Yearly Archives: 2012

A word on the summer and shameless self-promotion . . .

Just to apologize that The Feminist Spectator has been on hiatus this last month.  Although I’ve not been posting, I’ve been writing.  Palgrave Macmillan is publishing selected entries from the blog in book form, along with 30% new material, which means I’ve been writing essays for the book instead of for the blog.

The book, called The Feminist Spectator in Action:  Feminist Criticism for Stage and Screen, includes a narrative introduction, head-notes, and an extended “how-to” section (as in how to write feminist criticism).  Palgrave anticipates publication in spring 2013.

Another shameless plug:  My first book, The Feminist Spectator as Critic, will be reissued in a new edition by the University of Michigan Press in fall 2012.  I’ve written an extended new introduction for the book and included a new bibliography.  So much has changed since the book was first published in 1988 . . .

Both of these projects have given me a wonderful opportunity this summer to reflect on the state of feminism and theatre, performance, film, and popular culture.  I regret that the blog has been idle, but all this work will be available soon.

I’m back to blogging now, looking forward to catching up on summer films and eagerly awaiting the fall theatre season and all the great work it promises to bring.

Thanks for reading, as always,

The Feminist Spectator

Horsedreams and Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men

Dale Orlandersmith in Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men

Dael Orlandersmith’s poetic two-hander Yellowman was Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2002, after she spent many years as a solo performer (touring with, among other performance work, the Nuyorican Poets Café).   Her work powerfully describes an American underclass, people marginalized by race, class, and often, addiction.  The lives she narrates are often lived at the edges of an economy to which their needs, as the very bottom of the 99%, are utterly invisible.  Orlandersmith’s art serves as advocacy, if not activism, as she recounts the particular contradictions and constraints of such lives, the squandered hopes, the straitened circumstances, and the sadly predictable tragedies.

Orlandersmith’s recent performance at California’s Berkeley Rep, Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men, returns her to the solo form that first called her to public attention, while her play Horsedreams, performed at New York’s Rattlestick Theatre last fall, breaks stride by telling the story of a white, middle-class family caught in the throes of addiction.

Dael Orlandersmith in Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men

In Black n Blue Boys, Orlandersmith wrote and performs all the characters’ stories, monologues presented in direct address to unseen interlocutors.  Director Chay Yew sets the production on a simply raked stage with a wooden floor (under Daniel Ostling’s unobtrusive scenic design), adorned only with a wooden chair and pools of light (designed by Ben Stanton) through which Orlandersmith moves as she follows the narrative arcs.  She cycles through stories told by various boys and men whose names are projected on both sides of the wall beside the thrust stage.  Each of the stories riffs on similar tales of sexual and physical abuse and the drug addiction or prostitution that allows these boys and men to survive economically or spiritually the degradations and depravations of their lives.

Perhaps the most chilling story comes from a perpetrator of sexual violence, who relates almost proudly how he seduced and then raped an 11-year-old boy in his car.  His self-righteous, frankly self-explanatory story, which Orlandersmith embellishes with graphic sexual details, stands out in a night that otherwise narrates victims’ experiences.  The 90-minute performance offers disturbing evidence of young men exploited and objectified by a broken social and economic system in which it’s nearly impossible to survive.  Although the characters’ class and race vary—all performed with clear vocal and physical distinctions by Orlandersmith—the stories begin to sound similar, as they proceed through a structure that becomes sadly, quickly familiar.

Because Orlandersmith performs each monologue, they’re also tonally similar.  And because her presence as a performer is insistent and powerful—that is, she hardly disappears behind her characters, and never changes costume—her editorial style sometimes overwhelms the lives she narrates.  In her role as a social chronicler of the dispossessed and as an advocate for the marginalized, Orlandersmith’s presence sometimes feels moralizing, even as she works hard to bring new voices into public discourse.


But while she dares the (mostly white, at the performance I attended) audience to look away, to shut their eyes and ears to these lives, what she wants the audience to do with what they see and hear is unclear.  Her performance comes with an implicit ethical imperative embedded in an explicit critique of a ruined social system in which white people with class privilege are clearly complicit.  But Orlandersmith never articulates the challenge to action that her critical, urgent gaze seems to bear.  I left the performance feeling chastised and chastened but rather emotionally remote and surprisingly unmoved by what I’d seen.

That disapproving moralizing makes Orlandersmith’s Horsedreams a similar cautionary tale without a clear activist stance.  The play displaces the iconic addiction story from people of color living in impoverished circumstances to an upper-middle-class white family, who employ an African American nanny.  In the one-act play, Desiree (Roxanne Hope) and Loman (Michael Laurence) meet in a club at which both of them do lines of coke to garnish their drinks.  Their attraction pulls them into a relationship neither of them are equipped to manage.  His money and her desire keep them in the drugs that sharpen their lives.  When she gets pregnant, they marry, move precipitously to Westchester, and both try to go straight.  But their abstinence doesn’t last.  Orlandersmith implies it can’t, that club-going, and coke-snorting, and trying so desperately to get out of your body by inhabiting it on the cutting edge of a meat-market nightclub life is a slippery slope to devastation.

