Identity, Heritage, and Growing up in ‘Muthaland’

Muthaland at 16th Street Theater is a one woman show written and performed by the talented Minita Gandhi. It’s a showcase for her dexterity and ability to create and inhabit characters we love, and characters who make our skin crawl, as she goes on a journey to her parents homeland. In 16th Street’s bare black box theatre, there is only one practical light onstage, and the rest of the show travels on in the darkness with Minita herself. She walks down the staircase through the audience carrying her suitcases to the practical standing lamp on stage. Little did we know she was carrying the world of the play in her arms.

The opening of Minita Gandhi’s Muthaland is an energy-packed celebration of femininity and personality. She animatedly tells us about her life, her hopes for love and her family drama, which includes the upcoming wedding of her dear brother Milin. Minita separates herself as narrator by giving herself the affectionate nickname of Minu when she’s playing in a scene from history.

Minu is an independent woman, the daughter of two Indian immigrants who are audience favorites for Minita to affectionately and sometimes comedically interpret onstage. She is 35 years old, and has been getting her groove back by listening to Pink and Fiona Apple, reading The Power of Now and taking a Pranayama breathing class. After a visit to a gynecologist, Minu learns she only has two years to get a husband and have babies before she has to be concerned about freezing her eggs, and this is a terrifying enough thought that she returns to her prayer cabinet. Minu is a practicing Jain, which at more 85,000 years old is the one of the world’s oldest religions. She recites the Namokar mantra, one of the most fundamental and spiritually significant prayers in Jainism. This moment of gravitas is our first insight into bubbly actress Minu’s depth of intention and spiritual practice.

Though dramatically this is very clever, sometimes Minita playing an earlier, more innocent Minu is hard to buy. At the end of the production, when a you see a grown Minita in her mature fury and might, you understand why this character, that is so very personal and so profoundly changed in real life, might be harder for Minita to access than the multitude of personalities she brings to life onstage. These other characters are defined very specifically through gesture and voice, and it is clear who is speaking at any given time.

Minita the writer gives us access to the finer points in her life and family’s traditional customs in a delicate way that allows us to laugh at Minu’s reactions without laughing at cultural differences – which can often happen if an audience doesn’t understand something outright. Milin for example is in an arranged marriage, something Minu has a really hard time understanding at first, but once she sees how happy he is the audience is happy for him too. So, Minu is off to India, in one of the most fantastic visual moments of the play. Contained in her tiny suitcase is truly the entire world, as she pulls out costumes and scatters the stage with color as the lights (designed by Cat Wilson) flood the world with a pink and orange hue, transforming the black walls. You can feel the heat and the dust as Minu describes it to us thanks to the vivid text and suggestive design visuals. The sound also helps us understand our cultural context, as a variety of American and Bollywood love songs are played throughout the piece.

Muthaland is based off of Minita’s true experiences during her travels to India, and I do not want to spoil the surprise that is the crux of the drama in this play. I will speak to her magnificent performance of these gravity-filled moments. During a scene I will refer to as “The Interrogation” she masterfully plays a council of older Indian men who are questioning her honesty with a misogyny that will make your toes curl. Legs spread wide in a single spotlight, Minita easily embodies the threat and danger of these men as a steady heart-beat like pulse (sound by Barry Bennett) underscores their words. It conjures visceral memories of femmes being accused of lying when under threat from men, and is very hard to watch though artfully portrayed. The experience is so awful, that when it is over, it prompts Minu to tell her parents she hates India – thankfully only a temporary conclusion.

Muthaland is about the forcible growth of an already strong young woman, who was forced to undergo an emotionally and physically violent experience yet still reconcile her identity. In a spectacular final ten minutes of the play, Gandhi goes on an emotional journey from absolute devastation to a realistic healing process, perhaps even slightly optimistic about what is in her future. I commend Minita for her stamina in performing in this fabulous 90-minute production of her own work, and I can’t wait to see what productions lie in its future.

BIAS ALERT: Minita Gandhi is a friend.

