—Originally published April 20, 2016—
Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of Northwestern students who go to see plays together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, Gwen and Eleanor attended a reading of “Faceless,” a new play by Northwestern senior Selina Fillinger, slated for production at Skokie’s Northlight Theatre in February 2017. Let’s hear their discussion after getting home from the show…
Dania turned a page in her biology textbook and continued reading through the assigned chapter. Halfway down the page, a paragraph about coral reef conservation was accompanied by a photograph of the study’s leading scientist, Aban Marker Kabraji. Seeing another woman of color represented in the sciences, Dania snapped her fingers a few times in approval.
At that moment, Dania heard the front door open. The similar sounds of ruffling feet and argumentative tone told her that Eleanor and Gwen had returned home from a show.
“How was it?” Dania asked, not looking up from the book.
“No, I just think that it’s slightly problematic,” came Eleanor’s voice, responding to something Gwen had said outside. “The story is filled with people being either in the wrong or partially…misinformed about the…”
“What do you mean misinformed?” Gwen said. “It’s a well researched play. And it’s not directly an adaptation of the story it’s based on. There are little changes for narrative’s sake.”
“Still,” Eleanor continued. “While I think it does a good job of humanizing both sides, that doesn’t make either side the one we’re “supposed” to side with. I think that the girl is in over her head and shouldn’t get slapped with a jail term for trying to…”
“No jail term?” Gwen asked, incredulously.
“No, no, sorry. Shorter jail term,” Eleanor corrected. “Three years, not twenty. Obviously, she still broke the law, so…”
“Yeah.” There was some ruffling behind the door, as Gwen sat down in the living room of the apartment.
“I mean, we’re in agreement, right?” came Eleanor’s voice, after a pause. “We both think the play is really good, tackles a complex issue in an interesting and even-handed way, and still manages to be pretty interesting to watch. Right?”
“Yes, it’s a very impressive play,” Gwen said, quieter than before. “I was hoping it wouldn’t end with the girl’s sentence being given, and I’m glad it didn’t. It leaves it up to interpretation based on different audiences.”
“It’s like…oh, wait, what’s it like…”
Through the door, Dania could hear Eleanor hitting the arm of the couch, trying to jog her memory of what the play they had seen was like.
“There’s another play about a legal drama…where the audience reaction is different depending on audience member…”
“Is it Inherit the Wind?” Eleanor asked, after a significant silence.
“No, no, not that one,” Gwen said. “God, what is it?”
“Well, you think on that,” Eleanor said. Her footsteps got closer to the door. Dania tucked her eyes back into the pages of the book to make it look like she hadn’t been listening.
The door swung open.
“Hey!” Dania said. “How was the show?”
Eleanor entered. She held the program tightly in her hand.
“Pretty good,” Eleanor said. She took her coat off, and jumped onto the bed, sprawling out.
After a moment’s pause, Dania added, “…yes, you can lay down on my bed, thank you, Eleanor.”
Eleanor laughed, short and brisk. “Sorry, sorry. I just needed to lie down. Reset my brain.”
“I get that,” Dania said. “I need to do that frequently.”
Dania shut the door. Before it closed, she saw Gwen on her phone, furiously trying to remember what that play was.
“So the play was a lot?” Dania asked, once the door was shut.
Eleanor let out a grand sigh.
“I wish you had been there.”
Dania’s head cocked. She stuck her pen in the textbook, tucked underneath the photo of Ms. Kabraji, and, closing the book, turned her chair to face the bed.
Eleanor rolled her head over the pillow to look at Dania.
“You know what it was about, right?” Eleanor asked.
“Vaguely,” Dania said. “I remember Gwen said something about a court case and terrorism. There was an Islamic lawyer, I remembered that.”
“Believe me, the mere mention of ‘Islamic lawyer’ made me want to go see it,” Dania said. “Positive representation and all. But I have Week Three reading I’ve been putting off doing. Like forty pages of it, and…well, you know…”
Dania made some vague gestures in the air with her hands.
“Not really in the mood for some high-stakes political drama,” she added, punctuating her movements.
“Fair, fair,” Eleanor said, her head turning back to look at the ceiling.
“What happened?” Dania said, after a moment. Her brow furrowed in anticipatory anger. “Did they turn her into a secret Muslim terrorist or something?”
“No, no. The portrayal was pretty fair and…realistic and everything.” Thinking back on the show, Eleanor laughed slightly. “She was actually kind of a badass, altogether.”
“Well, that’s excellent,” Dania said.
“It’s just a show that leaves you kind of…ehhh…”
Eleanor exhaled loudly again. Dania leaned forward in her chair.
“Spent?” Dania suggested.
“Yeah,” Eleanor said. “Good word choice.”
“Thanks,” Dania responded.
A silence drifted through the stale air in the room. Eleanor opened her mouth to continue, stopped mid-thought, and closed her mouth again. After another moment or so of this, Eleanor suddenly propped herself up on an arm and looked at Dania.
“I think what threw me off,” Eleanor continued, “was the sense that the show was, like…trying to be progressive.”
Dania paused. “Is…that…bad?”
“I mean,” Eleanor interrupted, reforming her thoughts. “I mean it was trying to be progressive, as opposed to just, like, being progressive. Does that make any sense? I might be crazy.”
“What’s the difference?” Dania asked.
“Well…” Eleanor began to think back through the staged reading, pausing on a moment when Claire, the Muslim lawyer played by Susaan Jamshidi, went off on a small tangent about her faith and her fear of being pigeonholed by her white employer, Scott Bader (played by Timothy Edward Kane). The moment was solidly performed, and well written by Northwestern student Selina Fillinger. But as the monologue ended…
“Maybe…” Eleanor tried to continue. “Maybe it wasn’t the show so much as, I don’t know, how it was received?”