Loman continues to move up the ranks of his law firm and Desiree begins to suffer a fatal boredom that makes her crave the party life she gave up too soon.  They celebrate the birth of their son, Luka (Matthew Schechter), with deep ambivalence, and then fall back into the clutches of addiction.  Desiree soon dies from getting high on cocaine mixed with heroin cut with quinine (an ingredient in rat poison).  Loman tries to go straight, moves back to the city with Luka, and before long, is once again snorting cocaine, which leads him again to use heroin.  Loman’s friend also dies of an overdose, as Orlandersmith implies that history will continue to repeat itself and that the cycle of addiction is impossible to break.

Horsedreams, Orlandersmith observing from stage left

Throughout the inevitably tragic story, Orlandersmith lurks like a disapproving Cassandra.  Through the play’s first third, she stands by the stage left wall, watching pensively as Desiree and Loman begin their descent into addiction.  She eventually enters the story as Luka’s nanny, Mira, who lives in the Harlem neighborhood where the couple go to score, and who has lost her own father and brother to drugs.  Mira is studying to be a nurse, determined to improve her own circumstances and, metaphorically, to heal others (and herself).

The simple set boasts a few chairs, a bottle of Macallan 12 and a shot glass, an ironing board, and long tubes of fluorescent lights hung diagonally over the playing floor like the harsh light of reality. The back drop of the small stage resembles a stormy grey sky, cut apart into jagged pieces of a puzzle that can’t seem to be put back together.  Against this bleak setting, the four actors move through a story that’s as inevitable and predictable as a Greek tragedy.

Hope, Laurence, Schechter, and Orlandersmith perform beautifully, subtly charting each character’s dawning understanding of their hopeless situation.  But we know where the play is going by the first scene, even though we don’t know much about the characters and their commitments.  Desiree and Loman are too one-dimensional and uninteresting and privileged for us to really care about their downfalls.  Only Luka is sympathetic, and he’s a small child gradually understanding the seedy lives being ruined in his presence.  But it’s hard to feel empathy or even compassion for people who have money and jobs that they throw away for drugs.  Because of their privilege and wealth, this family represents the flip-side of the characters Orlandersmith writes in Black n Blue Boys.  But the story she tells about all these people is oddly the same.

Orlandersmith’s character strikes the same note of disapproval throughout Horsedreams that guides her performance in Black n Blue Boys.  Mira accuses the white people for whom she works of an awful moral depravity, given what they’re doing to their child.  She won’t call the authorities because she knows what will happen to Luka in the system.  But Mira is too mired in her role as the one who sees but can’t change anything to be an interesting character in her own right.

Although Horsedreams is a more conventional play than Black n Blue Boys, with multiple characters, a bit of dialogue, and separate scenes, Orlandersmith writes it as a set of interlocking monologues.  Some of the writing evokes her trademark poetry.  But the direct address makes it difficult for the characters to build relationships with one another, even though director Gordon Edelstein does a lovely job creating stage pictures that draw out their feelings with subtlety and nuance.


Orlandersmith demonstrates that rich white folks suffer the drug abuse for which poor people of color are too often demonized.  She also clarifies how racism threads through this scene.  Desiree and Loman revel in their cocaine use, but both consider heroin too “ghetto,” until they try it themselves and recognize its sensual appeal.  Desiree dies in part because she calls her dealer an “ape.”  Her racism is so overt that he stages his revenge by giving her bad drugs.  She dies with a needle stuck in her arm on the floor of her Westchester bathroom, the victim, in many ways, of her own racism.

As a performer, Orlandersmith is a galvanizing presence, and in Black n Blue Boys her performances of masculinity are sharply observed and virtuosic.  Both Horsedreams and Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men tell stories that need to be heard more often at the theatre, stories that look askew at what our culture insists is the truth of poverty v. opportunity, drug addiction v. moral purity.  Orlandersmith’s vision complicates how we align race and class with the devastation of drug use and sexual violence, and reminds us that these social scourges cut across identity positions and communities.

The Feminist Spectator

Horsedreams, Rattlestick Theatre, New York, November 2011; Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, June 2012.


Medea in Luis Alfaro's Bruja

Luis Alfaro’s Bruja at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre continues his recent spate of Latino-themed adaptations of classic Greek plays.  Following Oedipus el Rey, which premiered at the Magic in 2010, Bruja takes on the Medea story, which proves remarkably relevant to contemporary Latino/Latina experience.

With slight shifts in location and tone, the play imports the story to San Francisco, where Jason (Sean San José) and Medea (Sabina Zuniga Varela) have immigrated with their two sons—Acan (Daniel Castaneda) and Acat (Gavilan Gordon-Chavez)—from Michoacán, Mexico, making their way up the west coast through California.

As illegal immigrants looking for a better life, the couple and Medea’s old servant, Vieja (the wonderful Wilma Bonet), settle uneasily in a place owned by Creon (Carlos Aguirre), the contractor with whom Jason finds work and whose favor he curries.  As he falls prey to the older man’s machinations and is blinded by his own dreams of power and wealth, Jason betrays his commitment to Medea, which unleashes her righteous anger and the devastation that always follows in this story of disinheritance, jealousy, and matricide.

In Alfaro’s treatment, the overlay of Chicano immigration and assimilation brings the story resonant new themes.  Medea is a curandera, a healer with mystical powers and insight.  As the play opens, she stands center stage, her arms extended with palm fronds, performing a ritual that exemplifies her connection with the earth and her spiritual power.  Played by Zuniga Varela as an earthy, sexual, desirous young woman, Medea fiercely expresses her passions and her knowledge.

