Vexed and Perplexed

by Korama Danquah

I am not someone who is easily perplexed.

Sure, I find wonder in a lot of different things every day (electricity, ballpoint pens, the dewey decimal system – to name a few), but I don’t often find myself truly genuinely confounded.

Which is why when I saw a play last week that left me baffled it was that much more unnerving.

It wasn’t the plot. I’m usually willing to roll with a weird plot. I’ve seen Blasted by Sarah Kane, so I can handle an unorthodox plot. It was the total and complete lack of agency that was held by the women on stage.

Call me demanding if you want, but when I see a play by a female playwright in particular I expect the female characters portrayed to be, well, characters. In this play, which I won’t name in this piece, the women felt like as thin and stale as the “dough” for a lunchables pizza.

The play, which had six women and two men, featured only three of the women as named characters (Why yes, I am obsessed with the Bechdel Test. How did you know?) The others were models used as set dressing and props. When I say this, I do not mean it in the way that people usually talk about beautiful women – primarily there for ocular enjoyment. I mean that this play featured women as cars, gumball machines, computers and coatracks in place of inanimate objects.

So back to my bafflement. I like this playwright (who is a woman). I saw one of her plays when I was in college and I thought that she was doing something awesome and new and so cool. She has women in her shows and they’re real people. I love that the main character in her newest show is fat. Narratives of fat women are so often erased or only used as a plot device that creates a dilemma for an attractive male character. The last play I interacted with that featured a fat female lead was Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig which I have too many issues with to even begin to touch on here. But it must be said that I was disappointed in this writer. I felt that to take a cast with three times as many women as men ( a real unconventionality in this 5M, 1F world of plays we’re living in) and to use most of the women as literal set dressing was perplexing.

I absolutely know that she is a smart woman and was probably making a commentary on the very issue I mentioned earlier – beautiful women being used solely as eyecandy.

But isn’t it a more powerful statement to just have female characters that have something to say? And should all the onus be on us, the female playwrights? I think that it’s time we hold everyone more accountable for the way we write women for the stage. We can’t hide behind the excuses “he’s a man, he just doesn’t know how to write women well” or “she’s making a statement on the treatment of women by society.” Didn’t Shakespeare and Ibsen, men, write intelligent and complex female characters? And didn’t Audre Lorde tell us that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house?

I don’t think we – playwrights, producers, actors, directors, and other theatre makers – can comment on the patriarchy by simply portraying it anymore. I think it’s time we comment on the injustices we see in society – sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia – by showing a world without them, by showing a world that makes us perplexed enough to ask “Why isn’t real life like that?”


Follow Korama on twitter at @koramadrama for more musings about the patriarchy and life in general.

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