Gender Disparity, Self-Reporting, and Theatre Rhino's A Lady and A Woman

Recently, HowlRound devoted a week to exploring gender disparity in theatre, including numerous articles and two Weekly Howls. Here in the Bay Area in the past few months, we’ve seen an explosion of essays, Twitter campaigns, panel discussions, and Facebook groups devoted to raising awareness of bias against women and proposing solutions for ways to get equal numbers of men and women in both artistic and leadership positions. The causes of disparity, everyone agrees, are complex. Yet one cause, the bias of theatre critics, has not been explored as much, and I am in a great position to explore it.

Those same theatres that produce mostly male work are the same ones that critics tend to cover—either because the critics’ employers so mandate or because the critics consciously or unconsciously prefer those shows. Not to make a tautology here, but the shows critics cover are the ones that then become “worth” covering, “worth” paying attention to, creating a vicious cycle whereby the unrecognized, which are disproportionately women, stay unrecognized.

But one recent show, Theatre Rhino’s A Lady and A Woman, about two black women who find love in the 1890s, challenged my beliefs in myself as an unbiased critic.

Like most critics, I’m sure, I think of myself as open-minded; in my more prideful moments, I even call myself a champion of the little-known. But one recent show, Theatre Rhino’s A Lady and A Woman, about two black women who find love in the 1890s, challenged my beliefs in myself as an unbiased critic.

After ignoring notices about the show for a long time, something made me ask why I wasn’t covering it for my paper, the SF Weekly. Granted, there are plenty (too many) shows I don’t cover each month because I can’t. But this one had too much to recommend it. I’d learned about it much earlier than other shows going up in March. The venue, the Eureka Theater, is easy to get to by bike or public transit. I was already a fan of one of the two actresses, Velina Brown. I hadn’t ever reviewed a show by Theatre Rhino, an LGBT company that’s been around for thirty-six years. And the other shows I was covering in the same couple of weeks were, to be frank, pretty white.

So what gives? Why wasn’t I reviewing the show?

If I am honest with myself, part of the reason I was unexcited is that the play was written by “some woman” I’d never heard of, Shirlene Holmes—as if “some woman” meant I already knew what the play would be about: “women’s issues,” whatever that means.

So much for being an enlightened feminist.

But if I can’t be enlightened, I can at least try to atone (that’s what the lapsed Catholic in me says, anyway). I’ve decided I want to use this NewCrit space in part to do things I can’t do in my regular criticism. So I went to the show and decided to write about it here.

Holmes' play, which was directed by John Fisher, gives two actresses an opportunity to play unusual roles. Biddie (Dawn L. Troupe) shows up to Miss Flora’s (Brown’s) boarding house with a lustful, gently predatory gleam in her eye—it is the look of a man who wants a woman and knows he can have her, but also one of infinite tenderness. But Biddie, a traveling butcher, isn’t a man, despite her costume (slacks, a vest, a woven poncho). Ladies’ clothes just don’t suit her, she says. “You’re a lady. I’m a woman,” says Biddie to Miss Flora, in effort to find words for a phenomenon that has none. Miss Flora, by contrast, wears the gender-appropriate clothing of her period and gets existential satisfaction from a clean floor. This gives Brown, a regular performer in the San Francisco Mime Troupe, ample opportunity to showcase her skills in broad physical comedy. When she scours the floor or, later, combs Biddie’s hair, she is like a furious machine in a Charlie Chaplin movie.

two actors on stage
Velina Brown, left, plays Miss Flora and Dawn L. Troupe is Biddie in Theatre Rhinoceros’
production of A Lady and a Woman, a story set in the late 19th century American South.

Miss Flora is a healer and a midwife, but for all her knowledge of the body, she knows herself and her desires poorly. Innocent and girlish, she channels her faith into superstitions too plentiful to keep track of, in part to explain a universe that gave her a bad husband a long time ago and has left her by herself for many years now.

After anachronisms such as Biddie’s professed longing for a world free of gender norms, the play’s most striking quality is its structure. A Lady and A Woman is episodic, with scenes not always building on one another in an obvious way. Biddie and Miss Flora’s conflicts—whether they can be seen together in their small southern town, how to sanctify their relationship—last only the length of a scene; each time the lights dim, they’ve restored their relationship to health. Over the course of the play, their relationship does, slowly, evolve. They are tentative flirts, then breathless lovers, then family members, but the rise of the action is so slight that you can’t help but think, “When is something going to happen?”

That “something” never does, partly because of the play’s southern rhythms. “Flappin' this piece of red flannel around will get you in trouble sometimes,” says Biddie. Neither conversation nor time is urgent in A Lady and A Woman. Sometimes time doesn’t even seem to move forward. It lingers, much like the way Troupe and Brown sing gospel between scenes, holding notes and playing with them; it expands so that one moment is all you can see.