Berwyn Cultural Center
6420 16th Street, Berwyn IL
August 31-October 7, 2017
Directed by Heidi Stillman
Photos by Anthony Aicardi

Assistant Director – Maeli Goren
Dramaturg – Lavina Jadhwani
Voice and Movement – Lanise Antoine Shelley
Scenic Properties – Jesse Gaffney
Lighting Design – Cat Wilson
Sound Design – Barry Bennett

About Face Youth Ensemble’s ‘Brave Like Them’: Explosive, Feminist, and Unapologetically Queer

By Regina Victor

About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble’s Brave Like Them is an exciting and dynamic exploration of cultural movements and gender expression infused with feminist punk. The show is entirely devised and performed by the members of the About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble and co-directed by About Face’s Education and Outreach Director Ali Hoefnagel and Education Coordinator Kieran Kredell. The script was well-written, and memorable, especially impressive because the age range for the ensemble that devised it is 13-23 years old. The play takes place in the Riot Grrl movement of the 1990s, an underground punk feminist movement that originated Washington state, credited with being the beginning of third wave feminism. Famous bands that came out of that era include Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Sleater-Kinney. Brave Like Them takes us to Washington state in that era, and investigates both the successes of the movement but also the racial and class discrepancies – most of the voices of this movement were middle class, white cisgender women.

The set (designed by Scott Penner) is papered with posters from iconic punk acts like Joan Jett, and the young people roam the space at the top of the show, cleverly setting our place and time. A couple of the ensemble members were talking to an audience member, and pretended to be mystified and confused by his cell phone flashlight, much to everyone’s amusement. Complete with twinkling bulb lights and alley seating, it’s hard not to feel like you’re at a real punk show when the actors break into their energetic opening dance highlighted by multicolored club lights (lighting by Kaili Story).

Danni (Kyla Norton) and their best friend Jamie (Sandy Nguyen) are old friends reunited after Danni lived in racist Tacoma for six years. As they try to find their place in the punk movement, Danni wonders why more of their favorite punk bands don’t look like them. Danni’s old crush Sam (a charismatic and stylish Ophelia Ashley Murillo) conveniently comes waltzing back into Danni’s life, asking if they would like to hang out at a venue called The Crocodile. There, they meet femme superstar Hannah (Lilian McGrady)  who chants her feminist manifesto “Girls to the front!” over a thrumming bass to an adoring crowd. Danni’s friend Jamie gets all up in this movement and finds her sense of self, immediately changing her aesthetic to match what a Riot Grrl is “supposed” to look like, complete with leather jacket, red lips and fishnets, Nguyen does a wonderful job portraying both Jamie’s bravado and her emotional complexity as she struggles balance her new Riot Grrl friends with Danni.  The costume design by Jeanine Fry informs us where each character is in their lives and gender expressions effortlessly. Danni, still trying to find their identity, is in their school uniform for most of the play.

While Jamie is off with the Riot Grrls, Danni meets some new friends in the form of an energetic ensemble that hangs out and plays punk music in the school gym. Noa (Jude Gordon), Coe (Jimbo Pestano) and Chris (Ben Flores), are all punk rockers who used to roll with Hannah until her movement got too exclusionary. We see this demonstrated very clearly when one of Hannah’s shows includes the words “no dudes no dykes no douchebags.” Coe uses they/them pronouns, Noa ze/sir, and Chris he/him. Chris points out that he is often excluded from feminist dialogue like Hannah’s because of his male presentation, but that erases the portion of his life where he was perceived as female, and his ability to talk about those injustices. Chris poses an interesting question: how can he possibly convince other people his masculinity isn’t a threat? It’s a really interesting argument that I’ve heard socially but was refreshing to see onstage, and Ben Flores’ thoughtful portrayal of this character really shines.

Coe and Noa were equally amazing ensemble members, with Noa’s dry wit cutting across the dialogue and generating big laughs from the audience. Noa refers to Jamie as the girl who “suddenly has all the buttons.” As someone who’s worked in community organizing, I found this particularly hilarious – there is always one eager person who shows up with 80 buttons on their jacket even though they’ve been to two rallies. In order to describe Jimbo Pestano’s portrayal of Coe, I have to be colloquial: Coe was serving band frontperson intersectional realness in a crop top and a flannel blazer with shoulder pads and skinny jeans. Serving. All. Day. One particularly fantastic lyric voiced by Coe and Danni I will be singing to all of my cisgender friends was “Nice gender, did your mommy pick it out?!”

