In the Wings
This year’s Senior Thesis Festival celebrates and uplifts marginalized voices.
By Sadia Haque
This week, Barnard senior Alexandra Haddad’s production of “a feminist decolonization of The Odyssey” broadcasts live from the Glicker-Milstein stage. In telling the story of the 12 maids who protect Penelope from her rabid suitors while Odysseus is at sea, The Penelopiad reclaims the subjectivities of stories buried under the violence of the canon.
The play, which opened Thursday and will run virtually through Saturday, April 10, is but one panel in the triptych that is the Barnard Theatre Department’s 2021 Senior Thesis Festival. The others, What Every Girl Should Know and CloudMelt, also address womanhood, gender discrimination, and gender violence. These productions are the magna opera of their respective student directors, all Theatre majors.
“I’ve always been really interested in the classics, but as a woman, and especially as a woman of color, those stories are made to exclude people who look like me,” Haddad said. “I picked this play because I love the classics but I’m also not represented amongst them.”
In What Every Girl Should Know, Perry O. Parsons, BC ’21, directs a story written by the young playwright Monica Byrne about four young girls at a Catholic reformatory in 1914 Manhattan. The girls create a feminist religion, with women’s rights activist Margaret Sanger as their spiritual leader. It’s both a devastating story of toxic power structures and a tale of liberation. In Parsons’s interpretation, What Every Girl Should Know “explores how people, specifically vulnerable individuals, exist in larger toxic systems of power and how that infiltrates our personal interactions with our peers.”
Emily Liberatore, BC ’21, stages the equally political but slightly more personal CloudMelt, by Heidi Kraay. The play follows the teenage Wren as she tries to connect with her senile mother, Agnes—a woman on the brink of suicide—by pretending to embody her late husband. “I feel like this play mainly surrounds just the idea of bridging the gap between differences and differences in experiences,” said Daniela Mays-Sanchez, BC ’24, who plays Wren.
At a time when pangs of separation and isolation continue to reverberate, these plays delve deep into the importance of human relationships, especially strong bonds among women. Whether it be the 12 handmaidens uniting against male violence, or the four schoolgirls who bond over a shared fantasy, or the mother and daughter who come together in an unlikely way, the relationships nurtured in these plays highlight the importance of women leaning on each other through difficult and traumatic moments.
With Megan Thee Stallion’s SNL performance calling out the Kentucky attorney general for the absence of justice for Breonna Taylor, Natalie Portman’s cape stitched with the names of women directors who were snubbed during the Academy Awards, and movies like The Half of It and Crazy Rich Asians exploring the Asian-American experience, more and more people from marginalized communities are speaking out and telling their stories. Today, having a platform and the ability to give yourself a voice is as vital as ever.
But beyond telling the stories of specific women, these plays delve into broad and pervasive issues that plague women from all walks of life. Each student director devoted herself to cultivating an antiracist theatre space and worked against the myth of whiteness as the default human experience. As they strive to amplify previously silenced voices, the directors—and the productions they led—highlight the root need for more microphones to go around.
“Emily really helped to make sure that our mental state as actors was put first above performing a certain way,” says Eleanor Babwin, BC ’24, who plays Agnes in CloudMelt, when asked about Liberatore.
Mays-Sanchez reiterated this point, adding, “She’s very open-minded in terms of exploration and in terms of hearing what we had to say about our characters, about the play as a whole, and generally just how we’re feeling coming into rehearsals.”
One of the main motivating factors for Haddad in selecting The Penelopiad was that she wanted her thesis to take on the canon at one of its loudest and proudest bastions: Columbia. She hopes that her play can serve not as an attack on the Core, but as a conversation-starter among students immersed in a curriculum that centers a white- and male-dominated canon. “I’m doing this for other people like me who enjoy the canon but also know the canon has been used very violently to exclude and erase culture and people,” Haddad said.
This thrust takes on particular significance in theatre, which remains an art form dominated by the wealthy, white elite. “As a director of color, I am distinctly aware of how few people there are like me in the spaces that I go into,” Haddad said. “It’s not because there are fewer talented artists who are also women of color, it’s just that theatre is kind of hard to stick with when you are always one of the minority.”
Haddad hopes to inspire her viewers to consider several questions when they tune out of the live stream this week: “What stories am I not hearing? What stories are being ignored?” and “Who loses out when certain stories are silenced?”