The Journey to Culture and Identity: A Night at the Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival
By Melissa Gordon
The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival is the longest running annual festival to highlight multi-cultural solo performances produced and performed by women. After 20 years of annual showcases featuring approximately 500 performances, LAWTF continues to astound audiences with shows that uniquely portray the human condition in a highly artistic and humanistic light. Although their intended audience may be women, many genres of theatre-goers gather to enjoy these annual productions that are engaging, bold, and confident—just like the many women that write and perform them.
In addition to their theatre productions, the LAWTF staff work hard to promote accomplishments and creative self-expression in theatre. On opening night, the theatre honored and awarded an array of remarkable women for their contributions to theatre during their Emerald Anniversary and Champagne GALA event. Additionally, they run regular workshops on topics such as “How to be Brave, Moving, and Hilarious Onstage” and “Working Women: Crafting a Solo Career on Your Own Terms.” These events are an added bonus to the high-quality theatre productions presented this year which featured themes such as “Not For Children Only” and “Speaking of Men.”
On the night I attended, the theme was “Of Culture, of Self,” hosted by veteran actresses Starletta DuPois and Jude Narita. Performances included Raissa Simpson/The Push Dance Company in Judgments in Milliseconds, Cynthia Sophiea in Everyone Has Tears, Yvette Heyliger in Bridge to Baraka, Michele Carlo in Fish Out of Agua, and finally, Charlayne Woodard in Pretty Fire. As the night progressed, each performance was more inspired than the last. These autobiographical pieces allowed a snapshot into each performer’s internal struggle with assimilation, discrimination and even hair dilemmas, to find their identity.
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Performed by Raissa Simpson/Push Dance Company
To begin the night, Raissa Simpson performed a fascinating dance solo that was inspired by African-American hair culture. This interpretive presentation was a bold opening for a night of theatre. At first, the performance came off as a bit too strong for a fresh palette – It took my brain a minute to adjust to the giant screen behind Simpson, which flashed Technicolor images like an old acid trip, wrought with subliminal messaging. For a moment, it seemed as if I had entered a cult orientation. Gibberish mumbles sounded in the background, the only discernable phrase, “Hair, shiny and straight…shiny and straight…”, was repeated over and over.
Simpson’s dancing was a cross between interpretive modern and ballet, with some elements of the Robot thrown in for good measure. She jutted across the stage with an Afro wig, most commonly atop her head, but at times falling off unto the ground. At one point, the audience laughed as she used two wigs as cheerleader’s pom-poms. A disco ball illuminated the theatre while 80s pop music played. I sat in silence as I absorbed the slightly overwhelming but highly methodic portrayal of dance and color. I saw a woman demonstrating how objectifying beauty norms can be. Simpson danced as if she herself had become an object: a hypnotizing representation of beauty. She danced as if to whisper, “Take all of me, for I am woman. I am a sacrifice for beauty.” As this piece closed, I was left curious and highly intrigued.
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Written and Performed by Cynthia Sophiea
Following the dance solo was Everyone Has Tears, which opened and closed with passionate Arabic singing that reminded me of a hymn, almost religious in tone. Sophiea stopped singing, put on an apron, and became a chipper Lebanese-American mother preparing dinner for her family just as her daughter comes in upset after being bullied in school. “They said you have a big nose?!” In broken English, the mother then went on to explain how, in Lebanon, everyone has a big nose—and they are hairy too! However, the warm tone of the play shifts as newscasts about “Arab Terrorists” play on the loudspeaker, at which point her face twisted into a grimace. Slowly, the stage turned red as, shaking from anger, Sophiea prompted the audience to reanalyze the perception about American interruption in the Middle East. She prompted us to question the “righteous” acts of democracy, to put ourselves in the mind of “Arab Terrorists,” and to cease using the acts of a few others to discriminate against the many.
This was a very delicate, humanistic piece that sought to portray a moment of time and the expansion of a sharp thought, one that nags on the brain and must be shouted. Sophiea willingly contrasted the warm mother and the angry Lebanese woman to show that everyone is human, no matter where they come from. The contrast spoke volumes for multi-cultural families and the discrimination they can experience. Sophiea’s highly political message was passionate but unsettling, but I extremely appreciated the boldness of this piece. Sophiea, who proved herself to be a charming and skilled actress, set a tone for the evening that promoted an open-mind and the ability to enter the world of another culture.
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Written and Performed by Yvette Heyliger
In Bridge to Baraka, Heyliger walked casually onto the stage in sunglasses and an Afro wig, boldly proclaiming, “Calling all black people.” But, as Heylinger questioned, is she herself a black woman? Taking off her Afro wig, Heyliger began to explore her identity confusion as a young girl growing up in D.C. (“Chocolate City”) during the Black Power Movement. She took on different identities as a young girl which included Yvette X when her father joined the Nation of Islam, and a suburban girl with her “whitewashed” momma, eventually finding her place as an artist. By joining the Black Arts Movement , Heyliger took her rightful place as a black actress and playwright who currently promotes roles for underrepresented women. In her closing, she recited a piece from the poem “Black Art” by founder of the Black Arts Movement, Amiri Baraka: “Poems are bullshit unless they are / teeth or trees or lemons piled / on a step… Let there be no love poems written / until love can exist freely and /cleanly.”
