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.”
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.”