Vieja protects her charge, whom she raised with devotion, intending to throw herself in Medea’s grave should the girl die first.  Vieja’s commitment keeps her hovering nearby and allows Alfaro to use her as his Greek chorus, commenting on the action in direct and sometimes humorous address to the audience.  Bonet’s Vieja is part stand-up, part matriarch and our conduit to Chicano/a culture.  In a play peppered with Spanish and Spanglish, she’s a translator and guide.  Bonet’s solid, knowing presence and her deft physical comedy (she performed for many years with the San Francisco Mime Troupe) grounds the spectators’ reactions as events unfold.

Wilma Bonet as Vieja

Jason reeks of desperation to assimilate into American culture.  He insists his sons call him “Dad” instead of “Papi,” making fun of what he considers its feminine Spanish inflections compared to the manly mono-syllables of the English.  He’s entranced by Creon’s power and influence, and sees him as a “door” into the world for which he longs.

His hubris is to believe he can play games with impunity, that the ends justify the means of his collusion.  But when he moves into Creon’s home and marries his daughter, Medea’s wrath dismantles his plans and leaves him in bloody ruin.

Creon and Medea

Alfaro’s adaptation easily and persuasively superimposes Chicano analogies over the Greek story.  Medea has killed her devious twin brother, leaving his body behind in Machoacán and fleeing across the U.S. border with Jason.  She owns her father’s land in Mexico, a deed of contention that Creon insists she pass to him.  When she refuses to become party to Jason’s dealings with the corrupt businessman, Creon makes her a pariah in the community.  If once she was a healer, she quickly becomes known as a witch (bruja in Spanish).

The faithful Aegeus (Armando Rodriguez), who comes to Medea to be healed and for help making his wife fertile, reports on Medea’s diminishing standing and offers her shelter after she’s thrown out of her home.  But no one can stand in the way of Medea’s deadly revenge.

Medea is nothing if not melodramatic and Alfaro’s Bruja treads close to its inevitable histrionics.  But Zuniga Varela’s simple, direct performance—all earnest sincerity before she reaches her necessary murderous rage—and San José’s believable regret as Jason keep the production from overstatement.  While their chemistry isn’t as palpable as it might be, Alfaro’s text and Loretta Greco’s direction focus on Medea’s sensuality and desire, whether or not it’s reciprocated.

Medea’s status as what Creon calls a “ghost”—an undocumented immigrant without state or family rights, since she and Jason aren’t married—makes her powerlessness poignant and resonant, as Creon strips her of her home and her partner.  When he insists that she give Jason his sons, and Jason rationalizes that they’ll inherit Creon’s wealth if he adopts the boys, Medea plays the only card left in her hand.  She ends Jason’s blood line and accepts her own tragic fate.

Zuniga Varela’s restrained performance makes Medea’s plight sympathetic instead of anathema.  She’s a rather reactive heroine, making her choices according to those made against her.  In the style of the Greek original, much of the action is narrated by Vieja or by Aegeus.

Bonet is particularly good as the bearer of bad news, describing how Medea’s curse turned the snake-skin dress she presented to Jason’s new wife into a nest of live reptiles that squeezed her rival to death and caused Creon’s demise.  And although Medea kills her boys offstage, Greco directs her first to chase each of them down, wielding a medieval-looking sword as a tangible embodiment of her fury.

Clear from Alfaro’s intelligent adaptation and Greco’s sensitive direction is how well the story adapts to describe the impossible situation of Chicano immigrants who travel at great personal cost across the border to better their lives, only to land in situations in which the American Dream dangles like unreachable fruit.  Adopting American ways—including the machismo of capitalist cowboys out to make a buck through any available means—becomes a devil’s bargain that requires giving up their ethnicity, culture, and faith, and that ultimately leaves them stranded and as morally bankrupt as the country they long to adopt.

Playwright Luis Alfaro

Alfaro’s playwrighting embellishes a career in which he won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award and for many years toured in autobiographical solo shows.  While I miss the incisive social commentary of his queer Chicano memoir performances and his considerable magnetism as a performer, it’s wonderful to see him reimagining the classics through Chicano and feminist eyes (which puts him in conversation with Cheríe Moraga, among others).  He’s extending his canon in welcome, generative directions.

The Feminist Spectator

Bruja, the Magic Theatre, San Francisco through June 24.


Rapture, Blister, Burn

Promo for play by Gina Gionfriddo

What novelty to see a play that’s not only by and about a woman but that takes feminism as its topic and theme.  Gina Gionfriddo’s (Becky Shaw) new play uses the history of the second wave American women’s movement to tease out the consequences of life choices for two women who started in the same place—same graduate program, even sharing the same boyfriend—and ended up very differently.


Gionfriddo’s 21st century view of white middle-class women’s potential choices offers a refreshing rethinking of the tired binaries of professional work versus stay-at-home-motherhood.  Rapture, Blister, Burn also recalls 1980s plays by Wendy Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles) and Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart) that addressed similar issues in ways specific to their own historical moment.


Catherine (Judging Amy’s Amy Brenneman), Gwen (Kellie Overbey), and Don (Lee Tergesen) were close friends in graduate school, their relationships comfortably triangulated.  Catherine and Don were a couple until she accepted a year’s fellowship in London and didn’t return when he asked.  While she was gone, Don mutinied and married Gwen.  They had two well-spaced and very different sons, as Catherine’s career exploded with two books about women, pornography, and popular culture that made her a favorite on the television pundits’ circuit.


