“SHE-SHE-SHE,” the new play by the Hook & Eye Theater Company and playing at the Mark O’Donnell Theater at 160 Schermerhorn Street is a charming and wonderful play now showing from May 18th to June 2nd, 2018. The play is written by Cynthia Babak and directed by Chad Lindsey, inspired by the real-life meeting between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and civil rights activist Pauli Murray. This play is great and you should go see it.
“SHE-SHE-SHE” is about a work camp called, “SHE-SHE-SHE” which was set up by Eleanor Roosevelt during the Great Depression in the 1930’s, where civil rights activist Pauli Murray met the First Lady. The play uses as its critical lens a stark contrast between women of today versus those of the early 20th century. The play uses time travel and fantasy in order to set up encounters between three women of 2018, and three women of 1938. All six characters climb Bear Mountain State Park in New York, and the encounters between the 2018 women and the 1938 women expose the different ideologies of each group.
This conflict between benevolent paternalism and think-for-yourself individualism plays out in a variety of contexts in the play. One 2018 character who embodies this conflict is Jolene, here played by Emily Kunkel in a very well-done job. Jolene goes to Bear Mountain as a way to listen to her, “still, small voice” of conscience. Later in the play, the audience finds out Jolene is dealing with grief from losing her husband in a work accident. When Jolene encounters Rivka, a woman working at Roosevelt’s camp in 1938, the contrast reveals how much freedom has that Rivka doesn’t. Rivka is less lonely than Jolene in dealing with tragedies, but in a certain sense Rivka isn’t allowed to consider the choices that Jolene has. Like the rest of the 1938 women, Rivka can’t go alone into the woods in the way Jolene can. More specifically and tragically, Rivka must set her child up for adoption in fear of social recourse, consequences and punishment.
In parallel, actress and writer Cynthia Babak’s character Ani in the play must reconcile her mortality. What seems like a carefree and simple character in the start of the play progresses to show the character is dealing with cancer. This is a way to talk about women’s rights, and in light of contrast with the right to choose whether or not to have a baby in 1938 versus 2018, because Rivka and Cornelia’s characters must make these decisions with much less freedom. Going camping alone in 1938 was as strange as saying one had the right to her own body. In this way and many others, the play champions the 2018 women for their choices while still internalizing these choices as hard-won for their 1938 forbearers, because the latter three directly represent the liberation First Lady Roosevelt and Pauli Murray were working to foster and create. The play therefore acknowledges there were helpful aspects to collectivism in the family and group-oriented 1930’s by positing the problems of loneliness in the 2018 women. Again, it’s a nuanced and hard-won position, and Babak and company navigate these straits very well.
This play has some similarities to Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, because both “She-She-She” and the book are concerned with what is best in the United States. “She-She-She” is about the idealism of the women in the 1930’s and the brilliance of First Lady Roosevelt and Pauli Murray, whereas Menand’s work recounts pragmatist philosophers of the late 1800’s. In Menand’s work, philosopher John Dewey speaks out against corporate greed during the Pullman Strikes, but the astounding part of Dewey’s life is he interacted with other famous members of the literati. It is certainly astounding Dewey was friends with William James and Jane Addams, because these were giants of intellectual thought, who were so great that it seems like fiction that they would meet. Indeed, historical fiction is full of “what-if” stories about how Spinoza could have met Descartes in the 1600’s. He didn’t, but it would have been cool! Thinking about how intelligent people inspired other intelligent people is a fun and fascinating premise, and hopefully brings out such feelings in the audience.
“She-She-She” is a wonderful play and is not to be missed!