What was once a cautionary tale painting strong women as whores has been triumphantly transformed into a case study in the complex, turbulent, often vicious history of female power. 21 King, presented by True Wit Productions, explores the question of what it really means to be called a Jezebel.
Playwright Jessica Lloyd Krenek plucks the story of Jezebel, from the books of First and Second Kings, out of the Bible and places it in Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1980s. In this revisit, Jezebel, daughter of King Ethbaal, becomes Isabel “Z” Taylor (Michelle Fitzgerald), daughter of Ethan Taylor (Matthew Shifflett). Taylor is a real estate tycoon, and Z is his little princess.
The script pays great attention to biblical and historical detail, from Z’s 1980s powersuit, to the character’s cleverly biblical-adjacent names, to the choice of a real estate agency as the setting (echoing the source of Jezebel’s rise and fall), all indicate thorough dramaturgy by Allan Davis and Maria Ortiz, as well as thoughtful writing. Their fastidiousness did not go unnoticed, or unappreciated.
The show claims to be a mixture of comedy and drama, but the emphasis of 21 King is clearly on the dramatic. There’s certainly humor there, in Z’s sometimes petulant demands and the witty banter between the two chorus member/secretaries (Nelly Diaz and Katherine Trapani), but the jokes have a vicious bite to them. The comedy helps paint the picture of institutionalized sexism in the 1980s more than it lightens the mood.
21 King raises interesting questions about memory and power by making liberal use of direct audience address. The chorus controls the story, stopping, rewinding, and changing events at will – sometimes Z’s will, but mostly their own. They are sinister and callous, often ignoring Z’s protests of “That’s not how I remember it!” Z herself has very little control over her own story, a sharp contrast to her business prowess (though the office gossip is that she uses sex to secure contracts).
by Jessica Lloyd
at Goethe Institut – Gallery
812 7th Street NW
Washington, DC, 20001
Details and tickets
The complex, nuanced, and masterful performance by Fitzgerald, complemented by brilliant work from Diaz and Trapani, drive what could otherwise become problematic material. Z has all the positive and negative aspects of the typical eighties corporate go-getter; she would be easy to hate were she not portrayed with such humanity. Diaz and Trapani shine as the shade-like chorus, haunting Z and tormenting her with slut-shaming accusations. Villainous as they may seem, they merely represent societal expectations: Z’s real enemy is her sometimes partner and sometimes rival, Seth Barrett (a multi-dimensional character carefully crafted by Allan Davis).
In 21 King, Krenek and director Emily Jane Warheit skillfully balance 1980s corporate sexism and biblical material, using them as lenses through which to examine the troubled existence of female power. While the production succeeds in this goal, the more interesting questions it raises – questions about theater’s ability to portray reality, about what the truth is anyway, and whether events are really predetermined – remain vexingly unanswered. The cruel chorus asserts that the story is true, “maybe,” but also that “it had to end this way.” The audience is left to wonder whether the truth is fated or flexible.
21 King is a smartly written, thoughtfully directed, and conscientiously acted production from top to bottom. Though it stubbornly refuses to resolve some of the philosophical paradoxes it constructs, it powerfully reclaims for women the story of Jezebel.