Carolyn Gage’s new short plays give women voice

Speaking out of silence
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  April 10, 2013

 theater_LITTLESISTER4_main

OFFERING AID AND COMFORT Native women work to break the cycle of oppression.

Women's experience of slavery, genocide, and cultural oppression, says playwright Carolyn Gage, is very different than men's: Sexual violence and women's ability to give birth makes them subject to a particularly penetrating form of colonization. And even the best-intentioned histories, she adds, often try to "disappear" that difference. A feminist lesbian activist, performer, and writer, Gage explores women's distinct, sexualized experience of oppression, along with contrasting views of how to contend with it, in two short plays: Little Sister and Harriet Tubman Visits a Therapist. They appear together in a joint production of Acorn Productions and Cauldron and Labrys Productions, at the Acorn Studio Theater in Westbrook, under the direction of Stephanie Ross.

In Little Sister, which receives its world-premiere production, Jess (Beth Somerville) lives with her partner Theresa (Beth Chasse) on the reservation where Theresa grew up. Both are Native, and inheritors of that legacy of oppression, but as lesbians, they also experience it on the reservation, even with Theresa's own family. Plus, Theresa, a tribal police officer, gets regular calls about the abuse of the man married to her sister Marie (Carolyn Ezzy), which Marie routinely denies — even at the expense of the safety of her own daughter, Onawah (Angela Moline). This is part of a cycle of trauma, the play asserts, that goes hidden or accommodated for the sake of shame or family loyalty. While Theresa deals with the res's legacy of trauma with external rules and laws, Jess battles with her own trauma and challenges paradigms intrinsic to her culture, by working on a graphic novel about a Native Two-Spirit warrior, who embodies qualities of both a man and a woman.

Inspired in part by a 2010 Amnesty International report on the disproportionate rate of sexual violence against indigenous American women, Little Sister underscores the confounding intergenerational chain of violence, shame, and silence. Chasse is sensitive and wise as the loving but emotionally exhausted Theresa, and as her niece, Moline's knowing quiet is haunting. The show also features wrenching performances by Somerville, as Jess's normally even temper spirals into her own post-traumatic stress disorder, and by Ezzy, as Marie instructs her abused daughter why she's to stay silent. Gage allows her characters and their crisis no easy resolutions, giving equal and conflicting voice to Marie's loyalty to family, Theresa's to the law, and Jess's to radical imagination.

Harriet, too, contrasts motivations for radical activism with those for the accommodation of oppression. It is set in a therapist's office in "another dimension in space-time" — one in which Harriet's master also owns a psychologist (Gwira Kabirigi), who helps him gauge the emotional states of potential escapees like Harriet (Alfine Nathalie). Harriet's been acting dangerously reckless lately, and so the well-meaning therapist sets about persuading her — first with reasoned argument and then, harrowingly, with hypnosis — to forget her radical dreams and to simply make the most of her life on the plantation.

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