Overall, this piece was delightful and dealt with serious historical themes in a very educational and comedic manner. It takes a real talent to make someone laugh while reciting the meaningful, but extremely graphic, portions of Baraka’s poetry. This piece pointed out the relationship between art, politics, and identity that can sometimes be overlooked: calling all black people, calling all women, calling all people … put down the gun, and pick up the pen.
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Written and Performed by Michele Carlo
Fish Out of Agua played on a similar theme of doubting one’s racial identity, but in a more personal and autobiographical way. In a comedic manner, Carlo addressed her struggles with identity and education as a white-skinned, red-haired Puerto Rican in Spanish Harlem, New York. She presents the question Who are you if even your own family thinks you’re an outsider? Carlo relayed how, at one point, she wanted the neighborhood kids to call her a “spic ” in order to receive some confirmation that she belonged in her Puerto Rican family. Despite her lack of identity at home, she found her place in the arts as a self-proclaimed cartoonist. On the screen behind her were pictures of her hometown and snapshots of herself from earlier decades (she looked a bit like Karen Carpenter). Although her family’s motives did not agree with her goal to become an artist, Carlo endured and eventually reached her dream to attend a well-renowned art school.
Carlo was entertaining, and her adorable facial gestures and spot-on Jersey accent made this piece very funny, but her performance was perhaps the weakest of the acts. She appeared to be the most nervous out of all of the performers, often missing a line or speaking too quietly for me to hear from the middle rows in the audience (I can’t imagine how the listeners in the far back must’ve faired). Nevertheless, the message of this piece was something that I (as a white-skinned, blue-eyed Cuban-American woman *wink to Carlo*) heavily related with. I appreciated the highly personal tone of this piece and its genuine storyline. Her message was heard loud and clear: sometimes we need a stronger sense of who we are without our family, outside our heritage, to really understand who we are and who we will become. These aspects centralized the heartfelt, relatable tale in Fish Out of Agua.
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Written and Performed by Charlayne Woodard
Charlayne Woodard literally hopped across the stage as she demonstrated a different perspective of childhood innocence, during a time when slavery and racism cast shadows on modern America. In a real attention-grabber of an opening, she portrayed her mother as she asked two young sisters, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Woodard enthusiastically jumped up and down on stage, pumped her hand in the air, and told her mother, “I want to be Lassie! Lassie, who is loved…or Shirley Temple, who lives in a white house and dance with a Negro butler!” Her mother, evidently appalled, hopes to find a better answer in the sister—but she only responds that she wants to be a Negro maid when she grows up.
Transitioning with a rendition of “I Wish I Was in Dixie,” Woodard expressed how Dixie was a magical place to her as a child. Dixie, a Southern land where racism still ran rampant . . . but the kids didn’t know that. To them, Dixie was where their grandparents spoiled them, where the townspeople executed happier jobs like cotton-picking, and where the term Jim Crow was just the name of someone that momma disliked. This tale of innocence came to a climax when the children mistook an intense act of racially charged violence, a burning cross in the center of town, as beautiful. “Ooo, pretty fire!” By the end of the piece, the children have unwillingly lost a piece of their innocence, and Woodard woefully sang “I Wish I Was in Dixie” one last time.
Woodard was brilliant. At points, I forgot that she was a grown woman.Woodard’s child-like acting accurately demonstrated how a child might overlook themes that seem obvious as adults. She mastered the adult’s parts wonderfully. During one very memorable scene, the entire stage went black as a dark purple hue filled the screen behind Woodard. As she tensely performed, the little amount of light left in the theatre flickered majestically off her simple, gold earrings creating true theatre magic. What a beautiful performance; I can easily see why Woodard’s piece was chosen for the finale. Although one would think that it would be difficult to pull off a comedic play about such dark themes, Woodard succeeded brilliantly. I cracked up as I witnessed her boundless energy and comedic storytelling ability, but I was also left stunned and eternally changed by the impactful message in Pretty Fire.
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Encore, encore! All in all, every piece of the night was dazzling and unforgettable. I was left stunned in the best possible way. Sure enough, the Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival continues to promote excellent theatre performed by extremely talented actresses/playwrights that certainly influenced my perception of the world around me. Most importantly, these pieces prompted me to rethink myself; As host Starletta DuPois eloquently put it: “Don’t quit—we’re still climbing, and life ain’t been no crystal stair.” All of these pieces highlighted one common aspect of the human condition: the power to portray the heart’s yearning. These pieces do not just portray the voice of the underrepresented woman, but the underrepresented individual in all of us. Whether the subject is identity, innocence, or cultural acceptance, we have all experienced that yearning to be complete in a world where that can sometimes feel impossible. Don’t miss out on the incredible wisdom of the pieces performed at the annual Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival! Take advantage of what they have to offer and expose yourself to some of the most engaging theatre available in Los Angeles.