The entire ensemble was strong, but there were many other notable performances, including the hilariously spacey record store clerk (Sharon Pasia), who encourages Danni to be a part of the movement, and not a part of the crowd. Danni’s mother, played by Mia Vivens, gives an endearing performance as a mother who has to navigate a new relationship with her child. Fresh from a divorce and struggling financially, she is often anxious and sometimes angry (but only, as she rightfully points out, because she’s black and had to sell her business and live in Tacoma at her husband’s behest for six years – I feel you sis), but never gives up on loving her family fiercely.

Brave Like Them is about the power of friendship, the discovery of personal identity, and the multifaceted aspects a movement needs to have so that it can succeed. It examines our fear of breaking apart systems and movements when we have nothing to replace them with, even if the movement is imperfect. A movement needs to encompass all people, or it inevitably dies. However, Brave Like Them does not condemn these movements, but examines how even when they are fleeting, even when we find ourselves in opposition to them, they can help us find the most important parts of ourselves.

Brave Like Them closes August 6th: http://aboutfacetheatre.com/

Directors: Ali Hoefnagel & Kieran Kredell
Assistant Dir: Donny Acosta
Devised by the About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble

FEATURING
Ophelia Ashley Murillo
Charlie Blackburn
Melody Derogatis
Ben Flores
Jude Gordon
Liv Haman
Elliot Hobaugh
Lillian McGrady
Sandy Nguyen
Kyla Norton
Sharon Pasia
Jimbo Pestano
Jae Taylor

PRODUCTION
Production Manager: Melissa Hubbert
Music Director: Nicholas Davio
Choreographer: Erin Kilmurray
Asst. Choreographer: Gabrielle Wilson
Lighting Designer: Kaili Story
Sound Designer: Brandon Reed
Costume Designer: Jeanine Fry
Set Design: Scott Penner
Prop Design: Meghan Erxleben
Stage Manager: Kasey Trouba
Asst. Stage Manager: Serena Dully

Photo Credit: (left to right) Jude Gordon, Ben Flores, Kyla Norton and Jimbo Pestano in About Face Youth Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of Brave Like Them, co-directed by Ali Hoefnagel and Kieran Kredell. Photo by Emily Schwartz.

BIAS ALERT: I directed for the About Face Out Front 2017 Series, and identify as genderqueer.

Love and Talent Burn Fiercely in ‘Bright Half Life’

(Photo Copyright: Michael Brosilow)

By Regina Victor

Bright Half Life at About Face Theatre directed by Kiera Fromm is an elegant exploration of queer love and the quirks of relationships. A two-person play penned by Tanya Barfield, Bright Half Life centers around the intertwined lives of two women, Erica (Elizabeth Ledo) and Vicky (Patrese D. McClain). The play jumps back and forth through time to tell us the story of Vicky and Erica’s decades long love affair, from their first encounter at the job where Vicky is the only black female supervisor, to the marriages of their children. Fromm’s direction and Barfield’s sequence of events made it clear from the beginning that this love would be complicated and messy, that it would end and perhaps begin again. But whether or not they see a happy ending almost doesn’t matter. Bright Half Life  believes that it’s not about the result, it’s about the journey.

The play is non-linear, and often returns to moments from previous scenes, letting the audience discover new meanings and subtext to previously seen conversations as the new information about Vicky and Erica’s relationship comes to light. This could have been very confusing, but the design world gave the audience a clear roadmap to understanding the timelines. As they hurdled through time and space on William Boles’ angular and precise set, they only used two chairs and their bodies to set each scene, letting Christopher Kriz’s sound design guide the audience. This guidance is surprisingly subtle, you barely register the change of sound but rather sense the change of feeling. Kriz takes us from a Ferris wheel, to a hospital, to a conventional workplace, and more with a delicate clarity.

