Review: BULL IN A CHINA SHOP at About Face Theatre

Review: BULL IN A CHINA SHOP at About Face Theatre

Pictured: Emjoy Gavino and Kelli Simpkins. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

By Kelsey McGrath

BULL IN A CHINA SHOP tells the story of Mary Woolley and Jeanette Marks, Victorian-age, wild, feminist revolutionaries who catapulted the course of women’s education. BULL is a “meditation on bravery,” says director Keira Fromm.
About Face’s production finds a humanity in Bryna Turner’s script that highlights these characters; their resilience, their humor, their love, and their adamancy for change. Principle duo Kelli Simpkins and Emjoy Gavino breathe life into Mary and Jeanette that could lean into archetype, but rather focuses on their shared passions. Mary Beth Fisher, Aurora Adachi-Winter, and Adithi Chandrashekar round out this powerhouse cast. Each woman brings a subtle ferocity to their role; we can sense something bigger happening underneath. I applaud these casting choices particularly in the telling of primarily white historic events; human experience runs that gamut and can be accessed by everyone. As theatre-makers, it’s our duty to be mindful in contemporary revisitations.

The production value of AFT’s shows continues to blow me away. Scenic, lighting, costume, and sound design by William Boles, Claire Chrzan, Mieka Van Der Ploeg, and Eric Backus harnesses a soft beauty that easily transforms the space and gives the actors/the BULL room to play.

However, there are things about this experience that are confusing. First, there’s a passage of 35+ years in the play that wasn’t worked with theatrically but verbally mentioned. Little is done to illustrate this; it had me thinking I’d heard Gavino’s character incorrectly.

BULL also made me think about the majority of LGTBQ+ plays that exist today and the politicization of love. LGBTQ+ love is inherently revolutionary and usually politicalized. As a queer person, I want to see more shows that lift up this idea of normalization. That don’t make me feel like I’m not queer enough because I don’t engage with that overt style of activism. I’d like to see more feminist plays with love that just is. Plays that lift up women that are about their humanity and existence.

LGBTQ+ love is a disruption. Let it speak for itself.

But if we normalize it, are we detracting from the history of the narrative. Are we dishonoring its journey? I don’t have answers. It’s complex. It’s important, but I think there’s something to be said about progression in how we approach these topics to make them more inclusive.

BULL IN A CHINA SHOP reminds us that loving unapologetically and living one’s truth is, in itself, a revolutionary act. It deserves your attention. Support the stories of radical LGBTQ+ women and support artists of color. Support companies that probe the margins for honest stories to tell. Support revolutionary theatre.

BULL IN A CHINA SHOP runs through June 30th. For more information visit aboutfacetheatre.com.

About author

Kelsey McGrath

Kelsey is a Chicago based producer, actor, writer, critic, and mixologist. An alum of Black Box Acting’s ACADEMY Program, Kelsey curates “The Newness,” a monthly salon of new work. They also work closely with Trans Voices Cabaret Chicago as well as Chicago Theatre Access Auditions. Follow them on Insta! @playsandpours, @kelseylooks

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