For a while, J. Marion Sims merited a statue in Central Park for his ground-breaking gynecological operations. What was largely unknown for years was that he was also a plantation owner and he used the female slaves he owned as guinea pigs for his experiments, trying out different techniques in a trial-and-error manner on these women without offering them anaesthesia. (Protests caused the statue to be removed from its place of honor in Central Park and carted to Sims’s grave.) Charly Evon Simpson has written a play called Behind the Sheet (now playing at Ensemble Studio Theater) focusing on what she imagines was the experience of the slaves.
Simpson is unsparing in her portrayal of Sims. Joel Ripka projects an unsavory combination of self-righteousness, paternalism, lust, sadism, sentimentality and ambition. The principal character, though, is Philomena – his slave, his assistant, his unwilling sometime sexual partner and, ultimately, his patient. Naomi Lorrain radiates intelligence and resolve. The production is handsomely designed, and the supporting players are strong.
But I think there’s something in the very nature of the premise that has stymied Simpson’s attempt to make a compelling play out of this important subject matter. Plays invite us to focus on characters who make choices. By her very situation, Philomena’s has few choices. She is a slave, utterly at the command of Sims. (At the beginning of the play she is also pregnant by him.) As much as she resents him, she has no way of acting upon that resentment and changing her fate. Of course we feel for her situation, but, since nothing she can do can improve her lot, all the character is left to do is simmer with resentment. Behind the Sheet runs roughly 100 minutes. That’s a long time to watch someone simmer without being able to act meaningfully.
This season has seen a large number of off-Broadway plays by women writers. Understandably, a lot of these plays feature stories of women having to cope with injustice at the hands of a male-dominated society. But unless the protagonists in plays respond to their situations by taking meaningful action, you’re liable to end up with works that don’t go much beyond just describing dismaying conditions.
The year’s most successful off-Broadway offerings by women do build to action. The protagonist in Abby Rosebrock’s Blue Ridge offered Marin Ireland ample opportunity to make strong choices. A lot of them were evidently foolish or self-damaging choices, but her lack of self-restraint made her compulsively watchable. Cara Reichel, who directed and co-wrote a musical called The Hello Girls with Peter Mills, showed women chafing at and frequently evading the restraints male officers put on them serving in a communications unit during World War I; sometimes, faced with an emergency, they simply disobeyed orders without regard to consequences. The courage they showed on the battlefield was not only in face of the enemy but confronting the intransigence of the military they served in.
Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me is structured so that the action Schreck takes is the performance itself. Initially she announces her intention to recreate the speech she gave as a teenager praising the wisdom of the founders as expressed in the Constitution. It was a speech, she tells us, that helped her raise the money to go to college. But her attempt to recreate the speech for us tonight founders. She interrupts herself. She can’t just repeat what she now believes is fallacious. What she has learned about her family’s history and from her own experience has changed her perspective on living in a country whose architecture was built by white male property-holders (some of whose property was other human beings). Pulling the plug on her own recitation, she has to work her way to new ground. As she explores it, so do we in the audience. I don’t think it’s an accident that this work so captured the audience that it is being propelled to Broadway.