Summer Sisters return as BAD MOTHERS & NEGLECTFUL WIVES, at Manbites Dog

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In Bad Mothers & Neglectful Wives, devised and presented by Summer Sisters, the struggle within the struggle: “Don’t dilute the message,” say the white women, pulling their black sister down. From left, back: Yamila Monge, Rachel Klem, Aleii Hobin. From left, front: Laurie Siegel, Amelia Sciandra, Mina Ezikpe, Emily Hill, Carissa White. Photo: Sylvia Freeman.

 

Time after time, through history, activist women have been labeled “bad mothers and neglectful wives” in vain attempts to shut them up. As often happens with labels and symbols meant to be shaming, this one has been co-opted by the the revolutionistas of Summer Sisters devised theatre group. Their Bad Mothers & Neglectful Wives, inspired by January’s Women’s March in Washington, DC, and informed by centuries of women-led movements, plays at Manbites Dog Theater tonight and Saturday, and repeats Sept. 14-16. Directed by Rachel Klem, Emily Hill and Carissa White, this Other Voices series show opens Manbites Dog’s final season of plays.

Summer Sisters is a large and fluid group of theatrical women from the Triangle area, who gather each summer in some configuration to process something important and make a witchy brew–a play–out of their distillations. This year’s work boils out of the hurt, rage, frustration, fury, pain, anger, distrust, and general pissed-offedness of millions of women after the elections of November, 2016 and the long string of assaults and murders of women and their children by police. Did I mention mad as hell and not going to take it anymore?

“I can’t keep quiet/for anyone/not any more.

They may see that monster/they may run away/but I have to do it.

A one-woman riot/I won’t keep quiet/no no/no.”

This manifesto, sung in 9-part harmony, a capella, opens the show. The beauty of the voices of the nine women kneeling, candles cradled between their palms, makes a mockery of the mocking epithet that forms the title, and while there are many sharply drawn scenes of historical and present day feminist struggle, those words sum up the message. Still and always, in different contexts, silence equals death. Or, as in the famous Audre Lorde line quoted in the play, “Your silence will not protect you.”

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Emily Hill and Rachel Klem, as 1913 suffragettes, respond to an attack from the hostile crowd at the grand march toward the White House. Laurie Siegel and Amelia Sciandra stand before a projection from a Take Back the Night march. Photo: Sylvia Freeman.

 

Polemical and sometimes pedagogical, Bad Mothers & Neglectful Wives also includes some real soul-searching and some blisteringly funny episodes. When they reprise the old Firing Line TV talk show segment in which William F. Buckley put Phyllis Schlafly and Shirley Chisholm together to talk about the (then still in contention) Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution, with Amelia Sciandra portraying Buckley, you may, if you are old enough, laugh out loud–and then cry for the good old days when there was such a thing as an intellectual conservative like Buckley. Funnier still, and mordant, is another song, set to the tune of the Marseillaise: “Rise up you bitches of the motherland…”

Although it could be more smoothly crafted and refined, Bad Mothers is full of raw power and resolve, and makes a fine opening to the final season at Manbites, which came into being as a place for speaking up and acting up and demanding change, respect and equality. Again and again, the characters speak of working for a time in which their daughters will not have to carry on the struggle. (For extra added poignancy, Rachel Klem’s own daughter, Miranda Alguire, stage mananges this show.) I regret the necessity of the message remaining the message, but now hear this:

“We’ve gone too far to stop now. We will get there in the end.”

“We are repeating ourselves again and again–until we are HEARD.”

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Turn, turn, turn

And now the season is September, and “the days dwindle down.” It’s a fresh theater season–but 2017-2018 will be imbued with the sense of an ending. Manbites Dog Theater–that bold upstart, that instigator, that model of theatrical activism; the mature presenter of new theatre for the thinking class; a support system for independent art theater in Durham and the Triangle–will darken next May, at the close of its 31st season.

There is no way to overstate the size of the hole this will leave. MDT founders, artistic director Jeff Storer and managing director Ed Hunt, along with the theater’s board, plan to help fill that hole with advice and money to other theater artists from a donor-advised fund they will establish at the Triangle Community Foundation with the proceeds from selling the theater’s building in the now-fashionable Foster-Geer Street zone, in the overheated downtown Durham real estate market. It is unlikely that another theater might take its space. The Manbites organization will live on with a somewhat altered mission, but there will be no place for us to go. I won’t see you at the theater.

Yes, of course, more theater-makers will find more spaces. And some of them will be great. But they will have to go some to create the kind of welcoming meeting place for public conversation about being human that Manbites Dog made. One felt that open welcome in the rooms, even in the early itinerant years, but in the theater’s 20 years in its own space on Foster Street, it has become an important physical spot in the urban intellectual fabric, a nexus of art and politics, a crossroads of thought and emotion, and a haven for those who care about such things.

Jeff Storer and Ed Hunt have agreed to a series of interviews with me, and I will be talking with many other people involved with the theater, with the aim of writing a somewhat episodic history of Manbites Dog, its impact on the community, and it importance to various artists. These pieces will run more or less side by side with my reviews of the final season’s shows, beginning this week with the Other Voices series piece, a devised work by Summer Sisters, Bad Mothers & Neglectful Wives. If you would like to talk about some aspect of Manbites Dog Theater, please contact me through the comments section. Or buttonhole me at the theater.

This series will likely be my final project for The Five Points Star, and will be my sole focus. It has been a privilege and often a joy to review and critique visual art, theater, music and dance for various publications, including this one, but it is time to wind it down. When Manbites completes its 31st season, I will conclude my 30th year of writing about the arts, and I believe after that I’ll do some other things as the days dwindle down. Thanks for reading all this time, and stick with me a little longer. And really, you ought to go ahead and get some tickets. We’re still paving paradise and putting up parking lots, but in this particular case, we do know what we’ve got, before it is gone.

 

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