Basement Arts has a longstanding reputation for showcasing the talents of University of Michigan actors and directors; it occupies the upper echelon of student-run theater organizations. Basement Arts’s collaboration with Blank Space Workshop, a student organization dedicated to showcasing the work of emerging playwrights, has been much anticipated. Unfortunately, the debut performance of this collaborative effort, “SHE,” fails to measure up.
Devised and directed by Music, Theatre & Dance junior Claire Vogel, Basement Arts’s short film “SHE” was conceived with one purpose in mind: To create a feminist play. Narrative and characterization are left by the wayside in favor of neon lights and funky eyeshadow. The production relies far too heavily on aesthetic, but aesthetic alone does not make a play. To paraphrase prominent YA author Rainbow Rowell, “Art isn’t supposed to look nice, it’s supposed to make you feel something.”
And while the mere feat of making a play look “nice” and maintaining production value is nothing to scoff at during the era of Zoom plays and radio dramas, these efforts were wasted on a hackneyed feminist manifesto devoid of soul.
For a play whose only aim is to celebrate femininity, the script is remarkably tone-deaf. In the hour-long film, trans women and BIPOC women are only mentioned once. I might add that they are clumped together in the same monologue, a thinly-veiled tokenization of these women and their experiences. That monologue, two minutes long at most, is the most intersectional feminism you’re going to get from this production.
The rest are cringy montages of women “indulging” in junk food, comparing their bodies to numerous species of flora and defining their femininity by the way men treat and view them. In light of the tragedies of the past year, which disproportionately affected trans women and women of color, these tacky technicolor tales ring particularly distasteful. The heyday of trans-exclusive white feminism is long behind us, yet “SHE” continues to glorify it.
If “SHE” seeks to promote unification and sisterhood, it succeeds. However, this sisterhood is only available to a privileged few. The cast is fairly homogeneous in terms of representation of varying identities — comprised almost entirely of thin, white, cisgender women.
That being said, the piece certainly has its virtues. In a powerful monologue, School of Music, Theatre & Dance freshman Emilia Vizachero details the role of a white woman’s tears in perpetuating racist myths about the danger men of color pose. This is perhaps one of my favorite pieces in the play, closely followed by Music, Theatre & Dance freshman Victoria Vourkoutiotis’s performance of a piece detailing the concerted erasure of same-gender sexual partners.
The level of performance from the actors and musicians involved was consistently strong, with beautiful renditions of “Armor” by Sara Bareilles and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper — the delivery is as good as it possibly could be given the intrinsic weakness of the script.
Perhaps the greatest failure of “SHE” is its inability to develop any sort of narrative or character development (and this is coming from someone whose favorite contemporary playwright is Samuel Beckett). I adore the theater of doing nothing. I live for people lollygagging on stage and simultaneously evoking the meaninglessness of existence. I am in love with artistic genius masquerading as nonsense. What I cannot stand is nonsense that masquerades as artistic genius.
Simply put, a plethora of free-verse similes comparing your genitalia to various types of flora is not brave. It’s boring.
It generalizes, it does little to build character and it utilizes talented actors as little more than talking paintings. It is a love letter to white feminism, and frankly, it’s one I’m tired of reading.
Ultimately, feminism doesn’t exist in a vacuum: It’s a situational response to both subjective and generalized oppression. The great existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir asserts that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
“SHE” ignores the second part of this statement entirely. It focuses on the mantras, the stereotypes and the mores. It not only suppresses the experiences of any type of woman outside of the cis-heterosexual, white cultural norm, but it erases what can be considered one of the chief defining characteristics of the feminine experience: its subjectivity.
We cannot create a common narrative of femininity because it does not exist. You cannot reduce the female experience to a handful of cherry-picked narratives that you deem pretty enough and palatable enough to write about. If we attempt to define feminism within certain parameters, we will fail time and time again. The theatrical arts hold the utmost privilege in their ability to be subjective. No great play has ever been written with the intent of universality.
Theater is powerful because it allows us to understand and empathize with those who are unlike us. Hence, attempting to create shapeless narratives and vapid characters serves no one. I am a white feminist, and my story has been told time and time again. I want to understand someone else’s story. Maybe it’s time we ditch our eyeshadow and neon lights; maybe it’s time to step aside and listen to someone else for a change.
Daily Arts Writer Darby Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.