Female directors provoked and excelled in leading roles
Cher has never been one to mince words, and she offered some typically blunt reasoning as she urged participants at a January Women’s March to vote for change. “If you want a job done right,’’ she said, “get a woman.’’
That maxim seems to have supplied the working template for Boston theater in 2018. This was a year when women, prominently including women of color, directed a hefty percentage of the impactful stage productions that are likely to linger in the memory as we head into 2019.
This year, it was female directors, as often as not, who embraced challenging subject matter or took chances with form. For example, in Bryn Boice’s Commonwealth Shakespeare Company staging of “Universe Rushing Apart: Blue Kettle and Here We Go,’’ a pair of one-act plays by Caryl Churchill about deceit, identity, language, and mortality, Boice kept spectators off-balance by enveloping them in a hypnotic, vaguely disquieting aura throughout.
At the helm of the Huntington Theatre Company production of Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew,’’ in which tensions flare as Detroit auto workers face the possible closure of their factory and the loss of their livelihoods, director Megan Sandberg-Zakian tightened the screws on the characters — and on us in the audience, too, making us feel every drop of their sweat. Then there was Jennifer Haley’s ultra-disturbing “The Nether,’’ directed by Sarah Gazdowicz at Flat Earth Theatre Company. No production was more unsettling, and few were more gripping, than Gazdowicz’s staging of Haley’s slice of techno-dystopia about a detective investigating the operator of a virtual world where pedophiles live out their fantasies via avatars.
This was a year when women of color left a pronounced imprint as directors. Tiffany Nichole Greene, who was in the cast for 2016’s “Bootycandy’’ at SpeakEasy Stage Company, made a substantial splash when she returned to SpeakEasy in a different role: director. Greene’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “Between Riverside and Crazy’’ hit just the right balance of empathy, humor, and intensity in its portrait of a former New York cop and the half-broken people in his orbit who are struggling to catch a break and alter their self-destructive ways.
Summer L. Williams, known for diving into challenging works where other directors might fear to tread, added to her track record by helming Company One Theatre’s “Leftovers,’’ Josh Wilder’s surrealistic study of two young African-American brothers in South Philadelphia intent on rewriting their family’s narrative, as well as “Wig Out!,’’ Tarell Alvin McCraney’s excursion into drag ball culture, in a coproduction by Company One and American Repertory Theater.
Dawn M. Simmons demonstrated her versatility by tackling a couple of works that don’t have a whole lot in common except for, well, witches: “The Wiz,’’ at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, and “Macbeth,’’ at Actors’ Shakespeare Project. A welcome blast from the past came in February, when Dayenne C. Byron Walters delivered a vibrant staging of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf’’ at Roxbury’s Hibernian Hall. The Praxis Stage production was a reminder of the continuing resonance of Shange’s mid-1970s “choreopoem’’ about women of color struggling to hold on to a sense of self in a world determined to obliterate it — and it felt even more poignantly meaningful when the playwright died in October.
Shange wrote “For Colored Girls’’ to give a voice to women’s stories, something that is more urgent than ever in the wake of the revelations from the #MeToo movement. But those stories need to be told well, with understanding and insight. When women are calling the shots there are salutary effects that go beyond the obvious issue of simple fairness and the opportunity for talent to flourish. It also means that female playwrights are more likely to find platforms for their work.
A small gem this year was Leila Ghaemi’s staging at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre of Kira Rockwell’s jolting “The Tragic Ecstasy of Girlhood,’’ about girls at a Texas residential treatment facility struggling to forge their own identities in the crucible of adolescence — and the grim aftermath of a housemate’s suicide. Stories of women who had to deal with male entitlement and aggression blended with an implicit call for female solidarity and empowerment in “Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True,’’ co-written and directed by Ifeoma Fafunwa, presented by the American Repertory Theater in association with iOPenEye.
Speaking of the ART: Diane Paulus, the company’s artistic director, maintained her busy pace this year, directing Claudia Rankine’s “The White Card’’ about the same time the touring production of Paulus’s “Waitress’’ was playing at the Boston Opera House, then helming “Jagged Little Pill’’ and “ExtraOrdinary.’’ (Disclosure: Paulus directed productions of my son Matt’s opera, “Crossing,’’ in 2015 and 2017. Further disclosure: He is a friend and colleague of the director and the adapter/star of the ART’s “The Black Clown,’’ which is on my top10 list.) Other established directors who left a mark included Jessica Stone (“Bad Dates,’’ at the Huntington), Elaine Vaan Hogue (“Straight White Men’’ at New Repertory Theatre), and Liesl Tommy (the Huntington’s “Top Girls”). Director-choreographer Rachel Bertone plumbed the darkest depths of “Cabaret’’ at Moonbox Productions, and another director-choreographer, Ilyse Robbins, continued to put her imprint on Greater Boston Stage Company as associate artistic director.
The presence of women at the helm of so many noteworthy shows may partly be a reflection of the insistence in the past few years by local and national activists that the theater world squarely confront the problem of gender inequity. Granted, at this point, it can’t be said with any mathematical certainty that women directed more productions in the Boston area than in previous years; a final tally will probably find that gender parity remains a goal rather than an achievement.
But the past year onstage kept providing reasons for optimism about the future. For instance, several actresses made their directing debuts, including Marianna Bassham (with SpeakEasy’s “Every Brilliant Thing’’), Robin JaVonne Smith (with “Brokelahomo!,’’ by Ryan Landry and the Gold Dust Orphans), and Kiki Samko (with Landry’s “A Nightmare on Elf Street.’’) That suggests the sort of upward mobility and decision-making power Cher might approve of.