—Originally published April 17, 2017—
Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of Northwestern students who always go to see plays together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, the Girls saw “This Is Not A True Story,” Preston Choi’s new play presented by Vertigo Productions. Let’s hear what they had to say on their way back from the theater…
“I can only hope in writing this play I can offer some incarnation of these women a life they have choice in, a world where they decide their fate. I am flawed already by writing it, but I hope it is a better story.”
Those words, taken from the end of the Writer’s Note penned by Preston Choi in the program for this new play, had stuck with Eleanor throughout the performance. How strange it was, she considered, that this story of asian female empowerment was penned by a male author. But it was a clever admission, she considered, coupled with the play’s title. If it wasn’t a true story, certainly, at least it was a better one.
“That one was weird,” Dania said, as they walked across the quad away from Shanley.
“It took me a couple of scenes to actually figure out what was going on,” Gwen said. “I had heard details about the script but I didn’t totally understand how the framing device of being dead was working with them not knowing their fate.”
“Yeah,” Dania said. “They start off and it’s, like, ‘I’m dead,’ but then they haven’t actually done the things they’re famous for doing.”
“Exactly,” Gwen agreed. She hesitated, and admitted “although, I only knew what was supposed to happen to Cio Cio and Kim. I had never heard of Takako before this.”
“I only knew Miss Saigon,” Dania said. “And even then I only know it sort-of. What’s Madame Butterfly about?”
“It’s what Miss Saigon is based on,” Gwen added. “They’re both supposed to have children and die.”
“I liked that the most,” Eleanor said. “That they didn’t all have to die like in their stories. Cio Cio doesn’t have the baby and Kim is settled with hers. It lets them take control of their own stories.”
“Sure,” Gwen said, her voice trailing off.
“And the question of whether or not Takako can actually change her story because she’s not fictional was very interesting,” Eleanor continued. “Something about the way it was staged, with Cio Cio and Kim breaking into the real world at the end, seemed right to me.”
“Actually,” Gwen said, “I wasn’t actually the biggest fan of that.”
“I had questions all throughout about structure,” Gwen said. “Where was Takako going to between the scenes in the first act? Does she go back to the real world? Or, considering the second act, does she go back to a fictional world that…looks like the real one?”
“I think you’re trying to make too much sense of it,” Eleanor suggested.
“What does that mean?”
“It’s not trying to be this linear structured play,” Eleanor defended. “It’s, like, an exploration, or something. It’s based around reclaiming the characters.”
“But even then I had questions about that,” Gwen persisted. “Even if the characters are going through different actions than they were written to do, aren’t they still characters created for the enjoyment of white audiences?”
“Not anymore,” Eleanor said. “That’s the point. The writer is taking these old stereotyped characters and making them self-sufficient. So he can tell their stories more truthfully.”
“But it’s not a true story,” Dania interjected. “Obviously.”
“Obviously,” said Eleanor. “But it’s not trying to be true, it’s trying to be better.”
“Well, it’s certainly better, in writing at least,” Gwen said, “if we’re talking about reclamation alone, sure.”
“What, you didn’t like the production?” Eleanor said.
“I thought the script was really quite good,” Gwen said. “And the performances from the three actresses were all spot-on ––”
“The one at the far left at the beginning, with the makeup, Madame Butterfly,” Dania added. “She was really fantastic.”
“Sharon Wei, I don’t think I’ve seen her around that much,” Gwen said. “But she was easily the strongest part of the show. That wordless scene, with the tea?”
“Oh you mean the ––”
“Let’s not say it out loud,” Eleanor warned.
“Yes, that one,” nudged Gwen. “Devastating work. Such a strong performance. Loved watching it.”
“You loved watching it?” asked Eleanor.
“It frickin’ hurt to watch!” Dania admitted.
“Okay, it wasn’t enjoyable to watch. But how many times do actors get a real chance to show off on campus?” Gwen asked, before amending the question with “in a way that’s actually impressive?”
“I’m not sure the writer wanted you to be fawning over that scene, Gwen,” warned Eleanor.
“I mean, it’s the best one. Most of the best stuff was Cio Cio and Kim figuring out…”
“Stop pronouncing it like ‘Chow Chow,’” Eleanor said. “It’s ‘Cio Cio.’”
“I mean, even they were getting towards ‘Chow Chow’ by the end,” Dania said.
“Maybe you heard that,” Eleanor said, “but I think they were closer to the real pronunciation.”
“Who knows?” Gwen said.
“I mean, they do,” Eleanor said.
“Right,” Gwen agreed. “Anyway, the script was pretty good, maybe needing some slight alterations and cleaning…”
“Well, it’s not your script, Gwen,” Eleanor said.
“I know that,” Gwen said. “And I thought it was fine, if a bit cluttered.”
“Cluttered how?” Dania asked.
“In the second act, when they’re in Takako’s room, and they find the letters, and Kim said something about, ‘someone was telling our stories, and we need to reclaim them’ – I think she did use the word reclaim – I don’t know, it seemed very on the nose about it’s opinions.”
Eleanor frowned. “I mean, it’s not supposed to be a polite show, it’s clearly angry about how these stories have been told before.”
