Little Wars

 

littlewars_media

Source: primeprods.org

This post was originally published on Minnesota Playlist. 

Prime Production is one of the newest theater companies in town, seeking, as their website states, to “explore, illuminate, and support women over fifty and their stories through the creative voice of performance.” Looking for more diversity of storytelling work that create more outlets for all women to share their stories (especially in theater, where women over fifty can find it difficult to find a role) I eagerly awaited their first full production, Steven Carl McCasland’s Little Wars.

Set in Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas’s Parisian salon in the beginning of WWII, the play introduces us to a group of writers (Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Agatha Christie) visiting the book-cluttered and art-filled home to discuss writing. Among them is Bernadette, a German Jew in hiding and Muriel Gardiner, a political activist who has come in search of funds in order to help Jews escape from Germany. Full of strong characters and stronger opinions, I was swept away by the whiskey-drinking, swearing women who strode through sexual norms, issues of relationships and divorce, and politics with broad strides and strong words.

Seeing a space that reminded me of my own with books piled precariously, walls filled with bright images and literature references while the women my friends and I might hope to be in thirty years discussed intellectual and personal topics struck me as something a bit different. I don’t recall seeing an entire cast of women, a majority of them over the age of forty, onstage before, let alone a show that featured them and gave them more to talk about than just love and growing old. This play celebrates women in all of their complexities and allows them to argue and drink in ways that is too often only written for men. As a whiskey-drinking, swearing LGBT writer who spends a great deal of her time discussing politics, the characters and issues at stake hit a personal tone for me.

The politics of the piece also feel timely (unfortunately) as discussions of fascism are only on the rise. “I won’t let it happen again, Bernadette,” Gertrude promises her maid, echoing a promise I hear uttered again and again. In the play, this involves not just the rise of Nazis but also sexual violence. “We waste so much time with silence,” Muriel tells us towards end of the show. What is perhaps most compelling is the need and desire thes women find to do something, to have their own resistance to the world around them that reaches beyond their salon, where they can discuss things in safety and privacy. For Lillian Hellman, it becomes more than just donating but actually getting involved in acts of resistance. Given our time and place, it’s an important message we all need to hear.

There is a caveat to this. As Kit Bix discusses on Talking Broadway and Matthew Everett alludes in his review, the historical accuracy of this play is highly questionable. Unfortunately, it seems that Gertrude Stein most likely did not support the resistance of Nazis – in fact, is seems she supported the Vichy government (as discussed in this New Yorker article). Though I certainly don’t expect plays to be entirely accurate in terms of history, I do like to know when things stray from the truth or when liberties have been taken. Since the play focuses so much on who will tell their stories, especially Bernadette’s speech at the beginning and at the end, it comes as a bit of a shock to know that play is far more fictitious than it seems.

As a dramaturg, I find these historical perspectives important and wish they had been dealt with in some way – a statement in the program, a resource guide, etc. As Prime is a new company, I hope that future productions will work to include this research when it is necessary. While these uneasy historical lessons do change how I relate to the show, I still find myself blown away by the representation of women in this piece. The moments of intersectionality – between gender and sexuality, age and gender, and politics and gender – are moments of vital connection to me.

I look forward to seeing more of these intersections (with race, class, etc) in the future work that Prime has planned. I hope I continue to see more and more diverse representation of women, not just in this theater company, but in all companies.

Note: It was pointed out to me by a Minnesota Playlist reader in the comments that there is a director’s note in the program that the situation of the play is purely fiction. Perhaps it’s telling that I overlooked this or perhaps it’s merely my not paying enough heed to the program. Nevertheless, it is noted. 

Advertisements

Vietgone

vietgone

Source: twitter.com/mixed_blood

Without a doubt, Vietgone is my new favorite show. I’ve known Qui Nguyen’s writing from She Kills Monsters, a favorite script of mine that (while I’ve yet to see staged) I cherish for its female protagonists and humorous perspective on D&D and geek culture. But I wasn’t prepared for the hilarious, heartbreaking, and sexy world that Vietgone creates.

How do I begin to describe this performance? Well, for one, there’s the stellar cast of characters – the playwright (Sherwin Resurreccion) introduces us to Quang (David Huynh) and Tong (Meghan Kreidler), who met each other in a refugee camp in Arkansas. Tong and her mother (Sun Mee Chomet) have come to America in order to escape the collapse and fallout of US Troops pulling out of Vietnam. Quang, a helicopter pilot for the South Vietnamese forces, has come to the US against his will after he and his friend Nahn (Flordelino Langundino) landed on an US military vessel and had no way of going back to Vietnam. Quang wants nothing more than to find his way back to Vietnam while Tong believes the life that’s best for her, where she can become who she wants to be, can only be found in the US. Despite their differences, they become “friends with benefits,” then fall in love. But the struggles of being an immigrant, a refugee from war, in the United States complicates their lives and their relationships.

Chomet and Kreidler steal the show with their hilarious mother-daughter relationship (especially Chomet, whose punch lines and physical humor will make your sides ache). This entire cast is incredible, moving between bold, honest sexuality and painful loss with boldness and delicacy. Punctuating certain scenes are rap numbers, feeling half Doomtree, half Lin Manuel Miranda. They highlight inner thoughts the way a monologue would but add an energy and musical element that fuels and powers the show in its rich, vibrant language and environment. In a nonlinear narrative, the raps also work to tie different scenes together as they occur out of time sequentially.