The lighting, designed by Christine Binder, consisted of ethereal side light, tight spot lights, beautiful overhead panels, and was used to tighten the focus of time and space. One particularly effective device was the use of a tight spot on a single actor’s face as she said something that at first seemed jarringly out of place in the scene. Then, as she would turn to her girlfriend and continue with her thought, it became clear that those moments in the light represented the actor’s internal monologue. This action informed the rest of the scene fabulously, utilizing an age old theatrical device in a fresh new way: letting an audience in on a juicy secret that only they know.  

What I truly loved about this show was the simplicity of the theatrical devices used, to an ingenious extent. Melissa Ng’s costume design was effortlessly able to scale 20+ years of a lifetime without either character leaving the stage. The secret? Layering. It is easy to muddy up a production like this trying to be cool or fancy, dazzling an audience with all the tricks available in 21st century theater,  but here the simplicity of the design and direction allowed these two stunning actors to shine.

 Actor Elizabeth Ledo as Erica comes out of the gate with such an infectious warmth that it makes you wonder how Vicky could possibly resist. Plaid-rocking Ledo is a crowd pleaser, and manages to infuse even Erica’s most infuriating moments with a helpless charm, invoking a beautifully tragic lesbian Hamlet. Patrese D. McLain has a tough job playing the  graceful but reserved Vicky, but when the walls come down and we do finally see her loving tendencies, the payoff is emotionally stunning and surprisingly playful.

The play focuses on the intimate dynamics that are found in many relationships. Certain arguments will feel painfully familiar, depending on your own lived experiences. After the show, each person I spoke to could point to a different moment in the play and say “my partner does that!”  It’s filled with the moments that build a relationship and slowly chip it away, the overarching question occurring over and over: would you do it again?      

On a personal note, I must discuss the social relevance of this play for me as a queer person of color and theatre artist. The play alludes to various time periods and stretches over decades as I previously mentioned, but the reference that caught my ear was to queer life in the early 2000s. Whenever marriage is discussed it is accompanied by a necessary trip to Massachussetts (gay marriage law was passed there in 2004), which struck an important chord for me.

I  felt incredibly inspired seeing a woman onstage who looked like me, playing a lesbian in an interracial relationship with children, discussing the hard truths about the difficulties of understanding cultural bridges. At one point, Vicky is discussing her own racial history and having been called an “oreo” in her past – a disrespectful term intended to imply one is black on the outside, and white on the inside. Erica has to stop and realize that though she lacks privilege as a white gay woman, she doesn’t in fact understand everything about Vicky’s identity as a black woman, and asks to be taught about her whiteness. It’s a touching moment of connection onstage in a world that feels so divided.

A timeless and compelling script, I recommend Bright Half Life for anyone wanting to see progressive LGBTQ+ theatre written by a black queer femme. About Face is one of the only companies where I can see queer, happy, healthy relationships portrayed without ever being the punchline or tragic figures. It is important that we get to see ourselves as the heroes and lovers, and About Face’s mission of portraying LGBTQ theatre is both necessary and commendable.

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Bright Half Life at About Face Theatre runs through July 1st, find more information here: http://aboutfacetheatre.com/

Erica: Elizabeth Ledo

Vicky: Patrese D. McClain

Understudy for Erica: Pamela Mae Davis

Understudy for Vicky: Demetria Thomas

Playwright: Tanya Barfield

Director: Kiera Fromm

Set Designer: William Boles

Lighting Designer: Christine Binder

Sound Designer: Christopher Kriz

Costume Designer: Melissa Ng

Props Designer: Vivian Knouse

Stage Manager: Helen Colleen Lattyak

Associate Lighting Designer: Bailey Rosa

Asst. Stage Manager: Gabriella Welsh

Asst. Director: Lauren Katz

Casting: Kiera Fromm & Alex Weisman

Production Manager: Alex Rhyan

Tech Director: Andrew Glasenhart

Master Electrician: Kristof Janezic

Scenic Painter: Jessica Howe