“I know that, but I just through considering how it had skirted around the issue before what I wanted to see was ––”
“But it’s not about what you wanted to see!” Eleanor finally said. “It’s about telling these stories and doing so without some white author telling them how to do that!”
“Sure,” Gwen said, “but I thought…”
“It’s not written for white audiences the way the original stories were, Gwen, that’s the point,” Eleanor said. “It’s about letting the characters speak for themselves.”
“I know that,” Gwen said, “I’m just not sure it totally succeeded ––”
“Why are you the one who gets to say whether or not it succeeded?” Eleanor asked.
“I’m not the only person, I’m not trying to be some Great White Hope,” Gwen said.
“But you are saying how it should have been fixed.”
“Could have been fixed! I might be wrong.”
“It’s about more than that, Gwen,” Eleanor said. “It’s about the principle of the thing. You’re white, not every play is for you.”
“Wait,” Gwen said. “You’re not an asian woman.”
“India is in Asia,” Eleanor retorted.
“But you’re from Washington State originally, right?”
“Are you trying to say I’m not a real asian because I’m wasn’t born in ––”
“I’m only asking: are you going to say that as a white person…” Gwen stopped to rephrase. “As someone who doesn’t ethnically match up with the subjects of the piece, I can’t comment on it? Because by that logic, neither can you.”
“It’s not about resemblance,” Eleanor said, frustrated. “It’s about power. It’s about who tells the story.”
“So because I’m white I just don’t get a voice,” Gwen asked.
“Yeah, welcome to the club,” Eleanor shot back.
The three had stopped walking. Dania was a few feet further behind, watching the two argue. There was a momentary hesitation, silent except for the wind around them, and they continued walking through the campus. No one spoke until they reached Sheridan. They stood on the edge of the street by Segal, waiting for a break in the traffic when they could dart across the street.
“They should put in a crosswalk here,” Dania muttered.
Eleanor nodded her head in agreement.
The girls stepped out into the street, scuttling across the asphalt before the next car could pass behind them. Safely across, Dania stuffed her hands into her pockets and spoke again.
“I also liked…I don’t remember if we mentioned it already,” Dania began. “I liked the set design. With all the papers on the ground?”
Dania truly did not believe she would get a response from either Gwen or Eleanor. But to her surprise, Eleanor spoke up.
“I did too,” she began. “I had no idea about the actors being there before the show started.”
“I know, right?” Dania said. “That was crazy. Did they just have to lie there?”
“Yep,” Eleanor answered. “I guess so.”
Another moment passed silently between the three of them.
“I didn’t totally understand the decision to have those walls up at the top, and then knock them down, though.”
“Well, they tear them down chasing after Takako, right?” Dania suggested. “When they go into the real world?”
“Was that what happened?” Eleanor asked, casting her eyes up in an attempt to remember the moment. “It’s already starting to blur together for me.”
“Yeah, because then they…I think they’re right in her room after the intermission. Right?”
“Maybe,” Eleanor said, unsure. “I thought they had some scene at the top of Act II.”
“Actually, you know what I really liked?” Dania continued.
“The burning of evidence, or when they realize that they’re…”
“Oh, yes!” Eleanor said, smiling slightly. “That was funny.”
She glanced over towards Gwen, who was looking out at the path in front of her, not with a scowl but with a glance that peered beyond the sidewalk beneath her, down, down, down…but not with anger.
“It was actually very funny, throughout,” Eleanor added, turning back to Dania. “For such a serious subject it didn’t take itself too seriously.”
“Well, maybe,” Dania said. “I’m not entirely sure what actually happened in it, like I said. But I get the whole, ‘reclaiming image’ thing it’s doing. That’s good, definitely.”
“Mm-hm,” Eleanor agreed. “I liked the final moment a lot. A final small reclamation. A reclamation within a reclamation.”
“Reclamaception,” Dania announced, her eyes wide.
Eleanor chuckled. She glanced over towards Gwen again – eyes still to the ground.
“Yeah, there were some things in it that were a little confusing,” Eleanor added. “But it’s new and everything. I don’t know how many shows done by Vertigo get produced off-campus, but I imagine that if it was done again…”
“Preston would edit it, for sure,” Gwen tossed in.
“Probably,” Eleanor said. “But, y’know. It’s better than Madame Butterfly or Miss Saigon or whatever Takako is from…”
“Oh, I thought she was real,” Dania said. “I thought that was the point.”
“No, she’s real,” Eleanor said. “But there was an article or newspaper or something that had her in it. Where they got the story wrong. It was taped to the wall of the theatre. Did you see it?”
“I wasn’t looking at the walls,” Dania shrugged.
“Fair, fair,” Eleanor said.
They were nearly home by this time. There was an unspoken agreement made between the three girls to increase their walking speed as each began to feel the tiny drops of water falling on their hands.
“I don’t know…” Gwen started. Eleanor looked over to her.
“I don’t know if I’d say it’s better than Madame Butterfly,” Gwen added. “Like, in craft or so.”
“Maybe not,” Eleanor offered. “But in representation. In truth.”
“Yeah,” Gwen said. She glanced up from the sidewalk. “Yeah, you’re right.”
Zach Barr is a white male theatre writer from Seattle, WA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @AdmiralZachBarr.