Features NYC Features Published 4 December 2017

Dialogue: Teen Girls Take Center Stage

The voices of young women are amplified in a series of plays this year in New York.

Exeunt Staff

The Wolves (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Several plays have opened over the past year that have been centered around almost exclusively teen girl characters.  Our New York writers share their thoughts on these works and what these voices mean to them:

Nicole Serratore:  Sometimes you don’t know what you are missing until it smacks you in the face.  When I first saw Sarah DeLappe’s play The Wolves in its original Off-Broadway run last year (now being restaged at Lincoln Center)I suddenly realized how little theater I had seen that centered on the voices of teen girls. The play focused around a girls soccer team and and their everyday lives.  Even in Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour in which I relished the voices of young women who were filled with agency they still had to fight against men and adult voices as they told their story. When I saw The Wolves, I could not recall a play where young women did not have to share the space with anyone else’s voices (DeLappe cedes that space briefly to an adult’s voice and it felt like such a betrayal to me when she did).

Alison Walls: Like Nicole, I felt almost a shock of recognition seeing The Wolves. The play put me so vividly back into the experience of being a teenage girl. There is an amazingly brutal yet also compassionate honesty to DeLappe’s portrayal. There is that clumsy insensitivity and flashes of competitive nastiness characteristic of teenage girls, but also the sincere depth of feeling as the world reveals its wider cruelties and injustices, and the intense loyalty–so often denied–that often exists in female friendships (I do wonder if that denial stems from the threat represented by female solidarity). I could pick out several moments that resonated for me as giving rare voice to the teenage girl experience, but one particularly timely narrative thread is I think the conflict between two close friends regarding sexual pressure. It is so hard to navigate your own feelings of desire, fear, inexperience, and societal expectations as a teenage girl (hell, as an adult woman!) and the standard narratives, which seem determined to place young women in the role of either innocent victim or committed flirt, even when well-intentioned, only contribute to muffling the complexity of this experience.

Molly Grogan: In The Wolves, I thought about how important it was that DeLappe chose the community of a soccer team to examine these young women’s psyches and aspirations. Soccer is the one sport where girls have reached some kind of parity with boys: girls soccer leagues have been around for decades all across the country and are ubiquitous in suburbia now, and as competitive as any boys league. Of all sports, it’s the one where the presence of girls is not questioned any more and where mostly white middle class girls can be “boys” and not princesses (Interesting side bar: the teen movie, She’s the Man, which is a very loose version of Twelfth Night, also uses the soccer field as its premise to examine gender roles: in it, Viola, a high school sophomore, is doubly outraged when the coach cuts the girls soccer team and then her boyfriend on the team objects to letting the girls try out for the boys team, so she disguises herself as her brother and joins a rival team to get revenge…). And so the team in The Wolves is both a safe space for the girls (the place where they talk, confide, and find camaraderie and team spirit) and a physical outlet where they can prove themselves to be as fast and strong and nimble as boys – it’s a confidence builder. DeLappe’s team is likely the equal to any boys team (we know they are a winning team in a tough league) and yet, and yet… the girls are very much concerned with how they are perceived as girls in a world of boys and men.

On the contrary, in The Rape of the Sabine Women, By Grace B. Matthias (written by playwright Michael Yates), the character of Grace has nothing to fall back on. She has no team or friends or family so she is easy prey to a popular boy. She holds onto the illusion that he cares for her when he is emotionally too immature to take responsibility for the rape or stand up to the culture. Looking at the messages of the two plays (and that movie), they do perpetuate the (real) perception that girls cannot easily venture out into the world without the protection and support of someone or something: a man, a team, physical strength…

The Rape of the Sabine Women by Grace B. Mathias (Photo: Daniel J. Vasquez)

The Rape of the Sabine Women by Grace B. Mathias (Photo: Daniel J. Vasquez)

Nicole: I guess I saw those plays more giving us a window into what girls deal with all the time and the reality of why they would need such protection or strength.  These plays reminded me how much of a burden we carried as young women (the very adult secrets and dark truths of friends and classmates from high school flooded back to me). As sexual harassment and assault allegations continue to spill out, and women come forward with stories of assaults that took place when they were in their teens (or younger) it’s infuriating to think how much women have had to bear and yet how little time and space we devote to substantial, quality depictions of young women on stage.

Molly: I took my 14-year old daughter to The Wolves a year ago and she still talks about how much she loved it. Though she doesn’t articulate it in quite the terms I’m about to use: she found the female teens strong and self-realized and in that way, empowered and empowering. She has seen a lot of theater for someone her age but The Wolves made quite an impression, from writing to acting to staging, so I guess it’s safe to conclude the production got a lot right about what girls think and want.

Loren Noveck: One thing that interests me about these recent spate of plays (I didn’t see Sabine, but thinking of The Wolves, upcoming musical Mean Girls, and also Yellow Card Red Card by Melisa Tien from last summer’s Ice Factory Festival) is that they’re all about groups of teenage girls–the kind of collective identity rather than a specific story of adolescence. (Yellow Card Red Card does include the male team coach as a major character, but the setting of a play–a rural Muslim, African community where many of the girls’ families would not allow them to play without a male chaperone–requires it.) None of them has a protagonist in the tradition sense–a central character, a singular Girl who’s meant to be the locus of action and identification. In some ways this is really empowering–it lets the girls appear in, as you say, Molly, a space that’s safe for them, that they have ownership over, and it breaks up the kind of “hero’s journey” trope for a protagonists. But in some ways, it denies any of them the chance to stand their ground or stake their claim in the larger world.

