This year, the Tony Awards committee has recognized more female playwrights and trailblazing roles for actresses than ever before. But is this for one night only?
The Tony Awards are hardly known as a feminist event, but on Sunday, June 11, if we are lucky, we may be witnessing a first.
In the theater world, especially on Broadway, there appears to be an increasingly heightened focus on gender parity, a shift both onstage and behind-the-scenes that reflects its audience, which, in the 2015-16 season, was 67 percent female—though you’d never guess from the demographics of press nights, where you’ll find the critics and theater feature writers are predominantly men). And many such critics and writers would seem determined to label every disagreement or dispute between women playwrights and directors and actresses as a catfight and every attempt to portray empowerment as a political statement. So how does a feminist work break through to the Broadway stage—and what qualifies as “feminist” in this realm?
This season, we’ve seen more plays and musicals written (or co-written) by women and more women take center stage and cast in better roles as characters who drive the script’s action rather than existing merely as love interests and ingénues. The scripts of the four new plays nominated for Tonys include women who help shape foreign policy, endure professional and financial struggles, leave their families to carve out their own lives, and participate in groundbreaking and controversial art. In The Little Foxes, nominated for Best Revival of a Play, the entrapment of women through patriarchal economic policies from previous decades is bluntly and unapologetically explored.
The book, music, and lyrics of Come From Away, a front runner for 2017’s Best Musical, were written by a team of two men and one woman and features the barriers-breaking pilot Beverley Bass—the first female American Airlines captain in history—in its narrative about displaced planes on September 11. In fact, all of the actresses nominated for leading roles in a play—Cate Blanchett (The Present), Jennifer Ehle (Oslo), Sally Field (The Glass Menagerie), Laura Linney (The Little Foxes), and Laurie Metcalf (A Doll’s House, Part 2)—embody characters who are rich with complication and conflict unrelated to romance. The same can be said for the leading ladies of musicals, which includes a formidable trio of middle-aged powerhouses playing businesswomen—Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly!, the musical tale of a middle-aged matchmaker; and Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole in War Paint as Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, business titans of the cosmetic industry whose rivalry with each other is driven by battling for clientele rather than romantic partners.
Gender parity, both on and off Broadway, has motivated a variety of groups to work for equity in the industry including Parity Productions, The Kilroys, the League of Professional Theatre Women, the Women, Arts and Media Coalition, and 50/50 in 2020—the latter of which is reflected in the 2017 Tony nominations. In a noticeable shift from previous years, half of the nominated plays are written by women. That is no small change, when you consider that just three years ago, in 2014, five out of five nominees for Best Play were written by men, and in 2015, only one nominated play had a female credit shared with a man: Wolf Hall, co-credited to Hilary Mantel, the novelist whose work from which the play was adapted. A year later, we witnessed what seemed like a huge leap forward when Fun Home won Best Musical, marking the first time that a musical written solely by women took home the top prize. But the presentation of composer and writer Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s awards was not broadcast on television. (The following season, Eclipsed, by Danai Gurira, transferred to Broadway from the Public Theater, featured an all-female cast led by a female director, and earned six Tony nominations.)
In fact, it wasn’t until just this year that Pulitzer Prize–winning playwrights Paula Vogel (Indecent) and Lynn Nottage (Sweat) made their Broadway debuts and with them earned Tony nominations (both Broadway productions are directed by women: Rebecca Taichman and Kate Whoriskey, respectively). This has been a long time coming for Vogel, a prolific playwright who won the Pulitzer for How I Learned to Drive, whose Indecent chronicles the controversy surrounding the first play to depict the first lesbian kiss onstage, in 1921; and Nottage, a MacArthur “Genius” Award recipient who won a Pulitzer for Ruined and Sweat, which portrays a blue-collar, working-class community affected by downsizing and poverty. And when Waitress, an adaptation of the Adrienne Shelly film— which garnered four Tony nominations—opened on Broadway with an all-female creative team at the helm, the musical’s development was dismissed by New York Post columnist Michael Riedel, who referred to rumored conflict within the creative and publicity teams as a “feminist war,” and wrote patronizingly, “Let’s leave domestic violence to Tennessee Williams and David Mamet.”
And what makes a work of art feminist? Must the author of the play be female? Or is it the message? A Doll’s House, Part 2 was written by a man, but it arguably is feminist in the way it explored what would happen if Nora (Laurie Metcalf), the heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s play, returned to her family’s home 15 years after leaving her husband and children. Throughout a series of conversations with her former nanny (Jayne Houdyshell), husband (Chris Cooper), and daughter (Condola Rashad), Nora pontificates on her thoughts about marriage and its role in culture. Not surprisingly, she is strongly opposed to the institution and the restraints it places on women. Instead, she supports women and men living full and independent lives without pledging to commit to one person. She even refers to marriage as “more cruel than kind” and compares it to ownership of another person while also discussing the disparity in societal standards to which men and women are held. Nora’s unapologetic, matter-of-fact speech likely provides a unique perspective on monogamy and marriage that some audience members have never heard before.
Another male playwright gives us a feminist trailblazer in Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle), the heroine in Oslo, J.T. Rogers’s dramatization of the behind-the-scene actions leading to the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Juul, an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, quietly reveals herself to be the strongest person in the room, but it is not until the second act that her power is recognized by the men she is guiding through history-making international diplomacy, as they toast her: “Without her, we are nothing.”
But what about the recognition offstage, when we see writers like Riedel making flippant comments about Waitress? Or the fact of so few female theater critics writing for the biggest, most widely read publications? To wit: After the New York Times dismissed (white male) critic Charles Isherwood, a petition was issued asking that the powerful publication hire a woman and/or a person of color to work alongside (white male) critic Ben Brantley. The paper hired another white male critic, Jesse Green, from New York Magazine. A little over a month later, Linda Winer, the long-established theater critic from Newsday, and one of the few female theater critics, announced her resignation.
Throughout the 2016-17 season, Hilton Als of The New Yorker wrote about female director Leigh Silverman’s revival of Sweet Charity, saying “Watching that and other female-centered plays staged by Silverman, I began to think of her as downtown’s ‘woman’s director,’ in the old M-G-M George Cukor sense of the phrase.” Brantley described the formidable actress Eva Noblezada, starring in Miss Saigon, merely as a “dewy” girl who “emanates an appropriate open vulnerability,” despite her powerhouse performance in the lengthy and demanding musical that earned her a Tony nomination. The female-led Waitress was reviewed by Charles Isherwood, who wrote of the main character finding the courage to leave her abusive husband, “Only Jenna seems fully drawn from life, and the emotional arc of her character conforms to familiar stories about oppressed women finding their inner strength. This, of course, is a journey that many women have indeed traveled, and has a built-in (or should I say baked-in?) emotional appeal.”
More recently, Brantley’s review of Suzan Lori-Parks’s Venus inspired fury on social media when he compared the central character Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman to Kim Kardashian due to both of them being full-figured women. Brantley noted in his review about the play that chronicled being forced to work in circuses and “freak shows” that “there is a less drastic alternative to costly and dangerous buttocks implants.” His praise for the leading actress included the note, “Ms. Jah, who was wonderful as the captive bride of an African warlord in Eclipsed, is just as good as another kind of sex slave here.”
This disdainful and glib treatment of stories written by and about women has become expected in a landscape so dominated and driven by men that a season like this one, that actually features strong characters and even a few works written by women, is embraced as feminist and a sign of the future. More diversity is needed offstage, both as creators and critics, so equity is no longer an exception to rejoice over. It needs to be the norm. And, if the 71st annual Tony Awards actually distribute their top prizes to women, thus proving that works with female playwrights and protagonists can be both critical and commercial successes—a vitally necessary demonstration to motivate more producers and artistic directors to back works by women—there truly will be cause to celebrate.
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