Around the first of April, two local events received national attention. President Walter Wendler of WTAMU cancelled a scheduled March 31 charity event drag show that sparked large, noisy student demonstrations, all of which made headline news. On April 8, Federal Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk rescinded FDA approval of the abortifacient Mifepristone, that catalyzed a sequence of legal rulings and precipitated Pro-Choice rallies across the country.
Sandwiched twixt these news makers, and right in the middle of all of the action, Bull in a China Shop, embodying elements central to each current event and written by Bryna Turner, was staged at WTAMU to appreciative audiences from March 29 – April 2.
The play revolves around the real-life forty-year relationship between Mary Emma Woolley, President of Mt. Holyoke College, and Jeannette Augusta Marks, a professor of English at the same institution. Bryna Turner, a Mt. Holyoke alumna, used the all-but-forgotten correspondence between Woolley and Marks to craft the play.
The temporal span of the play, from the late 1800’s to the late 1930’s, embraced a veritable maelstrom of change on several levels. Consequently, the play has three different story lines: the personal interaction between the women; the professional striving for opportunity and equality in academia; the agitation for social change and justice involving women’s suffrage and women’s rights. The playwright interwove these strands in such a way that the audience came to know and appreciate these two women in a special way.
Thanks largely to the efforts of Woolley, Mt. Holyoke, the first of the so-called “Seven Sisters,” transitioned from a private female seminary to a fully accredited college. The character of Mary Woolley, not surprisingly, was driven, no-nonsense, imperious, and iconoclastic as she crashes through the glass ceiling: hence the “Bull in a China Shop!” She never wavered from her efforts to make Mt. Holyoke a first-class institution and to insure that the school’s graduates were known for their intelligence and competence. Finally, she was tireless in her commitment to level the playing field, so that women, both at the ballot box and in the workplace, enjoyed equal opportunity.
Jeanette Augusta Marks provided a vivid contrast to her partner. An English professor who was also an author, Marks was volatile, mercurial, vulnerable and spontaneous.
Portraying such distinctly different characters, Victorian women who refused to conform to Victorian notions of womanhood, posed challenges for both the actresses and director.
Director Callie Hisek chose B. Herring as Woolley and Angelica Pantoja as Marks through a process that involved filling out a detailed Disclosure/Disclaimer form which involved signing off on the play’s language, emotional and romantic scenes, and costuming. The language, for instance, was hardly Victorian. Bryna Turner took liberal artistic license, generously contemporizing the dialogue with modern expletives, which the ladies delivered without restraint.
Hisek also struck the right tone and balance for the displays of affection, just enough to give credibility to the lovers. She also exhibited a deft touch for pacing, as the entire narrative flowed seemlessly, even though it covered a span of forty years.
Two other characters deserve mention. Sanai Lowe played the phlegmatic Dean Welsh, the cautionary tale, the conscience, and in the Greek sense, the chorus of the play. She becomes the voice of the “others,” “people” and “they,” relating the rumors and gossip surrounding the two women, while at the same time, trying to make the best decisions for the college.
It is Dean Welsh who warns that donors and benefactors to the college are continually threatening to withdraw financial support unless Woolley and Marks cease and desist. Similar rumors swirled around the planned, then cancelled, then restaged drag show at WTAMU.
And, it is with Dean Welsh that President Woolley has a truth session about the board’s decision to terminate Woolley’s employment in favor of a married man with children, who more properly reflects the values of the college. “Family Values;” “Protect our Children!” A familiar current litany, to be sure.
Then there is Pearl, the student opportunist, who, acknowledging her gender afinity early on, aggressively seeks, with some success, to woo Marks away from Woolley. As played by Signe Elder, Pearl is authentic, and unapologetic about her feelings for Marks.
Woolley and Marks would find a way to repair this rift, as well as find common ground throughout their decades together as they retained their own identities. That story is universal in relationships: modify and adjust; acoommodate and compromise.
A nice inclusive service was the signer for the deaf who was present for the matinee, a practise that the drama department has maintained for the past two years.
Though a period piece, the professional, personal and political challenges faced by Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks are as real and relevant as a century ago. The battles for women’s rights, equality and inclusion continue, even as the Supreme Court curtails women’s choices and Republican-led state legislatures across the country have advanced hundreds of anti LGBTQ measures.
At post time, the attendant dramas framing this timely play are themselves playing out. The country awaits the ruling of the Supreme Court on Mifepristone: will the court sow chaos or calm the waters so violently stirred by the Amarillo judge?
And, the faculty and staff at WTAMU have this week engaged in a vote of no confidence over President Walter Wendler’s handling of the drag show and the ensuing national fallout.
Our gratitude to the WTAMU Drama Department and Director Callie Hisek for producing this very fitting and provocative play.
That such challenging works on the stage are common here in the Comancheria, we offer our gratitude and proudly declare:
Keep Amarillo Artsy!
Keep Austin Weird!
Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!