The world premiere of Durham playwright Monica Byrne’s What Every Girl Should Know, produced by the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern of Durham, NC, runs April 19-21, 26-28 and May 3-5 at the Cordoba Center for the Arts (behind Golden Belt in downtown Durham). It’s a location that Margaret Sanger would have approved, and might have found a bit ironic, because the theater is tucked away with only a tiny sign on the door to identify it, much like the early offices of Planned Parenthood, the sex-education and reproductive-health organization that Sanger founded.
The tiny theater, located on the second floor above the new Scrap Exchange in one of the newly restored textile buildings of the Golden Belt district in Durham, seats approximately 40 people and on the night of this review, the play competed with a rock band performing in the parking lot below. The four young actresses portraying Catholic reform-school girls enamored by Sanger’s radical views on sex education and racism had to compete with cover songs by the Doors, but the actresses seemed unfazed by the sounds from outside as they opened the play with a raucous and provocative group masturbation scene made hilarious by the girls’ commentary about how they are supposed to feel during the act. Sanger’s influence on this group of 1914 teenagers is cemented in that first scene, but becomes even more evident as the play moves forward and the girls reveal their multidimensional and complicated characters.
The play is set in 1914 at St. Mary’s House, a Catholic reformatory school for boys and girls in New York’s Lower East Side. Theresa (Marie Garlock), Anne (Carolyn McDaniel) and Lucy (Alice Rose Turner) are dealing with the death of a former roommate who, it is later revealed, died from blood loss due to a badly botched abortion. When they are joined by a new roommate, hostile and rebellious Joan (Skylar Gudasz), they react with hostility. Within days, they see that Joan is one of them; and she wins them over, ultimately teaching them that Sanger’s radically new philosophies might give them the freedom they long for during their rigidly controlled days and imagination-filled nights.
Under the direction of Lucius Robinson, the four young actresses create completely round and believable characters, bringing the four turn-of-the-century teenagers fully to life and relating to the other characters as only adolescent girls do. Theresa, the dreamer, is the constant optimist, believing that she will travel and marry the perfect man, raising the perfect children and still maintaining a life of her own. Marie Garlock plays her with a wistful sweetness and sensuality that bespeaks a girl on the cusp of becoming a woman.
Anne, the sarcastic smartass played by Carolyn McDaniel, has little patience with the other girls; but it becomes clear that the hard exterior is her own protection against the pain she has experienced in her young life. Alice Rose Turner’s Lucy is a bit scatterbrained and ungainly, a little girl trying to become used to her blossoming body and unable to understand the changes occurring in it.
And Joan, the newest roommate, is the most complicated of the four. Skylar Gudasz plays her with a maturity and seriousness that appears far older than adolescence, yet her admiration for Sanger is that of any teen enamored by someone of rock-star status.
The four actresses play off well against each other, both when tumbling over each other’s pubescent sentences, as well as during the synchronized dance sequences. Their exploration of their own lives and their understanding of the world around them is underscored by the tumultuous moment in history when Sanger challenges the Comstock laws, which made even talking about birth control obscene.
The girls come to an understanding of their own sexuality and humanity by adopting Sanger as their patron saint and secretly praying to her, even as they march off each day to religion classes based in Catholicism. Their daily routines become broken by their commitment to the questions Sanger opens up for them. They long to know and understand themselves; and by doing so, they expand their horizons far beyond the simple surroundings within which they live. It is Sanger’s message about knowing one’s own body that the girls dangerously adopt, even as they realize the reform school attempts to teach them the very opposite.
Playwright Monica Byrne says she was challenged to write a play constructed around Sanger’s history and chose to focus on the adolescent girls’ “elaborate fantasy life where they travel the world, take lovers at will, and assassinate their enemies.” The set is based in one room with the four characters’ stories arcing and changing against a stark set — comprised of four single beds, trunks, saint icons, and a small table — that highlight the girls’ monastic life. The music and choreographed dances depicting the girls’ escape into Sanger-induced hallucinations were born of Byrne’s own habit of listening to Jane’s Addiction while writing the play and work quite well to induce the audience into believing the girls’ group hallucinations.
What Every Girl Should Know projects the many ways in which girls changed due to Margaret Sanger’s belief that women could and should protect themselves against unplanned pregnancies by learning about birth control. But, more than that, the powerful and controversial play explores the ways in which Sanger encouraged women to take control of their own lives and how that new freedom affected the lives of the four young women at the center of this story. As the actresses fought against the rising noise of the rock band outside the Cordoba’s windows, the women in 1914 New York fought to determine their own healthy futures. Sanger would have been happy to know that they both won their fights.
SECOND OPINION: April 24th Chapel Hill, NC WUNC 91.5 FM interview with Monica Byrne, conducted by Alex Granados and Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”: http://wunc.org/tsot/archive/What_Every_Girl_Should_Know.mp3/view; April 19th Durham, NC Duke Chronicle preview by Josh Stillman: http://dukechronicle.com/article/little-green-pig-dramatizes-womens-rights-movement; and April 18th Durham, NC Independent Weekly mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/what-every-girl-should-know/Event?oid=2988923. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the April 20th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click https://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/04/four-reform-school-girls-idolize-margaret-sanger-in-monica-byrnes-what-every-girl-should-know/.)
The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern presents WHAT EVERY GIRL SHOULD KNOW, a world premiere by Monica Byrne, at 8 p.m. April 26-28 and May 3-5 at the Cordoba Center for the Arts, 923 Franklin St., Durham, North Carolina 27701.
TICKETS: $15 Thursday ($13 seniors and active-duty military personnel) and $17 Friday and Saturday ($15 seniors and active-duty military personnel), except $5 for all shows for students with ID.
BOX OFFICE: 919-452-2304 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
VIDEO PREVIEW (by Meredith Sause): http://vimeo.com/38414623.
The Play: http://www.monicabyrne.org/plays.html (official web page).
The Playwright: http://www.monicabyrne.org/ (official website) and http://monicacatherine.wordpress.com/ (her blog).
Margaret Sanger: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Sanger (Wikipedia).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. She is also Dean of General Education and Developmental Studies at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, where she oversees the theater program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, and a member of the Person County Arts Council.
This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review. To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Theater Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click https://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.