“It is obvious that many women have appropriated feminism to serve their own ends, especially those white women who have been at the forefront of the movement; but rather than resigning myself to this appropriation I choose to re-appropriate the term ‘feminism,’ to focus on the fact that to be ‘feminist’ in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression.”
– bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism
You know the sort of people who talk at length without having a single thing to actually say? I’m talking about the people who flap their gums so continually that openly wonder how any air gets back into their lungs, given how much comes out of their lips. The sort of people who seem to think that if they stop talking they’ll die, like sharks who stop swimming. This would at least be tolerable if these would-be raconteurs said anything of substance (Tony Kushner is notorious for giving 20-min. answers to simple questions, but they’re good answers), but if theses chatterboxes had a point to make, it’s long since been lost in their deluge of verbal diarrhea.
If Women Laughing Alone with Salad were a person, it would be someone who talks just to hear their own voice. It’s a play in which every single character says what is literally on their mind – like Drax in the first Guardians film or the people in The Invention of Lying – but it all rings hollow. It’s a play for which the soliloquys aim for a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead-level of meta-theatricality, but instead falls into the self-congratulatory rambling of a grad student who doesn’t know how to edit their thesis paper.
What’s worse: it’s a play with a multi-racial cast that still falls into the easily-avoidable traps of White Feminism.
Guy is a guy. To him, every woman is a conquest. In fact, the only woman he’s never conquered is his own mother (though this hasn’t stopped him from creepily fantasizing about her all his life). One night clubbing, Guy sets his sights on Meredith, a woman he can only describe to his mother as “ample”. He pursues Meredith, in spite of already having a relationship with the skinny Tori.
With Guy having never fought for anything his entire life, it only makes sense that he watch every woman fight over him. Though he might not like the result.
As I look over that synopsis, I’m struck by how the character of Guy is the central focus. As with James Ijames’ White (also a Shotgun production from earlier this year), Women… tries to give a voice to people who don’t fit into the White/cis/hetero male norm, but make the central character someone who is exactly that. Like Ijames, playwright Sheila Callaghan seems to think the best way to fight the norm is to paradoxically make sure the voice of the norm is the loudest heard. Of course, if I wanted to see that kind of story, I’d simply watch, well, anything else.
It probably isn’t fair to identify Guy as White, as race seems to not play role in Callaghan’s text. However, that doesn’t change the fact that director Susannah Martin’s colorblind casting once again comes off as racist. It isn’t as egregious as when she directed The Events – where she took a play about a White supremacist killer and flipped it into a show about PoC terrorizing White people – but there are still some eyebrow-raising choices made by Martin. Whether they be as miniscule as feeding a yellow bell pepper to an Asian actress or as blatant as once again using rap music as the definitive device of the patriarchy, Martin continues to have a blind spot when it comes to racial issues and characters. (Hell, I can rant about the abundant misogyny in rap music all day long – and I have – but Martin does it in a way that would Tucker Carlson and Geraldo Rivera proud.)
But what of the play itself? As I took my seat in front of the set straight out of Patrick Nagel’s wet dreams as Janelle Monáe, Nicki Minaj, and (sigh) Taylor Swift played overhead, my expectations were actually pretty high. With the lobby full of generic stock photos of women with blank smiles on their faces, I was actually optimistic that the show would be a satirical deconstruction of the “smiling, happy, skinny (often White) woman” with which advertising bombards us on a daily basis. Indeed, the strongest moments of the show are when it goes full sketch comedy and satirizes that very image.
The show opens with our three ensemble members – Regina Morones, Sango Tajima, Melanie Dupuy – sitting on a park bench as they, well, laugh alone with salad. Once Dupuy leaves, Morones and Tajima suddenly become confrontational, actually hissing like cats. The not-yet-named Guy arrives, manspreads into their personal space, and holds a giant SF burrito over his crotch, over which the salad-loving ladies drool. This single scene, told entirely without dialogue, says more than of the long-winded rants that follow. Had the entire play been like this, it would be brilliant (thanks, in no short part, to Martin’s effective direction).
