Friday, August 2, 2013

I'm Getting My Act Together: Feminist Postcards from the Edge

"Honey, can you get me a ginger ale"--Joe
With that question and a pat of a woman's ass we are smacked back to 1978 for the feminist musical, I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road, by Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford.  It was the final segment of the summer Encores! series at City Center (The Cradle Will Rock, Violet).  Expecting incense and bra-burning arcana, I was surprised to find that despite the bits of period language the sentiments of trying to forge workable relationships between men and women did not feel dated at all to me. 

Heather Jones (Renée Elise Goldsberry) is a soap opera actress with a singing career and she's
getting a new cabaret act off the ground. Her manager Joe (Frederick Weller) flies in from
the coast and she introduces him to the new material she's been working on with the help of her back-up singers (Christina Sajous, Jennifer Sanchez).  She strips away the falseness of some of her earlier more pop-friendly work and writes songs and skits that are raw with honesty and emotion.  Singing about her parents bad marriage and her own that didn't work out, Heather has put together a line-up of songs which reflect her love of singing, her hope to be loved for who she is, and a genuine affection for Joe which she hopes might be something he reciprocates.  Joe's just had a row with his wife and Heather's unexpected new material is a little too much for him.

Despite bell bottoms, batik curtains, and 70's guitar orchestrations, I felt much of Gretchen Cryer (book and lyrics) and Nancy Ford's (music) show rang true today.  Maybe it's because I grew up in the 70's and 80's and this musical spoke to my mother's generation of feminism which I could not help but absorb.  Maybe it's because the cabaret format and brisk story was an articulate attempt to get the world to pay attention to real issues facing women then, and now.  It seems to me we remain in a time and place where how men and women communicate and relate to each other still creates friction.  For every person who says there's no issue there are a thousand anonymous internet comments that say otherwise.

If anyone has been following the travails of @EverydaySexisim or the issues written about by Caitlin Moran, then Heather's complaints and Joe's attitude become all the more relevant to today's discussion. The word choice and language employed in IGMATATIOTR might be a little out of sync with current vernacular, and the conversation more direct and foregrounded than we are apt to have today but I found the sentiments and frustrations all too real.  For both parties.  Thankfully despite certain aspects of Joe's chauvinism* being put to the forefront I was relieved that he is a full person.  A man stuck between how he was raised and who he wants to be.  Thinking he's hip and forward-looking, but still falling behind the expectations of the women around him who are demanding change (because waiting, politely for change is not actually going to yield change).  Single-minded and driven by her mission, with some self-awareness but with her blind spots as well, Heather is flawed too.  Coming out of the show I felt like I got to see fully-formed characters in conversation with one another--raw, uncensored, broken, and trying.  Kathleen Marshall's production of this musical acts as a dialogue between these two factions and offers no easy answers and no quick fixes. But the sincerity of the emotion came through clearly.

Renée Elise Goldsberry is fiery as Heather. She manages to be sassy, funny, heart-broken and full of yearning. Her rendition of Old Friends is shaded not only by her beautiful voice but her stunning
performance.  Her pleading eyes and her gentle touch say almost as much as the song. If not even more.  After seeing Goldsberry in a supporting role in Good People, it was great to see her carrying this show.  She is helped by the always riveting Christina Sajous, the affable Jason Rabinowitz (One Man, Two Guvnors) as the much younger band member who's got a thing for Heather, and Weller as the multi-dimensional Joe.  Joe could easily have fallen into cartoon but Weller conveys all sides of Joe.  The dutiful husband, macho guy of his era, and Heather's former paramour who can't quite understand what is happening around him.  Weller's Joe made me think of those lost, befuddled men of the movies of the 1970's, puzzled by a world that has somehow slipped past them and has left them behind (Jack Lemmon in Save the Tiger or Art Carney in Harry and Tonto).

Strangely I came away from the musical thinking of Heather's strength and that she'd be fine. Or perhaps it was wish-fulfillment.  2013 me wanted her to keep fighting so that I would have the choices I have today.

In 1978, her strength was part of the problem for her.  Men would appreciate her strength because they knew she could handle them leaving her and they would stay with women who were not as strong--a dependency which Heather called out as a tactic that women employed to manipulate the men in their lives.  But I'd like to think that time would prove her right.  Her anger, her desires, her fight for independence and yet affection was the right path, but the men in her world would sadly be lagging behind.  She might as well date the twenty-something guy who had only known a world in upheaval and might not subscribe to the strict 1950's worldview that Heather and her generation had come out of.  Maybe dating the younger guy in 1978 was just crazy talk, but seemed like such a reasonable proposal to me.  I guess times have changed a bit.

If the rumors of a revival of this musical are true, I'd recommend seeking it out. Hopefully it will come back in a small venue so that the delicateness of Goldsberry's performance can be appreciated and the intimacy of the relationship with Joe can be quietly expressed.

I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road is a testament to another era but it is also an echo from the past that continues to reverberate today.  An echo we need to listen to.

*It has left me wondering why we don't really use the word chauvinism anymore.  Now misogyny has seemingly replaced it.  But misogyny is a word which suggests a deeper level of animosity and anger.  Perhaps it is not the fact that we use a different word but that the actual active dialogue today about feminism today stirs up a stronger, more vitriolic response.  There's no question that when you talk about feminism and someone responds that you deserve to be raped, well, the landscape has changed.

Of course we still have chauvinism today.  But maybe today chauvinism is so subtle, so expected and ingrained, we do not even label it or call it out as such.  As often as not it feels we have on the surface "accepted" the changes in the dynamics between men and women post-1978.  I wonder if we have only just buried the misapprehension, confusion, and anger beneath the surface such that it explodes from time to time in bursts of misogyny.   Was it easier when it was all out in the open?  I was in a work situation and a man made a particularly offensive comment about women and his expectation for their roles as wives and mothers--chauvinism no doubt.  But I wondered if he was just saying out loud what many men feel and don't express openly.  Have we just gagged the dialogue and not changed the attitudes.  I at least knew where I stood with that jerk.  I'm not so sure about many others. 

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