By Jane Recker
For any woman who’s been told she’s not pretty enough, not thin enough, not white enough, not feminine enough, not “enough” to succeed in theatre…and for any man who has stood by and watched this happen, this show is for you.
Collaboraction’s Gender Breakdown tackles the tough topic of gender discrimination in theatre through an innovative mix of dark humor and incisive dramatic monologues. Featuring an all-female cast and creative team, the show stands out from a swathe of other similarly themed pieces (all of which were inspired by the outrage and anxiety following the election of our current orangutan-in-chief) by being incredibly aware of itself and how it’s perceived.
A prime example: Kate Hawbraker-Krohn powerfully asks the question, “Why does it feel like we’re a stunt?” The question is valid and thought provoking. Why is it that in 2017, a group of talented women getting together to put on a witty and insightful show centered around the discussion of gender disparity in theatre is somehow more readily labeled as a political protest than as a legitimate piece of art?
The smart writing from creator Dani Bryant allows the actors to educate and inform the audience about the horrific discrimination still rampant in theatre without becoming whiny or preachy. Quite the impressive feat, given that the raw statistics on female representation in the Chicago theatre scene (which were included in the program) show that there is oh so much material to complain about.
A favorite example of Bryant’s snappy writing is a particularly chuckle-worthy scene in which a female casting call is read out loud, and an actress steps forward if she fits the qualifications. Some tasteful descriptions include “love fantasy for a college boy,” “slender build required as performance space is limited” and, of course, an array of nudity, ranging from “must wear sexy bikini” to “must get naked and covered in syrup.” The kicker? All of these are real calls that the company found.
The groaning from the audience is that of laughing at a bad joke, for what is misogyny in the 21st century if not a bad joke? The scene becomes more serious as it progresses, with more and more actresses leaving the stage in frustration until only Carolyn Sinon remains, dejectedly swearing like a sailor at the shitty state of the perpetual hyper-sexualization of females in theatre.
However, female oppression isn’t treated here as all fun and games. The show makes sure to include some serious personal accounts from the actors of their own experiences with gender inequality. While some of these come off as a bit over-dramatic and scripted, they are made up for by standout performances, like that of Kamille Dawkins, whose monologue tackles the tough issue of “not looking like a love interest.”
Beginning innocently enough with Dawkins changing her hairstyle and shoes in an attempt to be more lovable, the scene devolves into a portrayal of domestic abuse, with Dawkins and the full company miming being smacked, each time asking “Does he love me now?” Actors are people and words affect. Dawkins shows how the derogatory things that directors say to women transcend the stage and can deeply impact their self-esteem and their personal life.
The show also addresses the discrimination faced by minority actresses. Jazmin Corona gives a compelling speech about maintaining artistic integrity when choosing which jobs to take. She urges actresses not to be silent and allow theater filled with whitewashing and offensive stereotypes to continue to be societally accepted. As she puts it, “My dignity matters. My story matters.”
The sound design by Karli Blalock does not go unnoticed, as it moves the show and keeps a sense of coherency. Audio of testimonies from real Chicago theatre artists about their experiences with discrimination plays in the darkness to set up each scene. The effect is quite powerful, as hearing the sound of real women conversationally tell their own stories establishes the legitimacy and concrete presence of oppression in the Chicago theatre community and reminds that, sadly, these stories don’t only exist as the drama of a play.
Luckily, Bryant makes sure to make her piece forward looking, as she includes a scene highlighting work being done to fight discrimination in Chicago. Erica Vannon makes a daring directorial choice to take a “peek into a backstage conversation” spin on the scene. The risk to direct toward the potentially corny pays off, as the conversation between the women is honest and natural and is an effective and compelling way to transfer necessary and important information and statistics to the audience.
The only glaring problem with Gender Breakdown is its housing in the small performance space. Although it brings a necessary intimacy to the production, it surely isn’t large enough to hold every male in the Chicago theater industry, who should be made to see this show as a part of mandatory HR programming.
Collaboraction presents “Gender Breakdown” through March 19, 2017, at The Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Anna Sodziak.