What Every Girl Should Know opens in pitch darkness with barely audible intermittent sounds of female pleasure, various tones and tonalities and an intermittent gasping groan. What in the world? Soothing lighting ever so slowly reveals shadows of four cots where it finally becomes obvious that young women are under the covers trying to find out what all the fuss is about—down there.
What Every Girl Should Know has an arousing start as three girls giggle through their ritual of finding pleasure in their body, using metaphors like riding bicycles up a hill and suddenly swooping down without the brakes. It’s a rare and unusual treat to see and hear how comfortable young girls are with each other, and playwright Monica Byrne captures the nuances of building bonds between these wards of a sort of Catholic reformatory set in 1914 on the Lower East Side in New York.
The three have a special sister bond as discarded castaways— they know each other’s moods, can immediately interpret each other’s furtive glances, expressions of joy, dismal desolation, and despair. When a new girl enters, the dynamics suddenly change. The trio is at first reluctant to include her in their comfortable routines but Theresa has a mature nonchalance that intrigues them. Plus, she shares information from her mother about the radical family planning pioneer Margaret Sanger, and before long, she’s an inseparable member of a solid quartet.
Some of us can remember the consciousness-raising impact of the book “Our Bodies, Ourselves” with unabashed references to and pictures of female anatomy. The younger set raised in the age of Vagina Monologues may not realize that it’s not that long ago when the V word was unspoken and feminine body parts were wrapped, corseted and tucked far away.
What Every Girl Should Know is a coming of age play, recognizing the early struggles of interior consciousness of young girls placed in the “protection of the state for their own good.” Gripped tightly in Catholic rituals under the watchful eyes of nuns to cleanse their souls, they turn to each other for support and care. Each has a personal story of abuse and neglect which brought them there—the wonder of the play is how they interconnect with each other to find their way through.
The cast is exceedingly good, starting with an effervescent Emily Whitworth as Theresa, who guides the crew like a trusted big sister with a voice of reason. Thais Menendez is a melancholy Anne, who carries her emotional wounds just below the surface. Lida Maria Benson is the knowledgeable new girl Joan who brings stories from the outside, encourages the girls to think for themselves and initiates a new ritual of writing out their fantastical journeys in a group journal. Finally, Yakima Rich is a sweet impressionable Lucy, who prays to her patron saint nightly and fervently believes that righteousness will prevail, no matter what’s in front of her eyes.
Movement adds to the bond of sisterhood as seen during the exuberant fun and ecstasy where they dance and swirl around each other playfully. We can thank Paige Hernandez for her soulful choreography. Costumes by Heather Lockard also contribute to the look and feel of the piece with the girls changing in an instant, covering cotton pantaloons with ankle-length skirts that swirl and twirl as much as they do.
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What Every Girl Should Know
closes April 15, 2017
Details and tickets
When the girls playfully “pray” to Sanger as a patron saint, however, the lights take on a darkened hue and they join each other in another type of dance, more like they’re compelled in a ritual beyond their own understanding, sliding between the cots in unison with contracting torsos and angular staccato positions. Emerging from their group “trance,” they recognize there’s a force within them that they’ve conjured up giving them a power they didn’t know they had. That awakening worked wonders for me and is a crucial element that brings together all the elements to propel their future journey.
Physical and sexual abuse was so rampant in days before basic “protective services” that the girl’s experiences don’t even register as significant—there were just whispers of past traumas and all one could do was steer from harm’s way as much as possible. However, when a trusted young priest is implicated as a predator, the sisterhood bond is forged strong enough to knock them out of their comfort zones to journey out into the cold and cruel world – together.
Margaret Sanger was considered a heretic for taking the stand that women have the right to know about their bodies, including deciding to choose to become pregnant and she and those around her suffered the consequences, then and unfortunately, even now. She often had to outrun her prosecutors. Her pamphlet, “What Every Girl Should Know,”published in 1916, might draw snickers today, but the common sense information is as timeless as this play –and just as necessary.
What Every Girl Should Know is part of Forum’s “Nasty Women Rep”performed along with Dry Land.
What Every Girl Should Know by Monica Byrne . Directed by Jenna Duncan . Cast: Lida Maria Benson, Thais Menendez, Yakima Rich, Emily Whitworth . Lighting Design – Sarah Tundermann . Sound Design –Sarah O’Halloran . Set Designer – Paige Hathaway . Costume and Properties— Heather Lockard . Choreography by Paige Hernandez . Stage Manager: Sarah Kate Patterson . Produced by Forum Theatre . Reviewed by Debbie Jackson