless.

Ralph: Yes, and I think there's something to be said about using art, and for the purposes of our conversation, theater, specifically, to give a "voice to the voiceless." As cliched as that phrase is, I think it's very applicable to The Delicate Tears of the Waning Moon. The Indigenous women Paulina was trying to champion did not have the "privilege," albeit a dangerous and fraught one, that she had as a journalist, and which Rebeca has as a playwright. The through line there really struck me, particularly in the way you already mentioned—Rebeca's willingness to carry all of that and put herself in danger as she attempts to spread this nearly true story. She's showing the production in Mexico next year, the epicenter of this violence!

Reid: That is so important—and incidentally, just yesterday we learned that another show in the Destinos festival, La Tía Mariela from Mexico and written by a Mexican woman, was canceled because U.S. immigration deemed the play to be not "culturally significant." So while that's not an overt act of physical violence, it is an act of silencing of Latinx voices.

I am still wondering what it means that these shows—and there are more to come, including Proxy at Underscore [10/18-11/24], which is also about a journalist reinvestigating a violent incident in her past, and two productions of Keely and Du [Redtwist Theatre, 10/9-11/10, and Intrinsic Theatre, 11/2-11/24], where a pregnant woman is held captive by antiabortion zealots—are hitting NOW. It's almost become cliche as a theater critic to relate everything to the current historical moment, but I frankly feel it would be malpractice to NOT notice that there are so many shows onstage (and Unbelievable on Netflix) that ask us to consider how and when we believe women and how we talk about violence against women as a mechanism of control. Even Dana's story isn't devoid of politics. Her captor is a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, and we start wondering how deep that association goes with law enforcement.

Does seeing these shows give you hope that we're starting to at least listen to women in their own words, or does it just depress the hell out of you that it's even necessary? Because I have found myself going back and forth on this for a couple of weeks now.

Ralph: I think, for me, these narratives feel very overdue, whether the subject matter these productions explore is contemporaneous to the art or not. The Color Purple, which I saw last night at Drury Lane, takes place from 1909 through 1945 but feels particularly noteworthy. It's giving women of color, and Black women especially, a platform to explore violence we as a country have tried to sweep under the rug or ignore—slavery and its aftermath and the effect it had on generations of Black women. It does feel like we've reached a threshold as far as finally turning over the broader work of struggling through what systemic violence against women means, and to do so through women's own voices and perspectives.

I think we're seeing this happen in literature too, right now, with the same slight lag time. She Said, The Education of Brett Kavanaugh, and Chanel Miller's Know My Name were all released in the past month, and they all center women's lived experiences, told by women and reported by women.

Reid: To me it feels like the big shift is that these women's stories of surviving violence aren't devices for men to be heroes and "fix" them or protect them and get the bad guys, which just reifies patriarchy in another way. And there is a persistent emphasis in their style and in the stories themselves on listening as an action that creates empathy. Maybe that's why hearing these stories in a theater with other people feels so profound right now.  v

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