Running on Glass, now at Venus Theater, reminds us of the history of female athletes who burst through the metaphorical glass ceiling only to be forgotten throughout history. It’s actually a joy seeing the mostly unknown names of women athletes listed and walk out with a better idea of their lives and struggles at the end of the show.
Some of names are familiar but the production brings the characters to life with vitality and enthusiasm. For example, long before Althea Gibson held a tennis racket she held off street toughs and had to convince her coach that she’d stay out of trouble if given the chance to play. Then she’d whack that ball like there was no tomorrow while dealing with slurs and racial discrimination becoming the first African American to win a Grand Slam title, Wimbledon and the US Nationals during the still segregated 1950’s.
The engaging script by Cynthia Cooper pulls out the human story in the characters bringing to them life from their iconic stances portraying the women behind the legends. But also, more importantly, there are women who never reached legendary status, names have been forgotten, even though some were lauded with parades and accolades in their day.
Christine Canady and Deborah Randall, who also directed, play Anna a sports scholar and Ellie a designer who rummage through history-filled boxes in an old run-down old building while envisioning a pop-up “Cosmo Club” to showcase early women athletes. The script helps set the context by noting early consternation of even using that term for women, and how people had to work through what being an athlete meant for women generations before Title IX.
Running on Glass
closes December 9, 2018
Details and tickets
Canady brings an earnest and appealing energy to her characters, starting with the powerful Althea Gibson. As Wilma Rudolph, she portrays the vulnerability of being ostracized as crippled with early bouts of polio, but then with unrelenting determination, builds her muscles to stand, then walk. Once she starts running, she doesn’t look back and eventually becomes a triple gold-medal winner at the 1960 Olympics. Her portrayal of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson is a treat to watch as she brings a playful and buoyant manner to the character. Johnson played in the Negro Leagues and the script even refers to a tiny segment in the movie “League of Their Own” where a black woman throws an errant ball from off the field with such smoking force that the players can only gasp in amazement, easily a tribute to Johnson.
Deborah Randall portrays characters who are nearly erased from the history books. Her New York based Gertrude Ederle describes the solitude of pushing through mile after mile as the first woman to swim the English Channel. Her Babe Didrikson is confident and brazen as she excels in golf, basketball, baseball and track and field, winning Olympic gold medals and national championships. Widely regarded by many as one of the greatest female athletes of all time, her name barely registers today. Same thing with Gretel Bergmann who Randall portrays with tenderness. After years of training to finally achieve a coveted spot on the German Olympic team, she was cut because she was a Jew. Her solace was that she didn’t have to participate in the required Nazi salute.
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Production designers work wonders in the long space with seating along a half-circle for full range coverage. The multiple level set designed by Amy Belschner Rhodes is bordered in front with a crescent to display the various artifacts showcasing the women’s achievements — articles, books, a racing baton, tennis racket, and goggles.
The underlying message of Running on Glass is that there are countless stories of courageous and athletically gifted women whose names are fading from the history pages, enough to fill a pop up mobile testimonial exhibit. Admittedly, the introductory characters set up a rather superficial premise, but the lack of a storyline does not diminish the impact of the stories. Running on Glass provides the historical context of women’s achievements in sports who fought their way through societal pressures and restrictions of all kinds. The photo and video projections interweave glimpses of current achievers –Mo’Ne Davis, Simone Biles, and be still my heart, the powerful Serena Williams to help show how far we’ve come.
This latest effort at Venus Theater helps remind us to look back and recall those whose hard-fought struggles paved the way for the achievements today. Only when we remember and appreciate those who have burst through supposedly insurmountable obstacles will we have the foundation to keep moving forward— through shards of glass, indeed.
Running on Glass by Cynthia Cooper . Directed by Deborah Randall . Cast: Christine “Tina” Canady and Deborah Randall . Set and Lighting Designer— Amy Belschner Rhodes . Sound, Video, Costumes and Props –Deborah Randall . Board Operators— Krishaun Walker and Amy Belschner Rhodes . Produced by Venus Theater . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.