Not Just Jocks In Frocks: Three Plays Highlight Women In Sports Today
American Theater magazine wasn't giving away any secrets when it reported plays featuring narratives extolling athletic activities reaping the benefits of crossover marketing to audiences outside the usual theatergoing demographic. You won't find any argument disputing the timeliness of stories exploring the dark side of glory days under the stadium lights, either.
Whatever the deciding factors, playgoers with an ear for locker-room chat in treble key may choose this spring among no less than three productions—Rivendell Theatre Ensemble's Firebirds Take the Field, Twenty Percent Theatre Company's Tight End and Windy City Playhouse's King Liz—that explore the obstacles encountered by aspiring women looking to Athena and Artemis, rather than Aphrodite, for inspiration.
Don't mistake this description for old-fashioned battle-of-the-sexes comedies featuring short-skirted misses who squeal, "Oooh, I broke a nail!" as they deliberately fumble their shot to impress men of hulking brawn, but fragile ego. The invasion of hitherto male-dominated sports by the women in these world and Chicago premieres demand a strength, courage and resilience-under-duress as severe as that endured by their beefy counterparts.
The stress encountered in Lynn Rosen's Firebirds Take the Field has the power to render the cheerleaders of Highland Falls High School vulnerable to involuntary seizures manifesting themselves in uncontrollable muscular and vocal spasms. In another age, this phenomenon (properly called "conversion disorder") might be attributed to witchcraft—an explanation no longer acceptable, even as the investigating doctor searches in vain for the source of the malaise.
"Medical science has pondered the connection between physical and mental health for centuries, but nowadays, we ignore this connection at our own risk," Rivendell Artistic Director Tara Mallen reminds us, while production director Jessica Fisch adds, "These young women are grappling with changes they don't have the maturity or vocabulary to handle. When the weight of repression proves too much, their bodies rebel kinetically."
The rebellion in Tight End is no easier for being openly acknowledged, if not endorsed. Ashley—oops, "Ash"—Miller is the daughter of the one-time Westmont High School football champion, who raised his child in his own image, so that at the age of fourteen, her only dream is to follow in his steps, despite evidence of her sire's untimely death arising from just such obsessive ambitions. Her determination eventually wins the approval and support of her teammates, but cannot prepare her for the hostilities she will face away from the safety of the gridiron.
"Playwrights who write 'strong' female characters often forget to make them human beings, not saints or superheros—and even when they are saints and superheroes, nobody is perfect," declares author Rachel Bykowski, "Ash is a tough girl who has earned her place within her chosen arena, but she is also an insecure adolescent who succumbs to peer pressure and becomes a victim to 'tradition' having less to do with what happens on the field, and more with the social attitudes surrounding that activity."
The plot of Fernanda Coppel's comedy, King Liz revolves around the efforts of an African-American sports agent to prove her worthiness in defiance of her skeptical peers, its laughs serving to highlight truths too frequently left unsaid. "Liz Rico—being a woman of color in a so-called 'man's world'—has had to push through many barriers to get where she is," says artistic director Amy Rubenstein, "Coppel goes beyond simple gender-swap to offer a fresh perspective on breaking stereotypes."
What has been the reaction of athletic communities?
"We reached out to local universities and the response has been very positive," reports Twenty Percent artistic director Lindsay Bartlett, who readily concedes the advantage of performing in Uptown's Pride Arts Buena storefront, recently host to the likewise female sports-related For Love Of.
Rubenstein concurs, "Windy City Playhouse's goal is to bring new audiences to the theater and plays like King Liz are certainly a way to do it!"
Firebirds Take The Field runs at Rivendell Theatre through May 27
Tight End runs at the Pride Arts Buena through June 3
King Liz opens at the Windy City Playhouse on June 1 and runs through July 16
Mary Shen Barnidge
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