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The festival where being a female playwright isn’t a rarity

The Women’s Voices Theater Festival, which produces works written entirely by women, opened in Washington last month. Jeffrey Brown sits down with three of the featured playwrights to discuss why they believe festivals like this are meaningful, the #MeToo movement, and the unique perspective female playwrights can bring to the stage.

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  • John Yang:

    Turning from the political theater of Washington to the dramatic stage.

    Almost two dozen theaters around D.C. are producing the second Women's Voices Theater Festival.

    Jeffrey Brown sat down with three of the playwrights to discuss why this effort is meaningful, particularly now.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A play about a young American moving with her family to Nigeria in the 1960s by Caleen Sinnette Jennings.

  • Caleen Sinnette Jennings:

    As progressive as theater is in many ways in the United States, there's still something around the edges that says women's stories are maybe more precious, less edgy, less intellectually challenging.

    There's a sort ugly cloud that hangs over it, and I think this is a way to dispel all of those notions.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A 17th century comedy becomes a story of rich and poor in America today in the hands of playwright Theresa Rebeck.

  • Theresa Rebeck:

    The fact is, women do tell stories in a different way. And there are mighty stories out there waiting to be told. And I don't believe that playwriting is a gene on a Y chromosome. None of us believe that, right?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A personal history that's also an unsettling piece of American and Cherokee tribal history by Mary Kathryn Nagle.

  • Actress:

    Today, Native women face rates of domestic violence and sexual assault higher than any other population in the United States.

  • Mary Kathryn Nagle:

    Part of dehumanizing a people is silencing them. And I think the more women's stories are told on stage, the more our culture will start to shift. It's not a coincidence that we face such high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault, and at the same time our voices have not been presented equally.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    These are just three of the plays and playwrights of the Women's Voices Theater Festival, a month-long, 24-theater project now under way in Washington, D.C., with all new plays, including 13 world premieres.

    It's the second such festival here, the first held in 2015, and the largest of its kind in the country, taking direct aim at a fact of life in American theater: the paucity of productions by female writers, around a quarter of plays across the country, according to several studies.

    At Arena Stage, one of the originating companies heading the festival, I talked with three women whose work is on display.

    Caleen Sinnette Jennings, a professor of theater at American University, took part in the first festival. She's back with a sequel to her earlier play, both based on her own life.

    The new one is titled "Queens Girl in Africa."

  • Caleen Sinnette Jennings:

    It's semibiographical, so nobody else could tell the story. But what's important is the fact that the story is worth telling, and the story is worth seeing.

    I think, particularly women of my generation wrestled with that thought. And it's good to see younger women coming along saying, why was this even a question? Of course your story is worth telling.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Are you surprised, though, that it's still a thing that there would be a need for a festival of women's voices?

  • Caleen Sinnette Jennings:

    No, because racism is still here, sexism is still here, everything is still here, just wearing different clothes. So, it's all here.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Pulitzer Prize-nominee Theresa Rebeck, a veteran of television and film, as well as the stage, decided to redo an English Restoration era comedy, "The Way of the World," written by William Congreve.

  • Theresa Rebeck:

    It's not like I looked that play and said, I want to do a feminist retelling of the Congreve play. But there is no mistaking that a woman wrote it, that I inhabit the female characters in a completely different way than what Congreve did.

    Point of view is one of the tools you have as a writer, and this is the point of view of a woman. It's not an agenda. It's the truth. If our agenda is always to tell the truth, the truth out of a woman's mouth is going to sound different than the truth out of a man's.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Mary Kathryn Nagle, an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, also works full-time on behalf of tribal rights as a lawyer.

    Her play "Sovereignty" presents another window into that world, and is set in the past — Andrew Jackson is one of the characters — and in the present-day Supreme Court.

  • Mary Kathryn Nagle:

    When anyone tells me that some plays are political and some are not, I think it's all political. We can say it's just art, but I think we're political beings. We're humans, right?

    And I don't see any art in this world as apolitical. And, as a woman, the political is deeply personal. It affects our lives in such profound ways. And getting to see that on stage is exciting.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Do you think of yourself as a woman playwright?

  • Mary Kathryn Nagle:

    I do, yes. Yes. I also think of myself as a Cherokee playwright. And I think that combination is terribly exciting and new.

  • Theresa Rebeck:

    Can I answer that as well?

    I have to say, when I was just starting out as a playwright, I had a mentor who said very clear to me, you have got to be careful not to let them categorize you as a woman playwright. It was sort of said as a kind — as kindly meant advice.

    And I — in my youth, I was like, well, I am a woman and I am a playwright, so it's unclear to me, like, why that would be something I needed to be careful about.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    During the recent women's marches, close to 100 theaters in more than 30 states hosted readings of new works by women. The Washington, D.C., festival was planned well before the explosion of the MeToo movement.

    I asked the playwrights if they were surprised by recent events.

  • Caleen Sinnette Jennings:

    We are in an extraordinary time in our history. Something major happened in our last inauguration. And I think this groundswell comes from that. So I think theater has often challenged the norms and sort of — and the artists have stepped up and led the wave of change. But it's not surprising to me that this is happening now.

  • Mary Kathryn Nagle:

    No, all these women coming forward with stories, it doesn't surprise me that the stories exist. I knew they existed. I have done work…

  • Theresa Rebeck:

    Yes, we all knew.

  • Mary Kathryn Nagle:

    Right? We all knew.

  • Theresa Rebeck:

    And we're stunned that people are saying, we didn't know. I'm like, oh, come on.

  • Mary Kathryn Nagle:

    Right. That's shocking.

    The people who claim they didn't know, that's shocking to me. And, in fact, thankfully, I think a lot of men are now coming forward to say, well, I knew, but, you know, how could I take down this man in power, because my career was dependent upon him accepting me?

  • Theresa Rebeck:

    I had a moment where I thought, I wish this felt better. I don't understand why it doesn't feel better, you know?

    And I think that must be because I don't believe that real change is coming. My heart doesn't believe it, somehow.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    On this issue of how hard it is just to make it as a playwright, how hard is it?

  • Theresa Rebeck:

    It's really hard. I have been through so many ups and downs that they finally.

    The Dramatists Guild, they do a little magazine, and they put me on the cover of the issue about survival.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Theresa Rebeck:

    Right? I was like, I am the poster child for survival. That's what you know me for.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Caleen, what do you hope comes out of this?

  • Caleen Sinnette Jennings:

    Much harder to say, well, I just know any women playwrights. Much harder to say.

    And I hope — I hope this model will be replicated all over the country.

    Theater is also a very important place, because, yes, we are all the same. Yes, we're incredibly different. But that difference need not frighten you. That difference need not be a mystery. That difference should be something you walk towards in order to build that empathy.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The Women's Voices Theater Festival runs through February 15.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Washington, D.C.

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