When Catherine’s beloved mother, Alice (Beth Dixon), suffers a heart attack, Catherine arranges to take a sabbatical year in her home town to care for her.  Coincidentally, Don and Gwen live nearby.  Through a drunken phone call Catherine makes to her old friends that establishes the play’s themes and its motivating crisis, Don arranges for Catherine to teach at the local college, where he’s now the dean of students.


Fifteen years post-graduate school, the three friends have arrived at the beginning of their collective middle age in various states of disgruntled unhappiness.  Though professionally successful, Catherine hasn’t had satisfying romantic relationships and has never married or had children.  Don and Gwen’s marriage has calcified into a deadening routine.  He’s addicted to porn (though he protests that it’s free and “soft,” rather than graphic or violent) and he lost his ambition years ago, despite his early intellectual and academic promise.  Don smokes pot and Gwen nags him to organize and execute his work with socially troubled students.


Don achieved an administrative position in academic student life, though he planned to be a scholar.  Gwen dropped out of the graduate program altogether and has made her life caring for her sons and tending to her sobriety.  Her recovery has short-circuited her brain editor, so Gwen over-shares and speaks too much truth at mostly the wrong moments.  Her self-righteousness is played for laughs, and to Gionfriddo’s credit, a character that could be arch, smug, and conservative winds up being as personally and politically ambivalent and three-dimensional as Don and Catherine.


Gionfriddo delivers her polemic about women’s choices through the conceit of a summer course that Don arranges for Catherine to teach.  The only two students to sign up are Gwen, who’s hoping to finally finish her degree, and Avery (Virginia Kull), Gwen and Don’s babysitter, whom Gwen dismisses from their employ when she arrives with a black eye to care for their son.  Gwen’s rigid moral code precludes exposing her three-year-old to violence of any sort, even though Avery’s accident resulted from her involvement in a reality-television prank engineered by her boyfriend.


Learning at the table: (l. to r.) Brenneman, Overbey, and Kull

Catherine’s syllabus presents the raw material of Gionfriddo’s argument, as the women discuss insights from Betty Friedan, Nancy Friday, and, for an opposing viewpoint, Phyllis Schlafly, who becomes the counterpoint to more progressive feminist perspectives throughout the play.  Avery proves herself a quick study and a complicated, provocative thinker.  She’s a nascent “third wave” feminist, though she quickly declines describing herself as a feminist at all in a predictable statement Catherine remarks on ruefully.  Gwen uses the course readings to justify her own choice to be a homemaker and to criticize Catherine’s decision to make a life of her career.  Alice supplements the three women’s banter with wry observations and the benefit of hindsight.  She survived a bad marriage in 1950s America and appreciates everything feminism now offers women.


Original Heidi Chronicles advertisement

Rapture, Blister, Burn might be considered The Heidi Chronicles for 2012.  Nearly 25 years ago, Wasserstein’s titular heroine—a smart, white, middle-class woman just like Catherine—found herself confronted by a confusing array of new choices.  She decided to be a professor with an adopted baby who eschewed marriage to Scoop, the smart narcissist she might have selected as a mate.


Wasserstein’s Heidi observes the feminist movement passing before her eyes, never quite joining in and never quite opting out of the social revolution the play charts at a comfortable remove.  Wasserstein’s play ends with Heidi hoping that things will be different for her daughter, postponing the advent of real feminist change to some time in a distant, if hopeful, future.


Gionfriddo’s Catherine Croll is Heidi Holland 25 years later.  Catherine, too, is a professor; Catherine, too, is invited to speak about her ideas on television talk shows.  But where Wasserstein wrote a brilliant, caustically funny scene in which Heidi Holland fights for airtime between her two male best friends as they show off for television viewers, Gionfriddo clarifies that Catherine is adept as a public intellectual.  She’s a regular on Bill Mahr, invited on as the hot academic feminist who sits between a senator and a rapper, speaking with easy confidence.


Catherine’s two ballyhooed books give her street cred and academic prominence at an unnamed Ivy League institution in Manhattan.  Her trip into the wilds of New England (every playwright’s favorite location for unnamed, fictional liberal arts colleges) proves her a fish-out-of-water.  Her black sheath dress, linen pants, silk shirts, and stiletto heels present her as a don’t-fuck-with-me but fuck-me feminist, sexy and smart.


Director Peter DuBois smoothly moves the play between its two locations:  the interior of Alice’s house and the exterior of Don and Gwen’s.  Although Catherine seems more comfortable in her mother’s old-fashioned living room than in her friends’ suburban backyard, it’s clear that she’s at home in neither.


But her mother’s recent heart attack prompts Catherine to reexamine her choices.  Revisiting her relationships with Don and Gwen highlight what she could have been, if she’d chosen differently.  In her drunken phone call, dialed from a bar at which she was picking up men for anonymous sex, she suggests that they might trade lives.  Gionfriddo’s plot gradually sets the switch in motion, as Don and Catherine rekindle their old attraction to pursue the fantasy of what might have been, had Catherine returned from London as Don asked.  Gwen takes her probably-gay son off to New York to live in Catherine’s apartment while she helps him pursue theatre training.


