Caution: Women at Work

Four Female Playwrights Flex the Power of the Pen

by Elena Gray Blanc

womens_work.jpgThere 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.

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