If the Midwestern Theatre Troupe's rendition of Tom Eyen's Women Behind Bars seems over-the-top, it's because it is -- and intentionally so. Eyen's 1975 play satirizes black-and-white women-in-prison movies from the 1950s, which played on every possible stereotypical scenario and employed actresses who were famous for their overly dramatic portrayals of damsels in distress.
The play, directed by John Cruncleton and set in the Women's House of Detention in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, spans seven years, beginning on New Year's Eve 1952 and ending on New Year's Eve 1959. It begins with a cacophony of squeals and screeches as the detention house's seven (featured) inhabitants swarm the stage, dressed in identical blue cotton gowns, some of which have been embellished to reflect the women's varied colorful personalities.
There's Blanche (Holly Steckleberg), the Southern belle stuck in an off-Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire; Jo Jo (September Boles), the thug from the projects who's seen and done just about everything; Cheri (Sara Cruncleton), the busty blond hooker; Granny (Susan Dergoul), a sweet little old lady with a mouth like a sailor; Gloria (Liz Masters), the ultra-butch lesbian lifer; Ada (Nicole Aquino), the mentally disturbed arsonist; and Guadalupe (Sara Wilemon), the spicy Puerto Rican bombshell.
Keeping the order in the institution are Pauline (Angea Adams), the sadistic matron, and her pretty-but-dumb sidekick Louise (Brittainy Boyer).
Joseph Gomez is the show's only male player, and he acts out multiple roles.
Enter Mary Eleanor (Cassie Hollis), the central figure around whom the story revolves. She arrives on New Year's Eve 1952 in a white button-down shirt, short plaid skirt, knee-high socks and pigtails, the victim of a frame up. Her husband robbed a convenience store at gunpoint then ran away, leaving Mary with the gun and the blame.
She was sentenced to seven years with good behavior and sent to the detention house, where she was immediately raped by the other inmates, as well as the matron.
It doesn't sound funny -- and parts certainly aren't -- but most of the show is. It is a satire, after all. The characters are so ridiculous, so needy, so sexually desperate that you can't help but laugh.
At the same time, the show can be exhausting to watch. Each character is so exaggerated, each actress so desperate to command the audience's attention, that the play sometimes seems disorganized. It's like they're all trying to win a shouting match. And though each actress does a fine job of creating and portraying her character, they don't always play well together. Their deliberately overblown performances, which succeeded at poking fun of the prison-chick genre, make the relationships among the characters seem phony, especially the sexual ones.
Hollis deserves special recognition for her role as Mary Eleanor. Her character's story, which is one of an innocent corrupted by the system, requires a performance that is more subtle, more emotional, more dramatic -- and Hollis delivers superbly.
While best-known for his 1981 Broadway hit Dreamgirls, Eyen's career is better defined by his earlier, avante-garde work, which includes this play and his performance-art piece The Dirtiest Show in Town.
Women in Prison continues its run at the Nightingale Theater, 1416 E. 4th St., Sept. 3-4 and 10-11. Tickets are $10 and available at nightingaletheater.com or by calling (918) 633-8666.
A Kind Turn
On Thursday, Sept. 2, in the Tulsa Performing Arts Center's Charles E. Norman Theatre, 110 E. 2nd St., at 7pm, local actress, director and playwright Vanessa Adams Harris leads a group of young boys and members of 100 Black Men of Tulsa Inc. in a dramatic reading of selections from August Wilson's Fences in The August Wilson Project.
Harris has been working with the boys through the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club North Mabee Center all summer, instructing them in not just theater arts but culture and history as well.
"I've always wanted children, particularly African American children, to be aware they are creative beings and have the capacity to be writers and playwrights," Harris said.
She also said it's important for young black children to be aware of black theater and its significance in history and said Wilson's work is crucial to that significance.
She's been working with about seven boys, ages 9 to 13, engaging them in Wilson's work through readers theater. She doesn't expect them to read the words perfectly, she said, but she wants them to hear and be aware of their own voices.
"In that process, they are actually listening to the text," Harris said. "They're listening to the conversation that's going on."
Harris said the next phase of her project will be to engage the boys in writing their own work.
She said she chose to work with children at the North Mabee Center because they live in the heart of north Tulsa and come from various backgrounds.
"I wanted to get a real sense of these kids and their lives and expose them to something they have not been exposed to before," she said.
Harris is Muscogee (Creek) Indian and black, and she's perhaps best known for her acclaimed work in one-woman shows such as Who Will Sing for Lena?, Big Mama Speaks and A Simple Act of Courage. Her last project, Amy's Beauty, engaged young black girls, which is why, this time, she targeted boys.
"I think that boys are just great little creatures and that we overlook boys sometimes," Harris said. "I know that the culture says we overlook girls, but I'm really seeing we're overlooking boys, and we need to give them some extra attention to understand what is happening in the transition from a boy to a teenager to a man."
To get more information about The August Wilson Project, including ticket information, call the Tulsa PAC at (918) 596-7111.
Share the Wealth
This weekend, Sept. 3-4, and next, Sept. 9-12, Broken Arrow Community Playhouse presents Spreading it Around, a light-hearted comedy that finds a wealthy widow living in a retirement community in Florida.
When she grows tired of footing the bills and handing out money to her unappreciative children, she and some of the other residents start the S.I.N. (Spending It Now) Foundation, an organization that gives to those really in need.
Fearing they will lose their inheritance, her greedy son and his shopaholic wife show up to try to have her committed for incompetence.
The show begins at 8pm each night except Sept. 12, when it begins at 2pm, at The Main Place, at 1800 S. Main St. in Broken Arrow. Tickets are $13 at bacptheatre.com
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