Cathy and Don (Tergesen) rekindle their affection in the backyard

Needless to say (though I should note this spoiler alert), the switch fails.  After a month of Bacchanalian sex, drinking, and DVD film festivals that last all night, Don’s skin turns bad from junk food and beer and sleeplessness and even he, the perpetual teenager, longs to return to the happy constraints of a more structured adult life with Gwen.  Gwen, whose central emotional relationship has been with her oldest, show tune-singing son, realizes in New York that the boy actually isn’t gay (at least not for now), and that eventually he’ll leave her for his own life.  She tries to reenroll in graduate school, unhappy to be the oldest student in the class until she finally accepts that she’ll never finish her degree.  Gwen returns home and Don begs to come back to his familiar low-stakes life.


And our heroine, Catherine?  When she gives in to her old attraction to Don, she thinks she can turn back the clock not just on their relationship but on his failed career.  Offering advice from her own hard-won success, she suggests topics for books he might write, and wants to take him on an academic junket to Italy.  She suspends her own work to play with him all summer, staying up late, eating his pizza, guzzling his beer, performing as though sex and carefree companionship are all that matter.


That real life catches up with all three characters is part of Gionfriddo’s nuanced understanding of 21st century women.  Feminism might provide a certain kind of woman, situated in certain ways, with certain choices and advantages.  But ultimately, we make our own choices, which have less to do with politics or dogma than with who we are and how we’re hard-wired to interact with a culture that keeps switching out the screensaver on gendered options for living.


Catherine’s achievements happen not just because feminism has established a cultural landscape that makes her success possible but because of her own drive and work ethic.  Her scholarship addresses the mutual influence of society and art and media on how women’s evolving roles are digested and disputed and detailed in genre movies like slasher films.  As Avery points out toward the play’s end, quoting feminist film critic Carol Clover, horror films once ended with the endangered woman rescued by a heroic man.  Now, they more often feature the “final girl,” who survives despite the terrifying attack on her sexuality and her person.


Catherine and Avery are Rapture, Blister, Burn’s final girls.  When Don and Gwen resume their marriage, Catherine asks Avery to join her on the Italy trip, and the young woman eagerly accepts.  Avery has already suggested that perhaps emotional fulfillment comes from women friends, while sex and a certain kind of stalwart presence is all women can expect from their men.  And that’s okay with her and finally, it seems, with Catherine.


Alice (Beth Dixon) and Avery (Virginia Kull) on the couch

With Avery, Gionfriddo updates the Denise character from The Heidi Chronicles.  In Wasserstein’s play, Denise represented third wave, younger women’s feminism as a blatant critique of the choices and potentials of second-wavers like Heidi.  By contrast, Avery’s engagement with feminism is more forgiving and practical.  Rather than rejecting Catherine’s analysis of women’s history and the gendered meanings of contemporary entertainment and culture, Avery explores her teacher’s arguments with humor and insight.  Her observations parallel Alice’s, so that the older and younger women’s perspectives bookend Catherine and Gwen’s middle-age, second wave quandaries.


In many plays about women academics—which have become their own subgenre—accomplished women are punished for pursuing lives of the mind.  In Margaret Edson’s Wit, the central character—a John Donne scholar—dies of ovarian cancer (nothing like illness as metaphor).  In Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why, the molecular biologist who gave up her daughter for adoption to achieve her career also has cancer.  In Wasserstein’s Third, a subsidiary academic female character has cancer, and the central female professor has to leave her teaching position to re-center a life Wasserstein suggests has become too stringent and dogmatic.


Unlike these plays (and so many more), Rapture, Blister, Burn narrates five very likable, healthy characters (all beautifully played) and doesn’t rank their choices while it teases out their inevitable differences.  Gionfriddo manages to tell a story about a swathe of contemporary middle-class white women that doesn’t judge them, deride, or punish their decisions so much as it contextualizes them within feminist history and the idiosyncrasies of personal, as well as political, choice.


Brenneman performs Catherine as low-key and elegant.  She’s not parodied for her intellect, but instead, Brenneman plays her as empathetic and watchful, someone who listens well and speaks carefully.  She doesn’t have all the answers to the ambivalences of her own or anyone else’s life.  She’s allowed to be sexual without, finally, surrendering her smartness.  In Catherine, Gionfriddo explodes the stereotype of the dour, dowdy feminist for a newer archetype.


Alice, Catherine’s mother, and Gwen, the uptight, righteous housewife, tread closer to types we’ve seen before:  the wise but funny older mother, entering her dotage with irony and insight, and the resentful, sexless middle-aged mother who buries her hopes in her son to avoid the problems in her marriage.   But if these two characters seem a bit less three-dimensional, they nonetheless provide a context in which to view Catherine and Avery’s choices more magnanimously.  That Dixon and Overbey play Alice and Gwen with such intelligent generosity also helps avoid the stereotypes.  Dixon is spry and sweet as Alice, and Overbey tempers Gwen’s resentment and self-righteousness with a dollop of clear and self-knowing graceful humor.


The acting enlivens each of the five characters.  Tergesen is terrific as Don, the much maligned boy-man who’s very comfortable in his unambitious life.  The character presents a humorous gender-switch; Don is far from Scoop Rosenbaum in The Heidi Chronicles, who literally scoops Heidi on all their potential life choices.  Scoop edits a magazine, becomes a public intellectual, and runs for office, while Heidi dithers over her lack of feminist community and builds a much quieter career as an art historian.  In Rapture, Blister, Burn, Don discards his potential for a life that proceeds quietly under the social radar while Catherine moves out into the public world of ideas and culture.  Tergesen strikes just the right notes as a charming enough middle-aged man who knows himself and his limitations.