But then the characters talk and it all goes to Hell. Even other sketch-like sequences, where we’re privy to inner monologues of the blank-faced women in advertisements, miss the mark because they go on too long and talk down to the audience. So too do fight scenes and a reluctant three-way overstay their welcome. And once the characters are identified – Morones as the “ample” Meredith, Tajima as Guy’s super-thin (possibly suffering an eating disorder) sex abuse-victim Tori, Dupuy as Guy’s mother Sandy – they never become actual characters. Neither Callaghan nor Martin is able to make them into anything more than a mouthpiece. They aren’t people, they’re products – just like the products in the advertising this play lambasts. It tries to solve one problem by making another.
Having said that, this being a Shotgun show means the production side is always something to behold. This includes the cast. Regina Morones continues to be one of the best actors in the Bay Area, as proven by her nearly saving Ubuntu’s production of Streetcar earlier this year. (She also appeared in Marisela Treviño Orta’s Woman on Fire. Perhaps not Orta’s best play, but one of the better to be read by Morones this year.) She gives Meredith the humanity lacking in the text, be that in the form of an hilarious “donkey laugh,” a look of embarrassment when Guy berates her in the club, or the expression of self-realization after an ill-advised ménage à trois – Morones wears her emotions on her face and it makes her captivating to watch. Similarly, Sango Tajima – one of the best parts of SF Playhouse’s recent Sandbox show In Braunau – wears well her emotions on her face and finely-honed bodily movements. The character is pretty damn shallow, mostly by design, but Tajima finds her beating heart in a body wracked with insecurity.
I don’t recall having ever seen Melanie Dupuy before, but she too elevates the self-mutilating Sandy, a former feminist activist-turned-housewife who resorts to extreme beauty measure in her middle age… by which I mean she literally loses limbs to garra rufa treatments. These gratuitous scenes (I see I’ve written in my notes “All shock, no value”) fail to be anything more than knee-jerk incendiary, but that’s no fault of Dupuy’s. Even Caleb Cabrera, once again playing the embodiment of all evil in the world, pulls of a decent performance a badly-written character.
Then there’s the tech work. The aforementioned “futuristic” set comes courtesy of Mikiko Uesugi. The translucent walls are home to Erin Gilley’s projections, which range from simple walls and windows to dancing sex emojis and discoteque lights. Allen Wilner’s lights and Jake Rodriguez’s sounds complete the atmosphere. And special props to, well, propmaster Devon Labelle who has a salad bowl descend from Uesugi’s set at one point. I have no idea where costumer Christine Crook found the cellophane-looking trench coats worn by the ladies, but pairing them with Rosie the Riveter-style bandanas was an inspired choice. And I’ve mentioned that the sex and fight scenes go on way too long, all credit to Maya Herbsman, Natalie Greene, and Dave Maier for the amount of work they put in.
As I took BART home from the show, I started wondering where I’d seen similar shows as this one, but done better. It didn’t take me long to think of two: the Ariel Craft-directed Dry Land, which played at Shotgun earlier this year; the racial satire Two Mile Hollow by Ferocious Lotus; and Crowded Fire’s production of the unapologetically feminist Revolt. She said. Revolt Again. Each of those shows had flaws, but they all had fully-developed characters (even the satires) and never let shock value overpower the intended message. Hell, even the last show I saw and reviewed, KML’s North by North Lobster, better pulled off in one our what this show failed to do in over two.
Women Laughing Alone with Salad is the sort of bad show that can only be made by very talented people. I know that’s damning it with faint praise, but given that everything in this show is cranked to “11”, I doubt my faint praise would even be heard.
Women Laughing Alone with Salad is scheduled to run until the 11th of November at Shotgun’s Ashby Stage in Berkeley.
The show runs 2 hours and 15 min. with a single 10-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.