I think on any day, I would have been struck by the fact that Bodies They Ritual has an ensemble cast of ten–all of them women, most of them BIPOC women–and in less than 90 minutes, playwright Angela Hanks, director Knud Adams, and the ensemble give every one of those characters (who range from a sixty-five-year-old Black retiree to her super-successful forty-five-year-old daughter and that daughter’s best friend, a Bengali American forty-something doctor, to a seventeen-year-old biracial queer runaway) a nuanced and substantive role. (Even the smallest, most plot-necessitated character, an unnerving cult leader, gives its actor something to play that needles under one’s skin.) Seeing this play on the day the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade–I couldn’t see anything else. On that day, being able to sink into a network of women with complicated relationships–being able to laugh with them, feeling their love and their loneliness and their frustration, and their ambivalent and complex feelings about motherhood and the ties of care and kinship–helped. Maybe on another day, this would not strike me as a play whose core questions are about motherhood, but on that day, that’s what I saw.
Faye (the magisterial Lizan Mitchell) has just retired from her own hair salon, and is turning 65. Last year, her daughter, Marie (Ebony Marshall-Oliver, perfectly balancing her love for Faye with her painstakingly contained frustration) took her for tapas for her birthday dinner, and it was not a success—”the food was so very tiny!” (The play goes some serious places, but it’s also very, very funny.) So instead, this year Marie has planned a getaway from Dallas to a Santa Fe spa for Faye, Marie, two of Faye’s friends—the recently widowed Toni (Denise Burse) and the adrift and lonesome Jean (Nora Cole)—and Marie’s college friend Suchin (Nandita Shenoy), who’s going through a crisis of her own.
We meet the women in a sweat lodge, most of them with towels over their faces, and they might be seeking vision quests–or at least Suchin needs one, and Jean seems to be having one whether she wants it or not–but they’re also spending time in hot tubs and getting massages and seaweed wraps. In other words, it’s clear this resort is more spa than spiritual… and yet, there’s something more creeping around the edges of their experience. People keep popping up where they aren’t expected, people who are mystical, sinister, promising some sort of more “authentic” experience, or all of the above. People who seem oddly determined to separate the group: Sepultra (Bianca Norwood), a runaway queer teenager named after her mom’s third-favorite thrash-metal band (she feels lucky her name isn’t Anthrax), who shows up while Suchin and Marie are in a hot tub, offering them the chance to burn something down–which Suchin jumps at while Marie remains suspicious. While Toni and Faye are getting ready for their massage, Feather (Jacqueline Guillén), aka Frances, who works at the spa but claims she can show them a real sweat lodge, entices Toni but not Faye. Dawn (Kai Heath) and Turquoise Sunshine (Keilly McQuail), two suspiciously knowledgeable young women in orange, scoop Jean up outside the spa and entice her to a Big Party that starts out sounding a little like Scientology and only gets creepier from there. (Hilariously, when Dawn and Turquoise later come back for Toni, who’s excited to go with them, her rage-filled outburst toward her late husband turns them away; she’s “far too angry for Queen Harvest.”) And Queen Harvest (Emily Cass McDonnell), even more spookily knowledgeable, tries to recruit both Marie and Faye, who are more hardheaded or suspicious–or maybe just know that they need to work out some stuff between them. (McDonnell, McQuail, and Heath perfectly capture the cult members’ mixture of serene certainty and robotic cheerfulness.)
The play takes place in the days leading up to the hundred-year-old Santa Fe tradition of the Burning of Zozobra, a ceremony to bring back hope: the “glooms” of the past year are burned, stuffed inside a giant effigy. But the “ritual” of the title works itself through on many levels, beginning with the monologue-cum-invocation with which Jean begins the play. These are women with complicated relationships to institutional religion, too, but they’re all, in their own ways, a little lost, a little yearning for meaning: Jean is so terribly lonesome; Faye, newly retired, and Toni, newly widowed and fighting with her adult stepchildren, are unmoored in different ways; Suchin has been suspended from her job and is having issues with her kids; Marie has just ended one more in a series of non-serious relationships. Dawn and Turquoise are in a cult, which at least Dawn has been drawn to through loss; Sepultra has been thrown out of her mother’s home; Feather thought she knew her purpose but now isn’t so sure. Birthday celebrations, after all, are their own kind of ritual, but there’s also the invocation of Native American traditions in the sweat lodge; the Ascension ritual that Queen Harvest’s crew is preparing; the self-styled peyote ceremony that Feather creates for Toni (but which she may get more out of herself). And yet Hanks keeps circling back to Marie and Faye, the two who resist getting drawn into a constructed ritual–perhaps because Faye “just cannot tune out the world” around her–but who clearly have some emotional weight to get off their minds, too.
The production elements of Bodies They Ritual are predictably excellent, from Jian Jung’s restrained set that feels rich with metaphor to Kathy Ruvuna’s equally subtle but evocative sound design. And while I thought at first that Enver Chakartash’s costumes were going to partake of the same streamlined simplicity, with everyone in spa robes and flip-flops, they do wonderful character work once the wardrobes expand. Adams, too, does excellent work with the ensemble, perfectly capturing in tone the relationships among the women: The no-filter, prickly closeness between Faye and Marie to the way Ebony Marshall-Oliver’s demeanor softens, just a bit, when Marie is alone with Suchin–just as Nandita Shenoy allows Suchin to soften when not around Marie’s mother and a group of older women. The mix of diffidence and eagerness with which Jacqueline Guillén’s Feather breaks the rules of a service employee to reach out to Faye and Toni. The urgency and the relief that Nora Cole infuses into Jean’s journey.
But as excellent as the production is, it’s the small details in the script, the fully alive characters that Hanks has created, that stick with me: The class anxieties of a single Black mother whose daughter’s success makes her feel ashamed and whose daughter’s childlessness makes her feel unneeded. The sadness Suchin feels over the different path Marie’s life has taken, and Marie’s refusal to share it. The delightful image of teenaged Marie as a nerd into ska. The heartbreak of Sepultra’s quiet acknowledgment that while her mother might love her, she doesn’t miss her. It’s the yearning for meaning, for connection, that they share, and Bodies They Ritual doesn’t make any promises: “I just feel a little lost…There is nothing you can say to make me feel found,” one says. Like the Zozobra ritual, perhaps the best we can all do is strive to bring back hope, and these characters do that for one another by opening their hearts to new people and new recognition of what’s deepest in themselves.