By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
The culture is lousy with TV shows and movies about young people “coming of age.”
And since the cultural default for “people” is usually men, that means there’s a lot of stuff out there about boys and their arduous trek toward manhood. Conversely, there’s not much in the entertainment world about young girls becoming young women. And until very recently, even just pointing this out was cause for an eye roll and impatient sigh. Part of the reason is that women just aren’t presented with the same opportunities for storytelling as men. It’s still kinda stunning to remember that Joanne Kathleen Rowling was told to use her initials, rather than her actual name, for fear that people wouldn’t buy the first Harry Potter novel if it appeared to have been written by a woman.
Another possible explanation for all those tales of boys’ life is the belief that the world just doesn’t want to spend any more time thinking about women than it has to. I think one of the reasons that movie musicals have fallen out of favor is that – if for no other reason than vocal necessity – women always feature prominently in a musical (the opera version of Billy Budd doesn’t count). That is something of an anomaly in Hollywood were an all-male above-the-title talent list is standard. (I’m talking to you The Irishman, Ford v Ferrari, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood …)
As much as it breaks my heart to say it, women in theater hardly fare much better. It may not be quite as bleak as TV and film, but there’s still a long, long way to go until something even slightly resembling equity is achieved.
So we must take a moment to acknowledge that this month Pittsburgh theater has produced two plays written by women, directed by women, about the lives of young girls … and the fact that one of them moves beyond the framework of white America is an even bigger plus.
Pittsburgh is the new Seneca Falls – who knew?
We’re talking about Claire Barron’s Dance Nation at barebones productions and School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play written by Jocelyn Bioh at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Both are Pittsburgh premieres and while they vary in style, content and vision, both have compelling contributions to make about what space a patriarchal society allows young women.
Dance Nation is a 2019 Pulitzer finalist about a pre-teen dance troupe in Liverpool, Ohio as they rehearse and perform on the competitive dance team circuit in pursuit of the Big Prize – the Nationals being held in Tampa!
Dance Nation continues at barebones productions through December 15. Braddock Ave, Braddock. www.barebonesproductions.com
It’s a group of six girls and one boy all teetering on the edge of puberty. The kids are schooled and driven by Dance Teacher Pat, a man just one tall stick away from the stereotype of the martinet ballet mistresses of yore. With relentless determination and some laughably outrageous artistic ambitions, Pat’s going to see to it his kids Triumph.
It’s one of Barron’s concepts to have the little girls (and one boy) played by adult women (and one adult man.) None of the cast is under 20, several are several years older and while a few of them are legit dancers, most of the ensemble would be automatically disqualified at any dance audition.
And all of that is exactly as the author intends because Dance Nation isn’t about the competitive dance world – it’s about girls beginning to find the possibilities and boundaries afforded young women in our culture.
Each of the girls has, through the course of the show, a monologue delivered to the audience where they expose to themselves and us a growing consciousness beginning to emerge and take form. All are raw, some excessively so, many fueled by anger and an intense desire to not just survive, but conquer the world.
It’s not accidental that all of this is set within the world of dance … where individuality is actively discouraged and looking and moving exactly like the Dew Drop/Snowflake/Swan dancing next to you is the goal. Barron’s point is (I think) that we raise girls – with so much singularity churning inside – to be as unremarkable as possible. Barron’s also making a great statement about women stepping away from their own exceptionality. One of the girls is a top-flight dancer, a true standout with a great future, but she spends the play muffling and smothering her estimation of her ability. It isn’t until the final moments of the play when she admits to her amazing talent … so maybe Barron’s saying there is hope after all.
I’m suddenly realizing that the preceding précis isn’t giving you any idea of just how much fun Dance Nation is. Barron is a very funny writer specializing in milking laughs from outré, if not downright vulgar, language. Contributing to the humor is Tomé Cousins’ choreography which exists on just the other side lunacy. He turns the loopy artistic visions of Dance Teacher Pat into physical form and the results are side-splitting.
This barebones production features a blistering gallery of performers who invade and inform every inch of Barron’s script. Lissa Brennan, Mei Lu Barnum, Jerreme Rodriguez, Mita Ghosal, Hope Anthony, Liron Blumenthal, Cary Ann Spear, Nancy McNulty and David Conrad are a mesmerizing crew and though each have individual moments, their greatest strength is the iron-clad ensemble they’ve created.
Overseeing all these elements and supplying the precise power, intelligence and punch the work demands is director Melissa Martin driving her cast to the dizzying emotional heights provided for them by Barron. Martin, and company have created an evening of fearless theatricality.
The temperature is a little lower, although only somewhat, over at the Public for School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play. The work, which debuted in 2017, has made a splash off-Broadway and at several theaters around the country – partly due to the freshness of its story and the intense sincerity poured into the work by writer Bioh.
School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play continues through December 8. Pittsburgh Public Theater, Downtown. 412/316-1600. www.ppt.org
It’s 1986 at an all-girls boarding school in the Aburi Mountains in Central Ghana where the A-list school clique is run by a queen bee named Paulina. Her reign is threatened when a transfer student shows up all the way from America.
Fans of the Tina Fey’s Mean Girls movie will recall that the plot conflict there was a white girl from Africa transferring to an almost all-white American school. In School Girls the Ghanaian girls are black, as is Ericka, the America transfer student. The play quickly becomes the battle between Ericka and Paulina for the Big Prize … a chance to compete for the title of Miss Ghana and represent their country in the Miss Global Universe Pageant.
It’s not only that School Girls comments on the emotional dead-ending of a culture-defining woman through physical beauty and forcing them to compete for a momentary bit of illusory self-regard. Always bubbling beneath the surface (and at times breaking through) is abject racism and the soul-crushing process of internalizing that hate. Ericka is a light-skinned black girl and Paulina is dark-skinned and the pageant functionary there to select the possible contestant makes very clear that if Ghana wants to compete on the world stage, the candidate needs to look like a woman from one the “power” counties a.k.a. as white as possible. The physical and emotional cost of this negation is staggering.
Bioh has tried to soften the bitter bite of some of the huge issues she’s raised by couching the play in accessible humor and youthful charm – at times parts of the show feel like a standard TV sitcom. It’s her easy, breezy style which gives the show its appeal. But Bioh has a tendency to overcorrect for that and draws her evil characters so evil they feel melodramatic and unreal, which does a disservice to the actuality of her message. These are big, complex things Bioh’s trying to tell us but at times it feels like this somewhat nuance-free telling blunts the import of what she’s trying to say.
Director Shariffa Ali brings plenty of energy to the stage; this is a loud, forceful production moving faster than an express train … though all that enthusiasm can feel a little cartoonish and I’m not entirely sure the style of the playing always blends harmoniously with that of the writing.
Plenty of fine performances here – a favorite moment is the hilariously funny singing audition the girls perform for the pageant – and I especially enjoyed Markia Nicole Smith as Paulina, Atiauna Grant as the hapless hanger-on Nana and the strong sense of emotional growth Shakara Wright brings to the role of Ama.
But that’s enough about what I think – go listen to these women and let them tell you their own stories.