Virginia Kull, as Avery, turns in perhaps the best performance in an ensemble production that boasts five of them.  Avery could play as an annoying know-it-all, much like her ‘80s counterpart, Heidi‘s Denise.  Instead, she’s a young woman who thinks as she goes, who brings her analysis to bear on history and the present, who’s open to listening and revising her life plan.  Kull brings a refreshing mix of ambivalence and certainty to the character, as well as a wonderfully ingenuous earnestness.  Interpreted by Kull, Avery is young and hopeful and eager to be tutored and mentored as she works toward making her own life choices.  Kull’s performance grounds the play’s sunny outlook on cross-generational feminism.


Catherine and Avery consider their lives within the context of a larger movement.  Rapture, Blister, Burn has its didactic moments, in part because of its pedagogical conceit.  Several scenes show Catherine literally leading the other women through texts, as they teach themselves and think about feminism as an historical movement and a present-day option.  They drink martinis while they work that encourage them to be personal in their responses to what they read.


Occasionally, I feared that viewers might think feminist seminars are all and only about the experiential sharing that Catherine encourages from Gwen and Avery in their encounters with the assigned reading.  But as a dramaturgical choice, I appreciated that feminism was an overt part of the discussion, that ideas became the yardstick against which all four women—and by extension, Don—measured their lives and aspirations.


At the play’s end, Avery and Catherine celebrate their decision to go to Italy together and Alice applauds their detachment from men. The three women lean over the candles lit in the hurricane lamp that’s warmed the scene to blow them out.  As their faces converge over the flames and the stage lights fade, the moment explicitly recalls the end of Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, in which the three sisters blow out the oldest daughter’s birthday candles on a note of hope for a better future.


With this gesture, director DuBois and Gionfriddo bring Rapture, Blister, Burn full circle in its homage to 1980s plays by women that address women’s choices and the potential of feminism as a movement and as a way of life.


In Gionfriddo’s hands, feminism is a practice pliable enough for anyone.


The Feminist Spectator


Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo, Playwrights Horizons through June 24 (discussed performance of May 30, 2012).


Kerry Washington in Shonda Rimes' new series

Shonda Rimes’ new television series arrived at its first season finale last week, after a terrific premiere and seven-week run and the promise of renewal for a second season.  Kerry Washington stars in the first series to feature an African American woman in the leading role since 1974, a fact of network history that seems both outrageous and significant.  The lie that America is “post-race” has long been put to rest, but that Scandal’s demographics make history in 2012 seems hard to believe.


Washington plays Olivia Pope, a Washington, D.C., crisis manager whose story is based on the real life of Judy Smith.  Smith established her reputation working for the D.C. district attorney’s office in the 1990s, when then-mayor Marion Barry was caught using cocaine.  Her demonstrated crisis management skills prompted the first Bush White House to hire Smith as a deputy press secretary, and lead to the storied career on which Scandal focuses.  When Smith struck out on her own, her firm’s first client to draw national attention was Monica Lewinsky.  (Smith is on board as one of the show’s producers.)


As Kerry Washington said in a recent exclusive interview with The Feminist Spectator, the fact that Scandal is based on a real person delights her, because it prevents people from scoffing about the character’s believability.  Washington’s performance more than honors her source—Olivia Pope is one of the most compelling women characters I’ve ever seen on television.  Subscription TV has given us Nurse Jackie, Weeds, The Big C (on Showtime) and more recently Veep and Girls (both on HBO), all shows that offer leading women characters a broader range of experiences and foibles than most.


But Scandal is one of the first network series to feature a woman—let alone a woman of color—in its central role and to allow the character to be emotionally strong, professionally powerful, and personally complicated.  (Those illustrious few include The Good Wife [CBS] and The Killing [AMC] . . . Missing [ABC] didn’t grab me, which is unfortunate, because I really appreciated the series star Ashley Judd’s recent protests about the media’s focus on women’s physical appearances.  All of these series, however, feature white women leads.)


Washington is pleased that Scandal pushes the envelope of network television.  While she admits that it would be a different show on cable, she says, “I’m proud that it’s on the network.  That it’s mainstream America.  . . . Cable is known to take more risks, but it’s time to have a show with a black woman as a lead not seen as a big deal.”


Emily Nussbaum, in The New Yorker, suggests that Scandal in fact avoids mentioning Olivia’s race to the show’s detriment.  But as she does with Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, Rimes seems more concerned with affirming racial and ethnic diversity as a visible part of her series’ stories, without emphasizing race as content.  Representational politics seem to me equally important right now—that is, seeing people of color on television in roles typically populated (without comment) by white people makes its own statement.


Olivia Pope's "team"

On Scandal, Olivia Pope administers her firm with iron-clad rules and demands fierce, uncompromised loyalty.  Her rag-tag band of employees—the so-called Gladiators in Suits—all boast certain skills, and most have sordid, secret pasts from which they’ve been rescued by Olivia.  Like the squad of detectives who surround Chief Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) on The Closer (TNT), Olivia’s team stands in awe of her know-how but also harbors deeper emotional feelings for a boss who leads them with careful aplomb through the minefields of a very political world.


If part of the joke of The Closer is that Brenda’s squad is full of men (of various races and ethnicities), each with his own charmingly comic character flaw, Olivia’s team on Scandal is comprised of men, women, white people, and people of color, each with his or her own charming if dangerous character flaw.  And instead of playing on overly feminine white Southern wiles to get her way, as Brenda does in the very male world of Los Angeles police work, Olivia Pope stands strong, tough, and African American in the very white and very male world of presidential politics that provides Scandal’s milieu.


