Even by the gruesome standards of Greek myth, the Medusa story is disturbing. Poseidon lures Medusa, a young mortal known for her beautiful hair, to the Temple of Minerva, where he rapes her. Minerva finds Medusa and punishes the victim, rather than the perpetrator, by casting a spell that turns her long locks into writhing snakes. The effect this creates is so horrifying that anyone who looks at her directly turns to stone.
Enter Perseus, the “hero” of the myth in Ovid’s version. Does Perseus take the side of Medusa, already twice wronged by the gods? Not a chance. In the twisted logic of this male fantasy, Perseus chooses instead to slay the victim turned monster. Approaching Medusa with a sword in hand and his back to her, Perseus avoids turning to stone by only looking at Medusa’s reflection in his shining, mirror-like shield. Thus protected, he decapitates Medusa and takes her head as a trophy of his victory.
But wait, there’s more. Even severed from her body, Medusa’s head retains its power to turn men to stone. Her murderer Perseus weaponizes the dead woman’s corpse by carrying her head into battle and using it to defeat his other enemies. Slick move.
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A Medusa Thread, the new play by Candrice Jones that UCSB’s Launch Pad program will present in previews from May 16 through May 25, refracts and transposes elements of this story into a fantasy of the afterlife as a hair salon. After they die, women who have been raped come to a bardo-like transitional zone where they have their hair done before choosing which type of eternity they will enter. Cleverly combining multiple motifs from the Medusa myth, from sexual assault to the use of a mirror, Jones offers viewers an imaginary space where they can explore feelings about sexual violence, victimization, self-image, and consent.
When I spoke with the playwright on Zoom, she was exhilarated from the experience of working on the script in the company of her director, Shirley Jo Finney, and members of the UCSB Theater department’s BFA program. She praised the student actors for their courage in confronting the material and for the quality of the questions they raised. In earlier versions of the play, Medusa had been a college student, and Jones conceived of it as a spoken word piece. In developing the material into a full-length play with multiple roles, she said that she kept specific goals in focus. She said that A Medusa Thread sought “to examine how we talk about sexual assault in society” and reflect on the fact that, when it comes to rape, “everybody deals with it in their own way.”
The idea for the setting came about through the realization that “haircuts are conversations about consent.” In offering her characters the chance to decide where they will spend eternity, Jones said she imagined “the ultimate amount of agency.” “What if you do get to choose?” she asked, referring to how her characters confront trauma and work on themselves. “I wanted to do a play about trauma without any manifestations of the violence that caused it,” she told me. “I’m writing about women who gain perspective on their lives — their lives before and after the traumatic event.”
Launch Pad offers outstanding theater artists the opportunity to continue working on scripts while gaining the benefits of a fully staged production. A Medusa Thread can be seen at the UCSB Performing Arts Theater on May 16, 18, 20, 21, and 23 through 25 at 7 p.m. and on May 21 at 1 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit theaterdance.ucsb.edu.