School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play (Photo: Joan Marcus)

School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Nicole: I wish I had seen Yellow Card Red Card especially since I just saw School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh this week.  All my Wolves thoughts came flooding back to me in School Girls which ultimately I liked a little more.  It was so refreshing to have a teen-centric narrative, no men anywhere on stage, and the struggles of Ghanaian teens in particular depicted. Bioh’s play carefully shows the violence of colorism and the cruelty of class issues eating away at these young women in a private boarding school in Ghana in the 1980’s. She also gives ample time to the trickle down economics of meanness in circles of girls and treats the topic with serious care. She acknowledges the world that is around these girls–patriarchal, filled with unrealistic beauty standards, hard, and mean–and she gives us a window into how they are managing to navigate those challenges–and how meanness can be the protective gauze they wear. But she also leaves us with hope that this does not have to be their fate.  We see an example of a mean girl who never grows up but we also get a glimpse that that need not be the end of every mean girl’s story.

Alison: I found School Girls a little more one-dimensional, but I think what these two plays share is demonstrating that the behavior so easily dismissed as indicative of shallowness or “cattiness/bitchiness” (such telling terms) is simply teenage girls following the script they have been given, which serves as both disguise and outlet for the very real challenges and conflicts they confront throughout their lives.

Nicole: I appreciated that even if harm befell these characters in one way or another it did not follow the heavy-handed traditional formula of punishing female characters–like Annabella in Tis Pity, Wendla in Spring Awakening–for their sexual desires or agency. I saw a new play Fuck Marry Killwhich tried to update Tis Pity to a contemporary high school context (incest and all) and made wrong moves at every turn.  It’s not that we’re not punishing women (we still are) but FMK didn’t quite get the current cultural context right to condemn contemporary society for the double-standards still at issue and overall rape culture. I admired that Sabine Women pulled off the unexpected concept of a rape culture satire and managed to stay on the right edge of the line. It wasn’t perfect but it critiqued rape culture in a way I thought was genuinely effective and I was glad to see.

Molly: Rape of the Sabine Women effectively identifies the power-holders and gender stereotypes that weigh on Grace–the adults, the jocks, her cheerleader best friend, who all buy into the rape culture narrative that boys can and should “just be boys “and girls were created to satisfy their desires. Those voices are kept to the sidelines in The Wolves, and we are able to see the girls write their own narratives for themselves on the field – and maybe off the field too, though this possibility is less a promise than a hope by the end of the play.  Grace’s aspirations for herself are never explored, as if they never could be, in that environment.

Alison:  I think one of the most remarkable things about The Wolves is that, in some ways, DeLappe didn’t go to any theatrical precedent in writing her play (even as it essentially ascribes to classic naturalism); she went, I suspect, to her personal memory bank. By contrast, Bioh deliberately imitated a familiar genre and narrative, but through her Ghanaian transplantation allowed us to see the real cruelties that push the girls to be complicit in the creation of their own cliques.

Nicole: I never saw the movie Mean Girls so I cannot compare it. But I thought Bioh at least broke some of the traditional mold of a teen movie by it being an all-girls-school and even if there is some talk of boyfriends that’s hardly the focus.  The relationships between these friends or frenemies was primary.

Alison: I was thinking last night about the success of Ladybird (which does also move away from the team dynamic) and I wonder what it is in this current climate that has suddenly made audience’s ready to hear–and producers ready to pay for–these stories? Mean Girls does have its element of subtle critique (screenplay by Tina Fey after all), but I suspect stereotypical characters and easy humor has for a long time been a necessary commercial buffer around delving into the lives of teenage girls.

Mean Girls in Washington D.C. now. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Nicole: I’ll be curious to see the approach in the new musical version of Mean Girls on Broadway this spring.

Alison: Fey is, of course, building on such cinematic precedents as Heathers, as well as less edgy high-school set fare.

Loren: Heathers is a really relevant precursor, I think, especially since it was adapted for the stage itself a few years ago. Though I really didn’t like the stage adaptation–it was entertaining, but in a way that morphed much of the original’s (dark, but oddly refreshing) nihilism, its willingness to admit just how much being an adolescent, especially an adolescent girl, can suck into much blander, more empathetic depictions of the characters. Weirdly, giving these characters inner lives and struggles made them more, not less generic, and took away some of the genuine power of the original. I feel like that strain of genuine darkness is something that we still do need to grapple with, and I’m sorry that the musical Heathers missed that opportunity.

Molly: I didn’t see Pocket Universe’s all-girls version of Julius Caesar set in an all-girls high school, from last season, but the idea of exploring the complex dynamics between high school girls as a power struggle of Roman and Shakespearean proportions, is an acknowledgement both of girls’ desire for agency and how they internalize the power structures of patriarchy.

Nicole: I like how they opted for that framing too so that the focus could be on women and power without a single story line about romance.

Molly: I’ve also noticed that the newly reopened P.S. 122 is planning, for its first season under Artistic Director Jenny Schlenzka, a marathon staged reading of Kathy Acker’s 1978 novel, Blood and Guts in High School, about a much abused young teenage Mexican girl who lives experiences far beyond her years, at the hands of men, before dying of cancer at the age of 14.

Nicole: I am fascinated by Kathy Acker. I saw a work-in-progress of I’m Very Into You, based on the published letters between Acker and McKenzie Wark. Her voice in that correspondence is so potent, complex, queer, and probing. I cannot imagine how that gets writ through a teen girl lens but I’m into it. I would also welcome a queer teen ensemble piece.  With teens coming out younger and younger now, this has to be on the horizon, right? We can only hope.


Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine