TWU play to challenge LGBTQ+ norm
Feb. 15, 2022 – DENTON – There is a long tradition of LGBTQ+ stories with unhappy endings. Very unhappy. "Happily ever after" – known as the HEA subgenre in romance novels – seems to have predominantly skipped over queer books, movies, TV, and plays.
Happy endings are out there, but they're dramatically out-numbered by heartbreak, whether because publishers felt queer characters had to be punished, because society couldn't imagine LGBTQ+ people living happily, or to express the pain of oppression, bigotry, and AIDS.
"The thing about representation is that positive outcomes are very important," novelist Payal Dhar said in 2019. "Traditionally, LGBT stories have a history of tragic endings."
At the risk of serving up a spoiler, here's a story in which they both don't die at the end.
Bull in a China Shop is the third play of the Texas Woman's University theatre's 2022-23 season. Written by Bryna Turner and premiered at the Lincoln Center in 2017, the play is the story of two women at Mount Holyoke College from 1899 to 1937. Turner, a Mount Holyoke alumna, based the play on the real letters of Mary Wooley and Jeannette Marks.
The play will run Feb. 22-26 at Redbud Theater, at the northeast of the Student Union at Hubbard Hall on TWU's Denton campus. Tickets are available online.
As opposed to TWU's three other 2022-23 productions, Bull in a China Shop is directed by a guest director. Susan Carol Davis, the founder and president of Curious Dog Creative, a film and stage production company in Denton, is a native Texan who spent years in film and television and has 21 acting credits to her name.
"When I was given the play, I just couldn't read enough about the individuals that were a part of it and kept looking for little clues that were represented in the script itself," Davis said. "It's a very realistic telling of a lifelong partnership between two women that ends with them caring for each other in their older years. The entire team of people putting it together are so enthusiastic and thrilled about being able to produce this play because, as some have said, it's an LGBTQ story that has a happy ending."
The play takes place over 38 years and is presented in episodes. Much of that passage of time is presented through costume changes and alterations of stage's props and furniture, a task undertaken by a four-person run crew.
There are five speaking roles. In the role of the title's "bull" is Janel Agbor, who plays Mary Woolley, who was president of Mount Holyoke 1900-1937. Agbor, a senior at TWU, is a veteran of 25 productions across Dallas/Fort Worth, including at Theater Denton and Shakespeare Dallas.
"This is actually one of my hardest roles I've had to play just because of how strong this character is," Agbor said. "She's very molded. I'm used to playing characters that are very open and rambunctious and do whatever they want. This one, she's one of those people who doesn't take no for an answer. Those traits she has, I lack, so I'm getting to see from another perspective. That's why I chose theater. I love the challenge of being able to be someone who I'm not and being able to put it on well enough that people don't know what kind of personality I actually have. So it is a challenge for me, but it's a challenge accepted."
Agbor's character may be well formed, but the play's cast has undergone changes since the completion of auditions last fall. Some actors who were originally cast had to withdraw, leaving Davis scrambling to fill all the parts, including one of the two leads.
"I think they were two weeks into rehearsals," said Brenna Petersen, who needed a break after being in TWU's first two plays of the season and did not audition Bull in a China Shop. "One of the original cast members had a conflict and the understudy changed schools."
Petersen was asked to audition, then learned the night before the audition that the actress playing Jeannette Marks had also been forced to pull out. Petersen agreed to take the role and play catch up to the rest of the cast.
"I've had plenty of shows where the first read through is my cold read, but those first few weeks of rehearsal are very important to the creative process because that's where you get to know each other as a cast," Petersen said. "It's where you get to know your stage management. That's where you do a lot of your internal character work before you get that all out on stage. So I didn't have that creative period. That first week was very stressful for me. But I was fortunate to know pretty much everybody involved, at least a little bit, which helped."
Marks is Woolley's love interest, a character approximately 15 years younger than Woolley.
"You can definitely see the impact that being in a student-teacher relationship with her professor has had on her," Petersen said. "She's a very interesting character because in a lot of ways she's the least easily likable character. She has an affair with her professor. A lot of what's happening with her is that she is struggling with her relationship with Woolley. They've been having some disagreements and she's feeling very betrayed. She and Woolley stayed together for, I think, 45 years. Ironically, much of what we see of Marks and Woolly is their arguments. And even if they are content overall, they argue at some point in pretty much every single scene and some of them are just straight up yelling matches."
In the middle of this affair is Olivia Andrade, who plays Felicity, a philosophy professor and Marks’ roommate.
"Marks gets tired of living in the dorms and faculty housing, so she and Felicity move in together," Andrade said. "That's primarily where we see Felicity just trying to be the supportive friend to Marks, despite her, at times, pronounced tough relationship with Woolley and her affair with another character, Pearl. But I love Felicity because she's very intellectual, she has very strong opinions. She's not afraid to speak her mind. I love that about her. It's not a character where you have to tiptoe around what they think, what they really mean. That's what I love about that part."
Completing the cast are Felix Ferris as Dean Welsh and Isabelle Malone as Pearl. Tam'ra Bowles is the understudy.
The play also features original music from the band Blacksmith Rose, described as American roots band blending country, blues, rockabilly, Latin, German, swing, jazz and classical elements to create "denim blues and honky-tonk jazz." Music from the show will be on their upcoming album, Blacksmith Rose Strikes Again.
On Saturday afternoon after the matinee, TWU professor Gretchen Busl, PhD, from the English division will lead a post-show talk back. Busl is a grad of Mount Holyoke.
"I know it's going to be a great show," Petersen said. "I'm excited about it. Little nervous, but excited."
- $10 for adults, including TWU faculty and staff.
- $5 for students, children and senior citizens.
- If tickets are available, Saturday, Feb. 25, at 2 p.m. is a pay-what-you-can performance for TWU students. Tickets are on a first-come, first-serve basis. Cash only.
- Following the 2 p.m. Saturday matinee, Gretchen Busl, PhD, associate professor of English, English graduate program coordinator at TWU, and an alumnus of Mount Holyoke, will host a post-show discussion about the cultural impact and intellectual legacy of Mount Holyoke.
- Wednesday, Feb. 22, 8 p.m.
- Thursday, Feb. 23, 8 p.m.
- Friday, Feb. 24, 8 p.m.
- Saturday, Feb. 25, 2 p.m. (pay-what-you-can and post-show discussion)
- Saturday, Feb. 25, 8 p.m.
- Sunday, Feb. 26, 2 p.m.
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Page last updated 8:24 AM, February 15, 2023