Last week, Columbia’s Blue Glaze Theatre Company – a student-run theatre group which aims to highlight Asian-American talent – put on 99 Women, a play composed of 99 monologues that document the trials and tribulations of modern womanhood. Guest Writer Yaniv Goren thought it was a wonderful piece of art.
I’ve never been one for experimental plays. I’m a lover of plot, chronology, and clean, clear messaging. I knew that 99 Women didn’t have a lot of that, so as I stepped into Glicker-Milstein last Thursday evening, I anticipated disappointment.
And yet, that’s not what happened. 99 Women was an outstanding, heart-warming experience, a play that I sincerely hope will reach the widest audience possible.
The boldest thing about 99 Women is its scope. The stories it weaves together are not just real in a descriptive sense, but in a literal sense. They are culled from the testimonies of urban women across the world: some disgruntled, others empowered, and many simply trying to beat the odds, to achieve their goals without pausing to parse their emotions or discuss their lives in any terms other than detached observations. They represent several continents, three languages, and almost every age-group, profession, and personality imaginable.
To me, the 99 stories in 99 Women – almost soundbites, each usually under thirty seconds – represent a couple of things. First, they’re a testament to the variability of womanhood: the fact that every woman’s story is unique, not generalizable, and nearly impossible to connect to another. Second, they emphasize the importance of storytelling in the first place. Several of the women in this play are dead. Yet they live on through the words they once spoke, which pass along the rhythms and cadences of their voices to an audience that will never get to speak to them in person.
That said, there are parts of playwright Genevieve Flaven’s writing that confused me. If every testimony comes from a real woman, as Flaven claims, how can some of the characters describe the details of their own deaths? Moreover, how can Mulan, who died centuries ago, make a guest appearance? As incongruent as these details might be, Blue Glaze did an admirable job integrating them into the play. The Mulan monologue, for instance, showcased some very elaborate and beautiful costume-design.
The stories in 99 Women are also often organized by topic, reflected by thematic set-design that changes several times throughout the play. Stories about beauty standards unfold as actresses walk down a runway; stories about substance abuse and mental illness take place while the cast is wearing hospital gowns, and stories about intimacy play out against a backdrop of curtains. Given that this play lacked a cohesive plot, this decision to group stories was a wise one. It avoids monotony and gives the audience a reason to anticipate the coming moment. Kudos to Set & Props Designer Bella Tincher (CC ‘20) for that one.
The set of stories that most piqued my interest was the third set, which revolved around mental disorders. On one hand, I thought this segment was insightful, considering Western society’s long-standing preoccupation with women’s mental health. It seemed, at least to me, that Flaven and director Genevieve Yiming Wang (BC ‘21) played off of this connection to add an element of social criticism to the play. On the other hand, this bit’s depiction of mental illness also employed clichés that, before the eyes of some, risked further stigmatizing certain conditions. A thought-provoking portion, to say the least.
More broadly, this play told some stories that some would certainly find unpalatable. One story in the segment highlighting sexual relationships involved a dissatisfied wife, named Shannon, who had no-strings-attached sex with men she met on the street. Although this story is a valid one, Shannon’s depiction was over-wrought, complete with sashays that were nigh-on comical. There was also Angelica, a woman who graphically recounts her sexual assault. This scene definitely could have done with a content warning. Then again, the cast of 99 Women had the goal, first and foremost, of transmitting these women’s stories to us– if some of these stories provoke judgment, it is because people are judgmental of their peers. Overdramatized or not, they deserve to be told.
All in all, a wonderful play with a great message. I send my sincerest regards to the entire cast and crew of 99 Women, including Flaven, Wang, and Tincher. And although everyone who acted in this play deserves praise, I was particularly impressed by the performances of Ruoyi Su (BC ‘22) and Andie Wang (GSAS ‘19), who told some of this play’s most evocative stories with verve and sheer emotional power. I am excited to see how the 99 Women Project develops in the years to come.
Image via Bwogstaff