Believe Women: Female Voices in Solo Performance

Columns, Lead Article

By Alex Miller

Eighty‑one female solo performers bring some of this theater season’s finest work to United Solo, the world’s largest solo theatre festival, as they tell inspiring, moving and thought‑provoking stories often overlooked. This season, solo shows address gender discrimination, sexual assault and non‑acceptance, themes that remain all too relevant. They are also stories of triumph and resilience, telling about women overcoming great odds to reclaim their lives and change history. You can still watch many of these shows in New York this season, and then follow them around the world. Each show title is linked to more information with the dates and locations of upcoming performances.

The range of shows is as distinguished as the women performing them. Zishan Ugurlu, resident actor and director at La MaMa and professor at The New School, directed “Dream America, The,” an autobiographical show by Yu Ling Wu. Describing the turbulent seas that bring an immigrant family to America, only to be punished further in its “melting pot,” Ms. Wu reminds us that the immigrant story has too many barriers to count.

Bellina Logan’s “Confessions of a Mulatto Love Child” is a comedy about defying categorization. Identity and acceptance are fickle creatures, much like the relationship between a mother and a daughter. In this show, a biracial woman leaves home to follow in her actor parents’ footsteps, then returns to care for her aging mother. This show beautifully dramatizes the chilling, tearful realization that your loved one may no longer remember you.

First by Faith: The Story of Mary McLeod Bethune” is an extraordinary piece about civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, performed by Richarda Abrams. The show chronicles Bethune’s fight for education for all. The daughter of slaves, she was eventually appointed the director of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s division of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration, and served on his Black Cabinet. This show comes shortly after the death of another trailblazer and educator, Linda Carol Brown (Brown vs. Board of Education), earlier this year.

Inheritance: A Litany” is a show about all the things parents pass on to a child, told through dance by Janis Brenner, Juilliard School faculty member, performer, and choreographer. It takes us back to the awkward transition from childhood to adulthood. Ms Brenner shines with each pose, each graceful movement. “Funny, clever, tragic and honest, ‘Inheritance’ is an absolute triumph,” raved an All About Solo review.
  
The solo form is a wonderful platform for these voices, because an actor retains so much creative control and can express herself fully. The relative simplicity of production allows for an immediate response to the precise cultural moment. These solo shows inspire social and political dialogue from a place of compassion and understanding.

Hard work pays off in Cynthia Shaw’s “Velvet Determination‑A Young Pianist’s Journey to New York,” the compelling story of a woman fighting for her dreams in the music world. As observed by All About Solo, “Every story Shaw tells rings with authenticity and honesty. That is a prerequisite for any autobiographical performance, to be sure, but Shaw has a beautiful way of recapturing her own youthful exuberance that keeps the work light yet sincere.”

Writer and psychiatrist Anne Stockton spoke to All About Solo about her play, “I Won’t Be In On Monday,” directed by Austin Pendleton. In her interview, she said that her piece “was inspired by my work as an actor‑trainer for the New York City Police Department. I have done many role‑plays with their Hostage Negotiation Team and Emergency Service Unit – members of these teams handle extremely difficult situations. The goal is to portray the disorders and the situations as realistically as possible in an effort to assist detectives to hone their negotiation skills.”

In an encore presentation at United Solo, “Warrior Without a Cause” tells the story of Anthoula Katsimatides, whose parents expect her to be their “καλό κορίτσι” (Greek for “good girl”), but whose actual life comes to resemble a Greek tragedy. According to an All About Solo review, “It is a gem of a show for anyone who’s ever known the joys and frustrations of growing up in a multicultural household.”

In “ONE GOOD EGG: It Will Crack You Up and Crack You Open!” Elaine Gale uses eggs, Wendy’s baked potatoes, kale, Mr. T., Crushnbsp;the Turtle, Uma Thurman, infertility, ayahuasca, and frozen dog testicles to turn hardship and loss into comedy. “This show is a mash‑up of storytelling, comedy and theater. It’s a unique style. It incorporates my ten years in journalism as it’s a totally nonfiction show, and also my ten years in academia as I still have a podium, although I call it an ‘eggstand,’” said Ms. Gale in her interview with All About Solo.

Tatyana Kim and Anatoliy Ogay also spoke to All About Solo about their production, “OTOSOTR,” written and performed by Mr. Ogay and directed by Ms. Kim. Recently, this show won an Asian Arts Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and was acclaimed by the media, rated 4 STARS by The Scotsman and 4 STARS by The List. Ms. Kim said that “one of our challenges was to find the right ways to talk to the audiences back home and in the West. Between our premiere in Kazakhstan and performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, certain things had to be adapted or tweaked in order to keep the authenticity of the story.” This Fall, “OTOSOTR,” comes to New York City as a selection of United Solo at Theatre Row in the heart of the New York City theatre district on 42nd Street.

Hope Salas’ daring and dark drama, “Hope,” explores how we are affected by the people in our lives. “Three months after Ms. Salas’ boyfriend told her he didn’t love her, curiously, they got married. Ms. Salas divided the performance into several stages: 4 am Hope, anger, depression, pain, guilt, acceptance, and finally 4 pm Hope. The show left the audience in tears of resolution and awe,” described an All About Solo review, adding, “It is a breathtaking piece of art.”

If you assume that a solo production means you will see only one person on stage, you might be quite surprised. Have you ever seen Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, and Maria Callas in one event together, or one after the other? No, we are not talking about wax sculptures at Madame Tussauds. What we have in mind is the one‑woman musical, “Songs for Nobodies,” performed by Ali Harper, who brought her piece from New Zealand to United Solo this fall. Blessed by a remarkable talent for transformation, Ms. Harper brings to life these legendary women, their powerful voices, and tragic life stories. Today, like never before, these stories have profound meaning and find deeper understanding. “Songs for Nobodies” become the anthems for everybody.

What if moving forward meant losing what you love? Through toys, humor, and fairytale tropes, “Eulalia: A Bedtime Story,” produced by the Pretty Bird Theater Company, tells the tragic, true story of a Spanish princess’ struggle for freedom. This one‑woman show, written and performed by Sarah Cuneo, was presented as part of this year’s FringeNYC.

Also this season, Germany’s Solo Festival THESPIS, now in its eleventh year, will feature Yokko in “BUTOH MEDEA” — a show that received several awards at United Solo in New York, including Best One‑Woman Show, as well as Best Actress at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, and an Asian Arts Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Using the Japanese dance form Butoh and an adapted text, Yokko brings the spirit of Medea to life. This fusion of Eastern dance and Western drama puts the audience inside Medea’s dark and desperate struggle. Trapped in the underworld, she is forever cursed to relive her tragic journey through love, hate, and ultimate loss. In past years, this show was presented at United Solo Europe, a showcase for overseas audiences opened by Fiona Shaw. “BUTOH MEDEA” is now being performed around the world.
 
Female performers take center stage, empoweringnbsp;their voices and sharing meaningful stories. This artistic and social movement in the art of one‑woman performance radiates strongly in New York, as well as throughout the world. And this is just the beginning!
 
 
 
A Lead Photo: Ali Harper in “Songs for Nobodies”
All Photos: courtesy of the productions
 
ALEX MILLER, a Chicago native, has been a professional writer and editor for 6 years. He joined the Navy in 2004, and served for four years in such places as Haiti, Iraq, and Somalia. He has a degree in Public Engagement from The New School, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Forbes, The New York Daily News, and QZ, among others. He lives in Harlem.

 

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