Are Women Human?
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 23, 2008
Nanna Mwaluko's new play Are Women Human?, at the Fresh Fruit Festival, has a provoking sort of title; the work itself—beautifully written, insightful, humane—belies the moniker. The play is focused on Samantha (who prefers to be called Sam), a young African American woman who knows that her biology is incorrect, that she was born in the wrong body. So she binds her breasts and hides her hair and dresses in oversized T-shirts and baggy jeans, hoping that these outer trappings will help her reconcile what she feels she is on the inside with what she appears to be on the outside.
The singular power of Mwaluko's play is to give authentic insight into what it might be like to live, as Sam does, as a gender that we know is not our own. I can't recall ever understanding such a life so clearly.
Mwaluko, abetted by his excellent director Jose Zayas, examines other aspects of gender and race in this piece. All of the characters are played by women; there are just three in the cast: Zainab Jah, who is superb as Sam, plus Sadrina Johnson and Maria Silverman sharing all of the other roles, including some who are male and some who are obviously not intended to be the same race as the actor portraying them. This device does not feel gimmicky but instead part-and-parcel of the experience Are Women Human? imparts to its audience, making us challenge our assumptions and presumptions about what male/female or black/white mean and signify.
The play—a tight, compact 45 minutes in length—proceeds impressionistically through nine scenes that might be happening in close to real-time or (more likely, I think) are separated by wide gaps of time and possibly space; my companion suggested that the whole thing could be memory or could be fantasy, and I agree. All of the scenes have to do with Sam finding ways to become genuinely comfortable in his/her own skin. The journey that Sam takes during the play is perilous and difficult, but the play ends—with a scene entitled "Transition"—on a hopeful note.
Mwaluko's writing is sensationally good, pulsing with poetry and rhythm. Here's a sample, from a scene between Sam and his/her mother. Sam has just told Mom, after some prompting, that s/he loves her. Mom replies:
Then go to school Then go to college Then find a job Then help with bills Then save some money Then buy a house Then get married Then get pregnant Then get kids Then get fat Then get angry Then get fatter Then one affair Then two affairs Then three Then four Then five Then six so you divorce and grab his stash to sit pretty with your feet propped up on a pillow watching soap operas like the rest of this crazy country Samantha I am old. Too old. I can’t work the way I do and not expect my body to collapse. Is that what you want?
Are Women Human? runs only two more performances at Fresh Fruit, but will (one hopes) be blessed with longer life after the festival. Mwaluko and his collaborators have created a work well worth taking a look at.