Erin Shea Brady is a contributing writer and critic at PerformInk and Newcity Stage. Directing credits include: Everybody (Brown Paper Box Co.) and Cabaret, Annapurna (staged reading) and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (No Stakes Theater Project). Erin has assistant directed and dramaturged productions at the Goodman, Jackalope, TimeLine, A Red Orchid, Northlight, and Remy Bumppo. Erin is a graduate of the directing program at Columbia College Chicago, the internship program at Steppenwolf, Jackalope's inaugural Playwright's Lab, and participated in the Goodman's Criticism in a Changing America bootcamp. Erin is a company member with Brown Paper Box Co. and is currently pursuing her MSW at Loyola.
Pictured: Lauren Powell
By Erin Shea Brady
Trigger Warning: like the play, this review discusses sexual assault.
There’s no question of the importance of femme theater. The conversation about sexual harassment is front and center, and we need strong femme voices to lead us through the turbulent process of examining the problematic narratives and biases of sex and rape. Theater as a means for exploring those narratives can be powerful — theater makers have the opportunity to show women as the bold, resilient, dynamic, complex creatures that we are. Unfortunately, storytelling also has the power to minimize the scope of the femme experience. Lauren Marie Powell’s THE CONDITION OF FEMME misses the mark on a number of fronts, often reducing femme narratives to tears and tokenism.
The success of a monologue play depends on context, specificity, and fostering a deep connection with the audience. Powell’s Reagan misses a sense of urgency, both in script and performance, and fails to engage her audience. We don’t know who we are to this girl, why she is moved to tell her story, and those of so many others, now. I’m not talking about the greater social and political context for the piece. There is a deep cultural shift underway. What Powell’s play lacks is immediacy in the text and a journey from the main character. Reagan’s opening monologue closes with “I’m here for whatever you need.” The line packs a punch in the moment, speaking to a woman with unhealthy boundaries who has become a vessel for other women to process their trauma. We’re meant to see the effect that this role has on her, but from start to finish, not much changes.
The strength in Powell’s structure is the ability to show a wide variety of perspectives, but what promises to present the scope of harassment mainly just shows us one narrative dressed up in different outfits: women who are coming to terms with the fact that assault, rape, harassment, whatever you want to call it, looks like a lot of things and shows up in our lives without much fanfare. Powell aims to demonstrate the reach of rape culture, that it affects all of us, regardless of religion, race, or biology — but many of her monologues lack dimension and specificity, and almost all end in tears.
Women can cry. Women should cry. But to build these women up to their breaking point, monologue after monologue, is not only dramatically uncompelling and emotionally manipulative, but reductive of the different ways in which women deal with the realities of sexual harassment. We cry, we kick, we scream, we rage, we fight back. We also educate. We also unite. We also process and take action and make change. We also empower ourselves, take steps to own our own bodies, embrace our sexuality on our own terms — and sometimes that looks like Nikki Minaj twerking in a music video. There is a clear difference between media that fetishizes and objectifies women’s bodies, and a sex-positive, body-positive woman who is practicing her freedom to present herself however she so chooses.
I do want to give a shout-out to this cast. On the whole, this group of women has the emotional accessibility to get where they were directed to go. Betsy Bowman, in particular, is a standout and her piece is one of the most well-written. She approaches the monologue with confidence, with sense of self, and unfurls her story with genuine discovery. Miriam Reuter has a strong command over her bold retelling of a harrowing experience with a sexual predator, and Ashley Stein recounts her experiences with humor and a strong ear for timing.
Powell’s title, THE CONDITION OF FEMME, implies that sexual violence is somehow inescapable, a condition that women are forced to endure. And I get it. This piece explores how we are conditioned to accept sexual violence without question, an issue which Powell explores thoroughly and meaningfully. But the femme condition, as a whole, reaches so much further than rape. The condition of femme fosters hope, intimacy, beauty, community. It breeds survival. The condition of sexual violence, if anything, belongs to men.
This piece is meant to have a strong feminist message, but a play that leaves me feeling like sexual violence is inevitable, without a call to action or accountability for men, that distills the narratives of religious women, women of color and trans women is neither activism nor feminism. My feminism does not go out on an outcry of fear. Yes, women need to be allowed to be soft, to be afraid, to be broken — but for too long, the media has been oversaturated with images of scared, soft, broken women who let that fear eclipse their wants, needs and ambitions. There is space in between romanticizing the bravery of a sexual assault survivor and reducing a human being to an event that happened to them, space that needs desperately to be explored. There is a clear line between acknowledging fear, and stoking it until fear becomes definitive.
With so much at stake for women from so many walks of life, we need to do better, to reach further, to say more.