As a Shonda Rimes show, Scandal mixes intense workplace environment storylines with subplots about the personal lives of characters whose professional commitments always drive their ambitions.  Olivia’s team is on call day and night.  Her newest employee, Quinn Perkins (Katie Lowes), plays with fire when she decides to date a journalist who’s sniffing around the firm looking for information about Amanda Tanner, one of its clients.  The other team members are already stalwart:  Harrison Wright (Columbus Short) has some sort of prison record, which makes him happy to be at Olivia’s beck and call; Abby Whelan (Darby Stanchfield) is a progressive who’s appalled when Olivia decides to take the case of a Latin American dictator searching for his apparently kidnapped wife.


Stephen Finch (Henry Ian Cusick), who comes closest to being Olivia’s professional equal, proposes to his fiancée in the series’ first episode, but rarely spends time with her.  He arrives at Olivia’s home any time of the night to consult with or comfort her.  And the mysterious, taciturn Huck (Guillermo Diaz) demonstrates his loyalty and his acute empathy for Olivia’s frequent ethical anguish by constantly reassuring her and the others that he’s got Olivia’s back.


The crew is idiosyncratic and interesting and the family of actors assembled to perform the team is apparently very close.  Washington says, “People at the network are surprised, they really love each other.”  She attributes this intimacy to Judy Smith, whose compassion for her fellow human beings inflects her work and Olivia Pope’s character.  Washington says that Smith “comes to the work as a nurturer.  She wants to make sure that people are taken care of.  She realizes that justice isn’t always just, that not everyone gets a second chance.  People make mistakes, everyone is human.  She’s a very caring and compassionate person.  Olivia Pope has pulled in these people who work for her who she takes care of.  They also have skills that make them assets.”  She continues, “I often think when we’re thinking about powerful women we disassociate them from their maternal instincts.  Olivia has no children (that we know of) but she’s very much in touch with the maternal.”


The actors’ ensemble work has already gelled into a terrific chorus for Washington’s star turn as Olivia.  And what a turn it is.  Washington brings to Olivia Pope a superbly talented actor’s confidence and the empathy of a woman who can read a scene (in real life and in a script) with an almost tactile feel for the nuances of its politics and its themes.  Her intelligence shines through her performance, and the series’ scripts allow Washington’s smarts to propel Pope’s character.


You can actually see Washington thinking through Olivia’s frequent quandaries.  One of the character’s best traits is that she thinks fast and effectively.  Other critics have noted that the D.C.-based show’s dialogue echoes the West Wing; the walk-and-talk practices established by that landmark show are recalled in Scandal.  But here, what Washington calls “Scandal-pace” isn’t a function of the D.C. political setting but of its central character’s intensity.  All the characters speak with urgency, and the show’s editing moves it quickly through its central story and subplots each week.


Judy Smith, on whom Washington's character is based

Washington says that Scandal-pace comes from Smith herself.  “Judy is always moving very quickly,” she says.  “When you walk beside her, you’re out of breath and she’s talking effortlessly.”  That stamina and endurance shows in Washington’s carriage as she’s performing; Olivia holds herself proudly and propels herself through each scene as though she’s singing the 11:00 number in a musical while chorus boys fall at her feet.


Olivia’s personal sense of urgency matches that required by her work.  Washington notes that crisis management moves fast and that it’s changed a lot since Smith began working in the field.  Now, it’s necessary to fix something or to stop a story in five minutes instead of five hours or five days.  Washington says crisis managers are “constantly playing games where you have to think five steps ahead” of the media and law enforcement.  “Time is money,” Washington says.  “Time could be life or death.”  That urgency fuels each moment of Scandal.


But the fast-talking is written mostly for Olivia.  Her ability to think aloud in eloquent, pointed paragraphs is demonstrated best when, in each episode, she typically delivers an ultimatum (or two) to a client or a nemesis balking over a deal.  Those scenes beautifully showcase Washington’s ability to be at once emotionally and intellectually acute.  They’re typically filmed in close-up, so that the screen is filled with Washington’s beautiful, expressive face, her lips moving faster than seems humanly possible while her eyes register all the complicated devotion or disdain Olivia feels for her interlocutor.  Often, these moments are about persuading another character of an ethically questionable choice.  The dialogue carries the heavy-lifting of reason while Washington’s countenance reads with all the agony of the necessary compromise or concession.


I love those moments in Scandal because they let you see a very talented actor at work in the guise of a character whose skill at fixing political and personal crises invariably saves the day.  This isn’t a woman seducing a client through personal charm.  On the contrary, Olivia Pope lays down the law, tells it like it is, reads the riot act, and otherwise gives people their marching orders, with Washington making every one of those speeches heart-rending and convincing.


Washington says she was drawn to the role because “the emotional life of the character was on the page from day one”:


That very much drew me to this project.  The woman is often the accessory, so you’re looking for ways to three-dimensionalize the character.  Your job as an actor is to fill that picture.  But when I read the pilot it was all there.  I loved that you could have this woman who was fierce and powerful and together in her professional life.  But her personal life is a bit of a mess.  That dichotomy could exist on the page.  These people [her team] would go over a cliff for her.  [She says she doesn’t cry, but in the] pilot, you see her crying alone in a coat closet.  She has so many ways that she performs her identity.


