If at any point in life you ever wonder, “Why are women always so damn angry?” Pat Graney has good reasons for you. In her work Girl Gods (presented at On the Boards October 1-4), women’s relationships to anger and rage became the focal point of the over 80-minute show.
The work, the second of a triptych about women and identity, is a montage of sorts. Scenes, exploring what it means to have a feminine identity, rolled out in front of stacks of white boxes covering the back wall. Some boxes contained various things: raw poultry, cleaning supplies, even high heels and a red dress. Each segment became an individual commentary on different aspects of the feminine experience, from the raw to the delicate to the cheeky. But ultimately, what stood out are the thoughtful solos by each of the main performers—Jody Kuehner, Cheryl Delostrinos, Sruti Desai, Jenny Peterson, and Sara Jinks.
Desai stuffed her mouth with two packs of Hot Tamales until her jaws bulged and scarlet liquid dripped from the sides of her mouth—like swallowing rage and emotions until they physically leak out of you. Jinks filled a raw chicken with stuffing until the insides of the chicken couldn’t fit it anymore—a surprisingly visceral imagery of penetration. In line with all the stuffing metaphors, Kuehner, a 2015 Stranger Genius Award winner, awkwardly tried to fit herself into a child-sized pink sweatsuit, complete with flip flops and kiddie sunglasses, while humming a circa-2000 pop song. While humorous, a dark tinge colored the segment: it provided a subtle reminder of how women throughout history have often had no choice but to bend over backwards to try to fit into expected molds.
In a stunning feat of grace and control, Peterson took off her clothes while in a headstand as a recording played that described the ideals of stability in having a life partner. Delostrinos’ solo near the end of the piece was a highlight: wearing a red dress she ran, kicked, and rolled across the space, as though searching for an escape. An interview recording played in the background: “There are times when people aren’t listening to me.” The frustration and desperation she exuded as she spread dirt and sand while blazing across the stage created a cathartic core of the work. To many who possess feminine identity, the exasperation that comes when people are constantly invalidating your struggles and anger feels quite familiar.
Interspersed within these solos are many motifs from Graney’s body of work: high heels, slowly drifting sand, and American Sign Language. In one section, the dancers, dressed in doll-like attire complete with heels, barbie hands, and fake cheeky smiles, did an ASL interpretation of the song “He Hit Me (But It Felt Like A Kiss)” by The Crystals. What started as a laughable antic where the dancers awkwardly imitated dolls, became a revolting one as the song described a domestic abuse relationship.
Despite the work’s strong elements—thoughtful scenes, elaborate sets, mesmerizing lighting by Amiya Brown, and an entrancing sound score by Amy Denio—Girl Gods felt incomplete. At the same time, several scenes felt like they went on a little too long. With a theme as wide as the feminine experience, there are bound to be blind spots, and Graney’s exploration was very much of her own personal background and interpretation of womanhood. Not everyone will identify with it because no matter how many cans of worms were opened in Girl Gods, there will be many more intersectional feminine identities that don’t fit into the molds of these cans. It will be interesting to see how this interpretation continues to grow and evolve while Graney tours it around the country and globe as an installation and evening-length work.
What made the piece, though, was Graney’s sense of timing and the dancers’ vital performances. The choreography, in classic Graney fashion, was physical. In executing it, each dancer embodied a blazing quality: one moment they’re on their feet, another they’re rolling and writhing on the floor or propelling themselves into the air. Limbs flailed, hair swooshed, and feet tapped, yet along with the reckless abandon came a soothing elegance and sense of inevitability from Graney’s rhythmic choreography. Writer Caitlyn Siehl once wrote in a poem, “When I leave you, you’ll understand why storms are named after people,” and this idea shone through in Girl Gods. These movers exhibited the spellbinding capabilities to both transfix someone with their power, while simultaneously mesmerizing them with their ease. Even the supporting performers, Carol Levin and 7-year-old Lauren Supnet, displayed impressive stage presence.
Girl Gods posed just as many societal questions as it did answers, and it showed just how complex interpretations of the feminine world can be. It’s no wonder so many women are angry. With almost every scene of Girl Gods, Graney asks, “Why wouldn’t we be?”