Four Female Playwrights Flex the Power of the Pen
by Elena Gray Blanc
There are almost as many opinions on the function of art in society as there are members of society, but one of the best qualities of good art is its tendency to provoke discussion and challenge the status quo. Dramatic Women’s new production of four short plays, Women’s Work, promises to deliver on both fronts. The plays confront cultural assumptions and break apart gender, racial, and sexual boundaries. Not only is Women’s Work written entirely and directed mostly by women, it also features ethnic diversity and a variety of talent rarely brought together in the Santa Barbara theater scene. Of the 13 cast members, eight are of African descent, several are students, and all are drawn from the community of artists Dramatic Women exists to empower and promote.
The first piece in the show, “The Receptionist,” is based on real events that unfolded in Washington, D.C., immediately following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Sojourner Kincaid Rolle, well known for her poetry and now embarking on her first foray into playwriting, has “mixed feelings” about saying the play is based on her life. Although she lived in proximity to the political and social upheavals of the Civil Rights movement, she compiled the action of the play from a combination of personal experience, anecdotes, and how she imagined the key figures of the time might have behaved under stress. Showing some of the “varying points of view among the black leadership at the time,” “The Receptionist” is intended as the American response to the evening’s third play, “The Sand Woman,” which is set in a South African squatter’s camp.
Both “Receptionist” and “Sand Woman” address issues of race and gender conflict. The former focuses on the behind-the-scenes accomplishments of a woman whose nominal career is traditionally considered “woman’s work.” The latter is concerned with the power dynamics between two women who are separated by the skin-deep issue of color and a very real gap in life experience. Sheila Fugard, whose husband is world-famous playwright Athol Fugard, has ventured into writing for the stage for the first time, drawing upon her knowledge of life in her native South Africa to bring this world premiere to Center Stage Theater.
While Kincaid Rolle took a break from poetry for this project and Fugard departed from prose, other members of the production made shifts just as dramatic. Alison Coutts-Jordan, recipient of multiple Indy awards for her acting, has “stepped through the looking glass,” as she describes it, to direct Emma-Jane Huerta’s play, “Five Finger Discount.” Huerta is an actress moonlighting as a playwright, making this an appropriate project, Coutts-Jordan said, for her directorial debut. She has planned and organized everything “from soup to nuts”: from constructing “sculptural units” out of giant boxes begged from a Paseo Nuevo store, to recording an authentic sounding police transmission to provide verisimilitude during the performance.
The police radio, of course, implies the presence of a police officer — in this case, continuing the trend of exploring atypical power dynamics, an African-American female officer — who is called to the scene when a mother/daughter shoplifting team is apprehended in the act. The play has a twist that Coutts-Jordan wouldn’t reveal, but apparently the daughter is not all that she seems. She is, however, human — which is not true of every character in the show.
The last play, “Sleeping with Squirrels,” follows the exploits of a woman who “doesn’t want to get tied down in a conventional relationship.” Her involvement with a bear and the resulting love triangles populate Ellen K. Anderson’s landscape with surreal characterizations, and create perhaps the most artistically risky plotline in the show. This piece is the most abstract of the four, rounding off the evening by requiring a full suspension of disbelief. This, of course, is one of the main functions of true art: to take us out of ourselves and into a world perhaps better, perhaps worse, but always intriguing. Like the other three plays, “Sleeping with Squirrels” is being produced by a skeleton crew of dedicated and versatile artists, who are as quick to design a costume as to polish a script. But what Dramatic Women’s crew may lack in manpower, they more than make up in woman power — and the result of their efforts ought to be every bit as passionate and diverse as its creators.