Washington says that she’s always interested in a character’s different performances of her public and private selves.  Olivia is a rich example of the compromises often required of professional women.


The President (Tony Goldwyn) and Pope (Washington)

Perhaps the biggest scandal on Scandal is that Olivia has an on-going romantic affair with the President of the United States, Fitzgerald (“Fitz”) Grant (Tony Goldwyn, exceptionally sexy and soulful as a powerful man with sexual secrets).  The episode called “The Trail” (#106, aired 5/10/12), flashed back to the beginning of Fitz and Olivia’s relationship to reveal that they started their affair when Fitz hired Olivia to assist on his campaign for the presidency.


Although his marriage is a sham, the President nonetheless can’t afford to compromise his image as a happy husband.  His mercenary wife, eager to gain and later retain her power as First Lady, brazenly aids and abets the cover-up of Fitz’s infidelities.


Washington and Goldwyn’s scenes together are gentle, sad explorations of a desire that just won’t quit, despite the challenges of position and politics.  Although Fitz’s escape from the prison of the White House in “The Trail” stretched credulity (hey, it’s a television show, after all), the President’s mournful appearance at Olivia’s door proved a touching illustration of their mutual need and yearning.


Jeff Perry plays Cyrus Beene, the President’s Chief of Staff, who’s determined to alienate Fitz from Olivia.  The ongoing mystery plot in Scandal’s first season sees Olivia hired to help and protect Amanda Tanner, a former White House staffer who claims she’s had a relationship with the President and is carrying his baby.  Olivia’s new client strains the triangulated relationship between Cyrus, Fitz, and Olivia, in which each balances their power, their abilities, and their insights to keep the President in office.  The Amanda Tanner storyline threads through each of the season’s episodes, keeping the tension ramped up as Olivia and the team otherwise solved the crises of each week.


Tanner, it seems, was pressed into service by shadowy enemies to blackmail the President into thinking that the baby she carried was his.  When Tanner decides to back out of the plan, we see her call her operatives to renege.  Shortly after, a black-clad, hooded figure breaks into her apartment, knocks her out, and carries her off.  We don’t see her again until her body is dragged from the Potomac.


Billy Chambers, the Vice President’s Chief of Staff, is involved in this nefarious plan.  The VP, beautifully played by Kate Burton as a southern conservative Tea Party-er from hell, ran against Fitz in the presidential primary, and reluctantly joined his ticket in the second spot.  Billy’s reptilian delusions of grandeur lead him to fantasize that he can unseat Fitz and install his woman instead, using Amanda Tanner’s affair with the president and her pregnancy as the impeachable offense.  He captures the media’s attention by spreading rumors of the President’s ethics violations and it looks like Fitz might have to step down.


In the season finale (“Grant:  For the People,” episode #107, aired 5/17/12), the plot only thickens.  (Spoiler alert!)  Olivia and Fitz share a brief romantic moment imagining that they can have a normal domestic future if the scandal forces him to leave the presidency.  But thanks to the mercenary deal struck by Fitz’s wife, and thanks to Olivia’s brilliant abilities, they spin the story to avert disaster.  The wife exacts her revenge by forcing Fitz back into a sexual relationship to produce the baby she claims to be carrying, and Olivia grieves that her commitment to her job (and I guess her country) means she has to sacrifice the love of her life.


The season’s real twist, though, comes in the final moment, when we learn that Cyrus, not Billy, engineered Amanda Tanner’s murder.  Played by Perry as a smug, grasping narcissist, the plot twist dangles the promise that many more complications are in store, which will no doubt continue to muddy the waters of Olivia’s already troubled ethics.


I’ll look forward to that.  It’s great fun to watch an African American woman navigate the halls of power with her personal and professional dignity intact.  I revel in Scandal’s implicit feminism and the pleasure of seeing an African American woman order people around on the screen.  Washington says, “I’m proud to play this role as a feminist,” in part because “one of the things that makes [Olivia] powerful is that she’s a human being.  She’s always trying to be the best version of herself, despite her own confusion.”


Despite the high visibility—and no doubt, some vulnerability—of being the first African American woman to star in a network TV series since 1974, when a show called Get Christie Love aired starring Teresa Graves, Washington says she doesn’t feel a heavy burden of responsibility about this historical fact.  “I actually feel very supported doing it.  There was a lot of anticipation about the show; people were excited that this character was going to live and breathe and exist off the page.  I felt a lot of support from the community of women of color actresses in Hollywood.”  The pressure, Washington suggests, is on the audience:  “Will the American people show up and watch this smart woman, in a show that’s female-driven, that’s driven by an African American female?  Will people allow her into their hearts?”


That Scandal has been renewed for a full second season seems to indicate audiences’ willingness to take that leap.  And that faith, Washington believes, might contribute to real social change.  She says, “Audience members in theatre, film, and television, through consciousness and imagination, are able to put themselves in other people’s shoes.  That expanded consciousness makes us more inclusive and lets us see similarities instead of divisions.  Art can show us who we want to be.  That’s powerful work.”


Let’s hope spectators will be willing to put themselves into Olivia Pope’s (gorgeous) shoes.  She’s a tough woman navigating a brutal world, and doing so with intensity, grace, and a ramrod straight spine that makes her irresistible to watch, especially in a medium that allows so few women to be as complex, powerful, and charismatic.  And thank goodness an actor as ethical, aware, and committed to social change as Kerry Washington is bringing Olivia to our hearts.


The Feminist Spectator