If you don’t have anything nice to say…
There’s a lot of wisdom in that old adage, which concludes with “don’t say anything at all,” but there are times when my hands are tied and I simply can’t ignore what I’m thinking. “Sure you can,” I say to myself in the mirror with a wink. “Why rock the boat?” Truth be told, my opinion has gotten me into trouble more than a few times over the years, but it comes with the territory. While I’m happy to stick to taking pictures of your kids, or seeing a frothy musical with little to no redeeming value, there’s more to life than puppet shows and parades and the past week has challenged me to dig a little deeper.
I don’t want to say that I was apprehensive about seeing playwright Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” at the Sullivan County Community College (SCCC), but I had only a rudimentary knowledge of the show and its roots. Originally produced Off-Off Broadway in New York City circa 1996, the show was lauded for its frank approach to controversial subjects like consensual and nonconsensual sexual experiences, reproductive rights, the sex-worker industry and more—all recounted through the words of women of varying backgrounds, race, age and sexual identity. I make it a habit to not read the opinions of others prior to seeing a show, preferring instead to reach my own conclusions without outside influence, and as is often the case here in the Upper Delaware River region, I knew several of the players involved. What I had yet to learn was that the New York Times theatre critic Charles Isherwood called the show “probably the most important piece of political theatre of the last decade,” and that Ensler created the show, in part, to celebrate women’s empowerment. “I’m obsessed with women being violated, with rape and with incest,” Ensler wrote in a 1998 article (www.women.com) on the subject, and those topics are raised, alongside goofy, silly attempts to lighten the mood along the way, which (IMHO) requires a delicate balance and a firm directorial hand.
There is no director credited with steering this particular ship, and it showed. While a few of the women seemed to know what they were doing, it appeared that many were not really familiar with the material or comfortable with public speaking. If they had rehearsed beforehand, I’d be surprised, which made me more uncomfortable than the subject matter. While the women attempted to project an air of camaraderie and support for each other on stage throughout, it appeared more like a free-for-all. One person in particular sat behind the podium, miming the words as the monologues were read, which was incredibly distracting, dismissive of the work itself and rude. I didn’t understand the behind-the-scenes antics, and I consider it a disservice to the written word, which, more often than not, focuses on serious topics that should probably be given more than a perfunctory glance before presenting it to the public. There, I said it.
Even though I had no clue what stories humorist Bizzy Coy was about to read in front of an audience at the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance (DVAA) the next day, I was fairly confident that she would be prepared. Coy and
abstract artist Bobbie Oliver are recipients of the 2019 Individual Artist Fellows Awards, which the DVAA established to “support Sullivan County artists working in the category of Painting and Literary-Fiction.” The funds provided are “theirs to use how they best see fit to support and advance their professional artistic practice,” according to the program notes. Once again, as Oliver spoke, my personal comfort zone was challenged. “My process," she shared, “one of pouring, staining and blotting, is very related to water,” she explained. “I moved to this area 25 years ago and the river affected me deeply,” she continued, as projected images of her large-scale paintings played on the screen behind her. Did I “get it?” Not really, but her presentation was thoughtful and professional, and Coy did not stand behind her making silly faces.
What Coy did do was regale the crowd with a few of her short stories, artfully crafted into angst-ridden peeks into the author’s psyche. No stranger to others supporting her work, Coy has also received a MacDowell Colony Fellowship (whatever that is) and a Puffin Foundation grant, in addition to her many accolades. Coy’s stories had the audience laughing out loud as her self-deprecating humor illuminated the very human condition that she unabashedly shares with her fans.
It’s always easier to “have something nice to say,” but should I shy away and simply say nothing at all? I’m unsure, but I’d love to know what you think.
Feel free to send your comments to Jonathanfox@riverreporter.com.