Dania’s eyes narrowed, seeming to say Go on…
“Like, you have this moment where she says, ‘You don’t want my face, you just want my hijab.’ Which is like, a killer line. Really strong moment.” Eleanor heard the line in her mind’s ear. “And from the back of the theatre, there’s this faint sound of someone snapping in agreement. Agreement with what?”
“Oh, I see what you’re saying,” Dania said, leaning back in the chair again.
“Yeah. You see? It’s like, the play has these messages about prejudice and progressive stuff, and it’s all very complicated and messy because of who’s on which side of the argument, but…it should be starting a dialogue, not finishing one.”
“Hm.” Dania mulled this over for a moment.
“Like, I’m all for plays with more minority representation. I mean…” Eleanor motioned to both herself and Dania. “Brown people, right?”
“But it’s like…you put that in your play and it’s supposed to get people talking. About that issue. And it just kind of felt like the audience was…just generally glad that there were non-white faces there.”
Eleanor paused. “I mean, non-white face. She’s the only one.”
Dania’s lips pursed. “Ooh, is everyone else white?”
“I mean, it makes sense for that show,” Eleanor said. “And the story is still centered on the Muslim lawyer and the Muslim white girl, so it’s not all…”
“Muslim white girl?” Dania asked.
“So, the story is that there’s this white girl from Chicago who gets into contact with some recruiting member of ISIS and he gets into her head and convinces her to convert to Islam,” Eleanor explained. “So then she does that, but when she’s about to go overseas to marry him…”
“Wow,” Dania said.
“She gets arrested by the U.S. for aiding terrorism. Or for conspiracy, or something of the like. There is like a legit charge against her.”
“That’s heavy stuff.”
“Right? Yeah.” Eleanor laid back down on the bed. “At the very beginning this woman came out…I think she’s the head of playwriting here or something…and she made a point – “
Eleanor stopped and sat back up again.
“That’s…this is another thing. She makes this point at the very beginning that the writer is constantly putting women at the center of her stories. And the audience goes nuts for that. Snaps all over the place”
“As they should, I would think,” Dania said.
“Well, sure,” Eleanor continued. “But the play wasn’t directly about them being women. They could have been men, for all it mattered. I’m glad they weren’t…”
“I was about to say…” Dania added.
“Of course, but that’s what I’m talking about. ‘Here’s a play with a woman…’”
Eleanor snapped her fingers several times. snapsnapsnapsnapsnapsnap.
“Here’s a play with more brown people.”
“Here’s a play with a lesbian at the center.”
“You see?” Eleanor asked.
Dania was nodding her head, looking inquisitively at the ceiling. “I think I see what you’re getting at.”
“Maybe I’m wrong. Like, celebrating diversity is all well and good but…”
“But if it’s only reactionary…” Dania suggested.
Eleanor snapped and pointed at Dania. “Yes! That’s the word, reactionary.”
“Like the idea that just having them there is inherently better.”
“Yeah, regardless of what they do. Like, you could celebrate having more roles for women, but if they’re not well-written or if the story still focuses on dudes…you know?” Eleanor was, by this point, gesticulating as well, trying to paint out her argument.
“I hear you,” Dania said. “I mean, having more people that aren’t straight white dudes is always preferable to not having them…”
“Right, right,” Eleanor said, releasing the breath she had been holding in.
“…but it’s not enough to just throw them onstage willy-nilly.”
“Yeah,” Eleanor added, “and the play didn’t do that, if focused on the women. But I wonder, like…if it had, would the audience reaction have been different?”
Dania thought over this.
“I don’t know,” Eleanor said, slumping back onto the bed. “It wasn’t a bad play, not at all. But it got me thinking. You know?”
“Yeah, I get that,” Dania said.
Dania paused, looking back over the shows she had seen on campus with Gwen in the last few years. The recurring words gender-blind and race-blind flashed across her memory.
“It’s hard to discuss this with Gwen,” Eleanor said suddenly. “Is that bad that I feel that?”
“No, I get that,” Dania agreed. “Maybe it’s just not something on her mind the way it’s on yours.”
“I guess so.”
At that moment, Gwen burst through the door and into the room, pointing directly at Eleanor.
“What–” Eleanor began to say.”
“…what?” Eleanor sat up, slightly worried.
Gwen gripped the doorframe to steady herself. “It was Oleanna. The play where the audience has a really divided reaction to seeing it every time.”
“Oh! Oh.” Eleanor looked from Gwen to Dania, and back to Gwen. “Cool.”
“It’s a David Mamet play,” Gwen explained. “There’s this professor and his liberal female student, and it’s a super fine line about whether what’s going on is sexual assault or not. It’s really clever.”
“Hm.” Dania looked back at Eleanor.
A silence hung low in the room.
“Anyway, that was the show I was thinking about,” Gwen said, releasing the door frame. “You talking about Faceless?”
“Yes, we are,” Eleanor said.
“It sounds like I would have enjoyed being there,” Dania said. “Wish I could have gone.”
“It was really well put together,” Gwen said. “Solid plot structure, interesting characters, some very realistic writing…oh, and of course, some great representation for an actress of color.”
Gwen snapped her fingers a few times.
“Don’t I know it,” Dania said. She eyed the textbook curiously, the pen sticking out to mark the location of Ms. Kabraji.
“Muslim character, too,” Gwen added. “We need more of that on stage.”
“As long as they’re represented well, and truthfully, and not just as terrorists,” Eleanor said.
“Right?” Gwen agreed.
Zach Barr is a junior theatre major and critic. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @admiralzachbarr.