By Colin Douglas
Bikini Kill. Bratmobile. Sleater-Kinney. Heavens to Betsy. Excuse 17. Skinned Teen. If you’ve never heard of these bands then you’re probably unfamiliar with the feminist Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990’s.
This underground hardcore punk rock crusade originated in the Pacific Northwest, particularly in the state of Washington. It began as a growing subcultural trend called third-wave feminism that sought to challenge the male-dominated punk rock scene. It addressed such issues as sexuality, domestic abuse, rape, racism, patriarchy and female empowerment.
The movement inspired such queercore groups as Team Dresch and The Third Sex. In addition, the crusade spread beyond its musical roots, giving impetus to political activism, a DIY ethic, art and the creation of amateur, self-expressive “zines,” in the hope of quelling homophobia, sexism and, especially, physical and emotional violence toward women.
Brave Like Them: The Herstory of the Riot Grrrls a two-act play with music was devised and created by the young actors of the About Face Youth Ensemble, under the guidance and direction of Ali Hoefnagel and Kieran Kredell. Inspired by The Riot Grrrl Collection, a sampling of original zines, posters and other printed matter from this pre-internet era, we have an historical drama by and about the feminists who had had enough. The result is a play that features a cast of 13 teenage gay, lesbian and gender-fluid actors playing characters who seethe with anger, passion and a need to be heard. The story is loud, earnest, filled with candor and empathy and as raw as anything seen on a Chicago stage.
Staged in the intimate Buena Theatre venue, with the audience seated up close on both sides of the playing area, this production bellows and brays, performing practically in the lap of each theatergoer. The show opens with the cast slam-dancing with rambunctious abandon to an ear-splitting grunge soundtrack. The story then settles down, focusing on Danni and her best friend Jamie. These two high school students are filled with all the typical teenage angst and anger we’ve come to expect from most contemporary adolescents.
Wandering over to the local record shop, they run into Sam, a punky fangirl who invites the two friends to a secret location where Hannah, a local alternative musical celeb, is playing that evening with her band. Danni soon notices how Hannah and her followers seem to contradict the principles they profess to support. For all their branding and boasting, claiming female power for all girls, Hannah’s band has turned into something very exclusive. Their group only includes white, middle-class women. Danni, a reticent, yet intelligent deep-thinker, sets out to right this wrong by joining with a band of other high school students, some who were born female but now identify as male. They’re shunned by Hannah and her group and that’s when the conflict arises.
Kyla Norton stars as Danni, sensitively portraying this quiet, introspective teenager on the verge of self-discovery. She lives with her recently divorced mother, a character played with humor and terrific strength by the remarkably talented Mia Vivens. As Jamie, Sandy Nguyen is fidgety, feisty and possessive over her friendship with Danni. She’s also filled with a hidden rage, the origins of which we discover much later. Ophelia Ashley Murillo makes her stylish About Face debut as a flirty, opinionated Sam. Other standouts in this cast include the gifted Sharon Pasia, so very funny as the drugged-out record store shopkeeper. She’s an older, kindred spirit who enjoys imparting warmth and wisdom to her customers. Ben Flores is strong, sincere and beautifully eloquent as Chris, one of the trans band members of Danni’s new band, led by the dynamic Jimbo Pestano, as lead vocalist, Coe.
Currently enjoying its world premiere, this play probably won’t be everyone’s piece of cake. Its raucous, in-your-face production can be hard to take. However, About Face Theatre’s ensemble of earnest, young actors, and the artists who support their production, are to be highly commended for their gumption and talent. They’ve clearly worked very hard to shine a light on an important social and political issue. The relevance of this 90’s movement and this ensemble’s energy speaks directly to each and every individual of the LGBT community, especially its younger members. Here is a courageous and spunky production, filled with power and passion, that offers an important, thought-provoking slice of American history…or, perhaps, herstory.
About Face Theatre presents “Brave Like Them: The Herstory of the Riot Grrrls,” through August 6 at The Buena, 4147 N. Broadway, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.