How is it that every little choice, experience, and happenstance in life shapes exactly who we are and continue to become–and to what degree? And how is it, that after all is said and done, one man or woman’s pain or pressure is another man’s proverbial cash or sacred cow?
This is exactly what Wendy Graf sets out to explore in her latest, most tenacious play All American Girl! Sporting a rousing double cast-of-one played interchangeably (depending on the night you attend) by Annika Marks and Jeanne Syquia, the piece centers around the life and times of Katie Mason: Your average yet idealistic (sometimes to a fault) assumed “all American girl.”
Presented, in part, like a classroom lecture on revolving , oblong chalk boards, every pivotal year of Mason’s life is scrawled out before us like an essay of indelible tattoos of timeliness, just daring any and all onlookers to be erased! Katie takes us through her 20-some-odd year existence like a most entertainingly charming, emphatic and tortured school teacher attempting to get students about whom she cares more than life itself to grasp the concept of death and all that leads up to it for a critically imperative near death experience in the form of a final exam.
The tableau will take us from her first acts of activism through the final denouement of disillusionment, various and sundry religions and ideologies up through the summit of the script to its tragically ironic, didactic, and unforeseen end:
1996 at the age of 7, the bulldozing of Katie’s “secret garden” in advance of her steadfast protest/1998 her first anti-abortion rally as the church preacher lays his hands on her head and she experiences some initial inklings of sexual arousal (or, according to her in all her fervent, dogmatic ardor, “the power of the Lord pushing to get out!”)/2001-that very same preacher caught, by our protagonist shoving his hands down John Chandler’s pants./The 2005 battle, at the age of 16, with her mother in a characteristically strident attempt to persuade her to let her mentor sixth grade kids in one of the more dangerous neighborhoods in Boston—and then a few weeks later—still 2005—Katie’s dismissal from said school for encouraging children to tell their parents not to pay their rent (particularly when the landlord consistently ignores tenants’ pleas for much needed repairs—and her inability to breathe at the vexing injustice of it all!) then getting dismissed from said school for such an action./2006-her arrival at Fordham University and her disgusted discouragement registered therein: “This suite smells like vomit ‘cause they always throw up to lose weight!” to speak nothing of how the only nickname utilized under said collegiate close quarters is the bastardized version of the word “bitch” i.e. “beyotch”! The sole alternative interest, other than vomiting: administering agreeable blow jobs but either way an allusion to the phrase “gag me”. Oh and lest we forget about the “menstrual stained” garments strewn about the sweet suite (at the hands of all too many beyotch-slap induced battles) until finally: Enter the one great thing Katie has ever desired–other than saving and changing the world—Iqbal. Iqbal Ibrahim, a gorgeous Indian Muslim man causing her to forget all the aforementioned estrogen induced insanity!
Up until she meets the man of her so-called dreams, does her waking life and fantasy come together all the while hedging at falling apart: a pregnancy, a marriage, police brutality and a hapless trip to India will ensue, in keeping with the ubiquitous and unfortunate undercurrent of ultimate upheaval residing in Iqbal’s invariable struggle, at the hands of his Indian citizenship and endeavor to become one of America’s, along with inherent racism therein and religious persecution by the Hindus of his homeland.
At times the script reads less like a classroom history lesson and more like a newspaper. To enhance said theme, the program itself is constructed as such in the form of “The Interact World News Herald” emblazoned in all manner of anti-Muslim atrocities and inhumane harassment in search of any form of just grounds across the globe! Headlines that stand out in particular are: “Nigerian School Massacre: 41 Children Killed, Some Burned Alive”, “Myanmar to Bar Rohingya From Fleeing, But Won’t Address Their Plight”, “Colorado Woman’s Quest for Jihad Baffles Nieghbors”. (All in all, the perfect echoed deference to the play’s haphazardly tragic end).
“In this case… I found myself fascinated by the wife of the Boston Bomber… “ writes Wendy Graf in her program notes. “Here was this seemingly normal American girl from Rhode Island who converted to Islam, changed her last name, started speaking with an Arabic accent and began shopping in Whole Foods wearing a full hijab and abaya (even thoug the headscarf was leopard print and she carried a designer handbag.) …I searched for information, reading anything and everything I could, but there seemed to be very little written about her from the time of the bombing right up through the trial. Nothing made sense. Was she involved? Were they protecting her? What did she know? How could this happen to an all American girl? …With so many kids today being radicalized and joining extremist groups, is there anything in one’s background that could predict this? Is terrorism and a propensity towards war inherent in many orthodox religions? Do we simply exist in a culture of violence? Is one man’s activist another man’s terrorist? Is violence and violent protest ever justified?”
Annika Marks in the role of Katie (on the night I attended) is, in a word, brilliant! She hits every emotional beat like a double-timed drummer when only the downbeat is required and the concerto of characters for which she plays all instruments hums along seamlessly in keeping with a most consummate point/counterpoint! You quite forget you are watching a small scale one woman show!
Sets by Joel Daavid and lighting by someone whose name does not appear to be in the program, are original and highly symbolic. The movement of the oblong chalkboards to the scratch of the chalk only adds an extra dimension that one never would have imagined (yet could never imagine living without once witnessed)! The fire as projected on the walls at certain high octane instances, only adds extra fuel to the already emblazoned conflagration of the chalk and paper filled set and resembles anything just as close to any action-packed film you ever did see!
All American Girl runs until July 26th.
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