The personal is political. A well-known rallying cry from the Second Wave American feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, those words were ringing in my ears in a higher pitch after a striking theatre experience this past weekend. How have we changed, from now to then, when those words were first pronounced? Do contemporary women confront the same issues, dressed in different clothes? How does the transformation from personal to political occur, and who is there to listen? What does it matter if we can look and act and eat the way we want if we’re still mentally stuck in the same place?
The personal is political. Prodded by a friend’s one-woman show, I couldn’t help but return to this feminist aphorism, as the usual gamut of young woman’s problems trumpeted across the stage: body image, eating disorders, insecurity in relationships, sexual identity, and a thousand other layered questions of self-loathing and self-worth. This time, though, those questions fell on different ears, and not just mine, but the collective audience’s. The “recommended audience” description for Pizza Flowers, a 45-minute show written and performed by Shay Roman as part of the United Solo Theatre Festival, summoned: “teenagers, adults, elderly, LGBT community, women, people who like women, people who are bored and/or frustrated with theatre and/or life.” As far as I could tell, each audience member could at least partially identify; and in fact, most of us fell into another, unexpected category: we belonged to Sarah Lawrence College.
This accidental coterie audience transformed the performance from personal truths spoken into the void to the revelation of universal, ever-present questions of gender and identity, shared with those who are always willing to broach them. Our interpretation of the issues confronting us was colored by our awareness of the peculiar intimacy of the setting. Can such delicate truths only be shared with those who know how to listen? That didn’t seem possible, because Shay wanted to perform, no matter who showed up. But are those truths better understood when everyone is on the same page?
Shay unpacked her stories with us, not for us or to us, but with our universal understanding tenderly supporting these endlessly difficult and personal struggles. It was startling to hear some confessions spoken aloud, complicated by the fact that the little voice inside my head responded immediately, “Yes. Me too.” Even more powerfully, I knew the audience surrounding me was sharing my response, from our collective gusts of laughter, murmured sighs, and the quantity of silent smiles and pointed eye contact flicked between its members. Shay countered the revelation of deeply personal truths with her comedic self, offering the audience a bowl of potato chips to share and smearing her face with lipstick. Digging deeper, she even persuaded the entire audience to chant over and over, “This is my vagina. I give it to you. To fix, to enhance, to perfect,” while she led us with marching band conductor precision. Due to the composition of the audience, she couldn’t avoid preaching to the choir, but she was certainly repaid with a compassionate and sincere response.
The personal is political. Shay touched upon issues that needle most adolescent girls and young women, flirting with bulimia, heteronormativity, and the loneliness of rejection. In one scene, she had just been dumped by her boyfriend on her twenty-first birthday, and she presented to the audience a relationship post-mortem. While stuffing her face with pizza, she reflected upon how hard she tried to please her ex-boyfriend, because that was what she believed she wanted to do: how she wasn’t trying to be clingy when she asked what time he was getting home from work, she only wanted to know so that she could have dinner ready. Such testament to gendered duty and female martyrdom in a relationship may as well have been written by and for the stereotypical 1950s housewife. It was distressing to hear these deeply ingrained beliefs pouring out of a woman my age. Shay bravely revealed how confined she felt to the role of dutiful girlfriend, in a relationship that, on the surface, appeared to be one of functioning parity.
Later, while shaving herself over her black leggings in preparation for a first date scene, she simplified the onslaught of mixed messages from the media directed at women. “Here’s how I see it. Have a lot of sex, but secretly. Don’t talk about it. That way you’re really good at it, but you don’t seem like a slut.” Is this where women’s lib has taken us? Her words resonated in that room full of Sarah Lawrence peers, transplanted as a New York City audience, perhaps more deeply because we knew whose heart and mind had formed them. This conflict would affect any contemporary audience, but perhaps the intimate theater setting aided such a personal outpouring.
Certainly, the professional space and production added legitimacy and weight to Shay’s big questions regarding identity and personal happiness. Those same questions are turned over and over in our college conversations in classrooms and dorm rooms, on the telephone and in the privacy of our own minds, but here they were embodied on stage. Here Shay stood, responding to the pressure of having to constantly self-define by voicing her inner struggles to a roomful of (so-called) strangers. Confessions such as, “I tried bulimia once. Oh, come on, don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it. And thinking about it is basically the same as doing it,” were met with resonant “mmmms” from the audience, in deep sympathetic (and perhaps even empathetic) understanding. Shay creatively collected all those ways in which it hurts to be a young woman growing up in middle-class America and let us examine the wounds.
And then the group dispersed into the night, back to their Brooklyn apartments or Westchester houses or Sarah Lawrence dorms. Shay was hugged and congratulated, and the magic of her one-night only performance dusted each audience member as they stepped out onto 42nd Street. We had seen a side of Shay very rarely glimpsed on the Sarah Lawrence stage. Our collectivity dissipated into personal reflections, as we made our way home. Why are young women still stalled by the same stale social pressures? How can we tune out the age-old stories of self-sacrificing perfection? What do we gain from hearing mutual concerns spoken aloud, entrusted to us in the dark, and what happens when we know every member of the “us”? Living up to its title, Pizza Flowers was all at once impossible and messy, strangely attractive and also revolting, for its raw, relevant honesty.
The personal is political. Forty years later, we’re still working to redefine our terms.
Amelia Parenteau is a senior at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, where she studies literature, writing, theatre, and French. She is also currently the Communications and Conferences Intern for Theatre Communications Group. At Sarah Lawrence, she is the co-producer for her student theatre company, The Melancholy Players, a member of a women’s Shakespeare ensemble, and a senior interviewer for the Admissions Office.