Language is used wonderfully in this show – playing with American words to give the idea of what English sounds like to those who don’t speak it, replacing sentences with words like “Tater tots! Nixon!” Playfully and seriously making fun of the US, the criticism is not just about American culture but how refugees are treated, how one finds a home in a country that promises things it cannot deliver, and the complications of US military involvement. I learned essentially nothing about the Vietnam War in school, except that most people think that it was a mistake. This play clues us in on a different perspective – that South Vietnam needed US military intervention in order to keep the VC from destroying them, and that one cannot simply painting a war as right or wrong. Showing life in the camps scattered throughout the US, camps I never knew existed, not only presents overlooked history, but at a different kind of immigration story – one that complicates the narrative we think we know.

With amazing design by Paul Whitaker (set and lighting), Abbee Warmboe (properties), Mandi Johnson (costumes), and C Andrew Mayer (sound), this production creates a world that shifts easily between time and space, allowing for everything from a motorcycle trip to California, profanity-filled mother -daughter arguments about the camp, and movie-referencing sex scenes (including Say Anything, When Harry Met Sally, and Titanic to name a few) all set to the soundtrack of Redbone’s groovy “Come and Get Your Love.” You really just have to see it.

This show is sensual, heartwarming, provocative, and challenging, making its audience question not only what we think we know about sex and relationships, but also what we think we know about history and about the US. It’s one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen while also giving voice to a story that until now, I’ve never heard. Some argue that theater should be entertainment, some argue it should say something important about being human, some say it should allow for different voices and different perspectives to be heard. Vietgone does all of that and more. It absolutely should not be missed.

Vietgone is written by Qui Nguyen and is directed by Mark Valdez. It is playing now through April 30th at Mixed Blood Theatre. Ticket and show information can be found on Mixed Blood’s website. For every performance, tickets are available free of price, first come/first served, two hours before the show through Mixed Blood’s Radical Hospitality program.

Charm – The Importance of Representation

charm

Source: mixedblood.com

I would like to preface this article by saying that I am a cis-gender individual and that, while I do my best as an ally, I make mistakes and am still learning. If I say anything word-wise or representation wise that is incorrect, please let me know. It is not your job to teach me what I might be doing wrong, but your voice is important.

I had the wonderful opportunity to see Charm at Mixed Blood last night. It’s the first play I’ve seen at the theater in a long time – too long. It’s a very timely production and one that is much needed, especially here in the Twin Cities.

I was told by a friend that this production had been done in Chicago but did not cast according to representation. That production cast cis-gender people (or people who identify with the gender they were born with) in roles meant to represent trans-gender people. This received many negative reactions from individuals who wanted to see these roles performed by people who actually represented these identities. In Mixed Blood’s production, the show was cast mostly this way, allowing trans actors to take on roles that are not often seen. This show represents not only their personal story but also stories of people rarely seen not just onstage but in all other media forms.

I’d heard complaints about some of the acting in this show not being up to par because of the faithful casting, but, if this is an opinion you hold, it should be seen as an issue with the actors. This is an issue with the acting community as a whole. There are not many opportunities for trans actors – either they don’t get cast for roles that exist or there are no roles available to them. They may not have as much experiences or the same kinds of experience as other actors simply because fewer options exist for them. If I were to audition (God forbid) for a show, I would have no trouble being cast according to my gender and sexual preference. The same cannot be said for those who are not cis-gender or even heterosexual. While we may live in one of the “gayest cities” in the US (at least as of 2011) and Minneapolis is making great steps to accept LGBTQA identities, there is still room for improvement and we are still under the influence of what large opportunities can exist in a nation that apparently is terrified of who might be in the bathroom stall next to them.

The wonderful thing about having a community like ours is that we can make our own rich, theater scene and create new chances. We local playwrights can write new roles for different identities, people who have these identities can write their own work, directors can begin to consider different methods of casting. However, we have to want to do this not just because social justice compels us to, but because we want to and because we truly care, whether our patrons are going to care or not. Trust me, I’ve heard the onslaught of discomfort of people trying to understand (or flat out refusing to understand) trans identity. They argue that it’s biology, that you can’t base such large social changes on feelings. To which I’d like to remind you that racism also used to be (and still is, by some) backed up by biological differences. The fact of the matter is that feelings ARE important – any psychologist and neuroscientist will tell you that. If feelings are irrelevant, then there’s no reason I should feel angry when people misidentify people’s gender or refuse to use their correct name, or treat someone as less than equal because they identify with a certain gender (I got catcalled on the way to Mixed Blood that night and spent much of the evening being an deeply annoyed feminist). And it’s more than just a feeling – it’s knowing you are what you are, regardless of your biological sex. There’s more than one way to do things, Charm tells us, and there’s more than one way to be a man, woman, agender, and just a human being in general.

What I love about Charm is how much it packs into the show. Not only does it deal with the intersectionality of race, class, gender, and sexuality, it also deals with fissions within the LGBTQA community itself. There are misunderstandings between the character Mama Darleena, a trans woman, and D, who is agender and uses the pronouns they/them. Darleena cannot understand why D doesn’t “pick a gender” when she has fought so hard to be recognized as a woman. D cannot understand why Darleena is focused on charm, when it represents a method of oppression to them. Charm speaks to the different attitudes towards surgery for trans individuals and how some deeply desire it while others want to be accepted by who they choose to be regardless of their body. There are discussions of violence towards one another in the community, especially through the character Beta, who is part of a gay gang that assaults trans people. It also deals with the confusion of trying to make your identity known and feeling that you don’t know who you are. Lady, a trans girl who is struggling with her identity, powerfully represents this and shows the struggles of becoming who you are when living in a society that won’t accept you. The show doesn’t always deal with these dense issues smoothly, but there isn’t really a way to deal with it without out a bit of messiness and complexity. Being human is complicated but we all want something very simple – to be accepted and to belong. Charm conveys this important message beautifully and makes a place for people who are different – and that’s what theater has always done and will continue to do.

Charm is playing now through May 8th at Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis. Ticket and show information can be found on Mixed Blood’s website.