Frustrating as the unconventional structure can be, it also frees Holmes to avoid tropes (or traps) on how women’s stories have typically been told. She wants to capture the joys of unremarkable moments of a flowering romance, to show the ways that a relationship is made strong by its banalities, not necessarily by epic sagas. Heterosexual couples have long enjoyed such portrayals in theatre; same-sex couples do not often get to simply be on our stages.

I eventually did make it to this show, to hear this language and see this family blossom. But just because I became aware, for one moment, of my prejudice and tried to correct it doesn’t mean I should be let off the hook.

The most intense part of the show is the initial courtship, when Biddie’s gentle, confident insistence butts up against Miss Flora’s timidity. Anxieties about getting “in trouble” become anxieties about Miss Flora’s own carnal ignorance: “I don’t know where the parts go,” she says. But the bodies slowly, inexorably pull together, intermingling like the ingredients of one of Miss Flora’s concoctions. The two have no words for what they do, so they must make up their own. Miss Flora talks about “my old self” and “my new self,” how Biddie “wakes up the dead,” how their matching scars and birthmarks are signs, marks of who they are, that tie their fates together.

I eventually did make it to this show, to hear this language and see this family blossom. But just because I became aware, for one moment, of my prejudice and tried to correct it doesn’t mean I should be let off the hook. So after writing this review I did a little mini, and I’m certain flawed, survey of my own reviewing. Of my last sixty-two reviews I was surprised to see that the genders of playwrights of shows I’d chosen broke down this way:

  • Male: 38
  • Female: 16
  • Both gender/Ensemble: 5
  • Drag/Trans: 3

My opinions of each show broke down in less dramatic but still telling fashion:

My Reviews of Male Playwrights

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My Reviews of Female Playwrights

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What should a feminist critic do with numbers like these?

What should a feminist critic do with numbers like these? I certainly shouldn’t treat female playwrights with kid gloves for the sake of boosterism. That would be just as bad as, arguably worse than, reviewing them more harshly than I do men. It’s possible that I should see more plays by women, just as theaters should produce more plays by them. Indeed, in this respect, there are many parallels between critics and theaters; many, many factors go into both choosing which shows to review and which shows to produce. I was recently corresponding with Ellen Richard, executive director at A.C.T., about gender disparity for playwrights. She said, “I hope that in the future all of our institutions will be looked at for a body of work, not just one ‘season.’” Similarly, I hope that my criticism can be judged in its entirety; one review, a few reviews aren’t enough—a year’s worth might not be enough. And now that, after my paper’s recent cuts, I’m down to writing just a couple reviews per month, getting a review from me is as rare and lucky as getting into Stanford.

But this is no time to despair. As with so many other kinds of bias, the best solution here might be a simple one: awareness—a willingness to tail and nab fleeting thoughts of prejudice, to not let them escape into the subconscious where they fester and grow. Awareness, of course, can’t really be quantified or measured. It, too, is fleeting, suffusing your being in an instant—usually an “Oh, shit!” moment—then eluding you the instant you stake claim to it.

Thankfully, with humility, you can always start growing it again.

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A discussion and response to the call for better gender parity in theatre.

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Thanks so much for coming out to see A Lady and A Woman written by Shirlene Holmes! And thank you for sharing your honest and thoughtful self reflection.

Thank you for this profound self-reflection. If we each challenged ourselves this much to think about our reactions and our choices, much progress would be made. Brava!

And who says we don't need theater critics? We do — the good ones — who champion the art form and respect the process even when they find fault. Very interesting.

Lily, this is fascinating, and makes so clear that all of us need to increase our awareness of our own actions and our own "body of work."

Good for you. The first and most necessary step is confronting your own bias and becoming conscious. I has a similar epiphany when invited by a feminist critic, Gayle Austin, to see a play by Susanna Centlivre, a slightly post Restoration playwright, directed by Liz Swain. I went reluctantly, thinking that if I'd I had not heard of either the playwright or director, how good could they be? After all I had a doctorate in theatre from Yale and twenty years professional experience, ten seeing theatre five nights a week as an analyst for the NYS arts council. The show was brilliant. I had to ask myself why I had never heard of a playwright who was hugely successful in her time, or one of the best classical directors I had seen. Despite my years of research into bias against contemporary women in theatre, I was myself subject to the same misapprehensions. This led to a lifelong mission to help restore ten centuries of plays by women to the canon, and to aggressively support women in theatre. After confounding 50/50 in 2020, I am co producing ON HER SHoULDERS, a new series of staged readings of classic plays by women at The New School. The first is May 20. Come see the rest of.the canon! Self-scrutiny is indeed the start of opportunity to learn and promote change. But you have to walk the walk. Recently an artistic director publicly and in print bemoaned the lack of support for women in theater. Shortly after her upcoming season was announced, and sadly she was no less culpable of neglect.

Lily—it's such a wonderful surprise to see this be the very positive result of the on-line skirmish about the Symmetry show. Thank you for trying to be part of the solution and for reminding us of the power that critics do have in spotlighting otherwise ignored elements of our culture. In other words, thank you for using your powers for change!

Lily - thanks for this thoughtful self-analysis and sharing your new awareness so publically. A beautifully written article!