A Country Divided, Women United: In Volution and Womanhood in Reagan’s America

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When I set foot into the dimly lit Nitery Theater on Saturday November 12, my heart was still heavy. Following Tuesday’s election, my faith in this country (unlike that highest, hardest glass ceiling) had shattered, and I was gripped with an indescribably piercing pain as I faced the reality that hatred had triumphed. As a brown woman, I sat dejected and demoralized, struggling to reconcile the America that I had created in my head with the one that had voted.

As In Volution, a TAPS capstone project written by senior Madelaine Bixler, began, I was immediately forced to reckon with the white America that I blamed for my misery. Set in a trailer park in San Bernardino, California, the play centered around April’s childhood in a single-parent home. Between adult April’s (Fiona Maguire ’19) narration and Davis Leonard’s (’19) poignant portrayal of young April captured the havoc that poverty wrecks. In Volution challenges and deconstructs stereotypes that portray the poor working-class as unproductive. Far from lazy, April’s mother (Abigail Flowers ‘17), who works double shifts at Safeway, is resilient and steadfastly motivated by a desire to shelter her child. Her struggle to feed her child and pay the bills results not from a lack of motivation, but rather from structural barriers that render socioeconomic mobility implausible. The play thus excels in humanizing a population that, in a political discourse focused on identity politics and globalization, is often dismissed and neglected.

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Accompanying April’s story were those of Cynthia (Raquel Orendain Shrestha ’17), an FBI agent, and Tania (Hope Yi ‘17), a sex worker hardened by her time on the street. While Shrestha excelled in exuding a cold and distant attitude that captured Cynthia’s haunted soul, Yi’s careful annunciation rendered nearly palpable their character’s emotional pain. Shrestha and Yi’s full potential, however, went unrecognized as In Volution only fleetingly grappled with intersectionality. The play’s few attempts to wrestle with issues that women of color faced—Cynthia reflecting on the professional implications of her last name and Tania on the exotification and fetishization of her Asian American body—felt misplaced and lacked the detail and development they merited. Further, the play’s analysis of class politics entirely neglected working class women of color, who were, and continue to be, more likely to perform low-paying wage labor than their white counterparts. In failing to capture the nuances of womanhood, In Volution overlooked the very racism at the heart of the Reagan presidency.

In Volution did, however, succeed in painting a story of a universal female struggle. All three women, though themselves broken, act as caretakers: April for her mother, Cynthia for what one assumes is her immigrant family, and Tania for her client Abel. Each is also tormented by ghosts from her past and yearns to please a male figure in her life. Thus, In Volution’s three leading women, though disconnected in profession and familial background, are connected in a common adversity.

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In Volution’s active use of video from the 1980s further intensified its plot. By incorporating clips from Reagan’s inauguration, the play serves as a searing testament to how personal the political is. While the juxtaposition of news clips detailing Reagan’s war on labor with young April’s naiveté and idealism forcefully captures the ways in which federal policy penetrates even the most intimate parts of the human experience, the play’s use of lipstick– the sole “luxury” item April’s impoverished mother could afford and insists on buying — against a backdrop of commercials drew eerie attention to capitalism’s materialistic exploit of women.

In Volution ends with each of its protagonists worn and weary, but not yet defeated. Each woman stands ruminating on the wounds of her past but keeps an eye towards her future. It was in this stubborn perseverance that my grieving heart found solace. The three women spoke to the tenacity of the human experience and served as a quiet yet much needed reminder that while the path forward never looks easy, it’s sure as hell worth fighting for.

Images courtesy of Frank Chen

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