Saturday, November 16, 2019

"Bull in a China Shop"

Bull in a China Shop
Bryna Turner

Stacy Ross & Leontyne Mbele-Mbong
Mary Emma Woolley (1863-1947) was the first female to attend Brown University, a women’s suffrage advocate, a peace activist, and the president of Mount Holyoke College (MHC) from 1900 to 1937.  She was also in a secret relationship with a former student who became an English professor at MHC during the years Woolley was there, Jeanette Marks.  Recently, MHC hosted a digital exhibition on their lives and the letters they wrote to each other over their near-forty-year relationship -- a story that MHC graduate and playwright Bryna Turner has taken and transformed into a play now in its Bay Area premiere at Aurora Theatre. 

Bull in a China Shop is steeped in the events of history that surrounded these women’s lives – the fight for women’s voting rights, the transformation of women’s education from preparing proper housewives to creating professionals in their own right, and the bold leadership of women like these two in the social and political movements of the times.  But at its heart, the play as penned by Bryna Turner and directed by Dawn Monique Williams is an engaging story of two women’s up and down romance over four decades along with all the drama and comedy entailed during a period when such love was kept as secret as possible, was shunned by most if suspected, and was of course, illegal.

Leontyne Mbele-Mbong & Stacy Ross
Over twenty scenes of those decades play out in the eighty-five minutes during which we as an audience actually spend a good portion of our time laughing.  Bryna Turner’s script is sharp and brilliant in its humor, wit, and satire.  Dawn Monique Williams guides her exceptionally talented cast through moments of tease and tension, quest and quarrel, love and lust – moments that may take place in the early twentieth century, post-Victorian age but appear and sound current in the language the women speak and in the situations they find themselves as they maneuver through relationship, career, and moral challenges.

There is much face validity to Stacy Ross’s portrayal of Mary Woolley, so natural she is in portraying a woman whose first words we hear are “Listen, I’m a bull in a china shop.”  In practicing for an interview to be president of Mount Holyoke, she is like a tornado twirling around the room, declaring as if talking to the school’s hiring committee, “You want a training ground for good pious women?  Fuck that.”  Her Mary gains further steam as if about to walk into the ring for a round of fisticuffs as she asserts, “So you’re afraid they won’t find husbands? … If a man is interested in headless women, send him to France.”

Stacy Ross & Leontyne Mbele-Mbong
Throughout, Stacy Ross keeps her head down and her eyes peeled for opportunities for her Woolley not just to lead a revolution, but in her words, “I am a revolution.”  But when she becomes president, her passion for change and to rebuild the institution “from the ground up” is no less than the passion she so vividly shows when near the woman of her life, Jeanette Marks.  Scenes of the two together are at times as steamy and erotic and yet also as natural as any love scenes one might have ever seen on the stage.  Their pawing, nibbling, and general love-play is all the more fun when we consider the fact that as they undress each other, they are pulling off the boots and unbuttoning the skirts and blouses of an era we often associate holding the most prudish of moralities. 

Stacy Ross & Leontyne Mbele-Mbong
For all her romantic come-ons to her younger companion, Stacy Ross’s Woolley is not hesitant suddenly to unleash knife-sharp remarks to snap her younger lover back into the reality she as the older so clearly sees.  When Marks complains, “You promised me a castle and you gave me a dorm” because they have yet to live in a house befitting a college president, Woolley dryly but with a bite replies, “Drink some water, take your aspirin, and grow up.”

As Marks, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong is equally powerful in her portrayal of a woman determined not to be the “wife” (even though she has moved to Holyoke specifically to be near Woolley), but instead to be her own powerhouse center of independent thought and action while creating her own means for young women’s “find[ing] greater access to their minds.”  Her Marks does not mind also breaking some china along the way as she is openly disdainful of department meetings and sees nothing wrong smoking cigarettes with her students.  With an aspiration to be a great writer, she announces with dramatic flair of a Shakespearean thespian, “I’m going to kill myself” when a review of her first published paper calls it “self-important gibberish.”  While clearly delighted in Woolley’s moves to get her into bed, she is also left hungry for attention when the president’s duties and/or the college’s financial restraints do not meet all her needs for attention or for living somewhere other than in a faculty dormitory.  In those moments, her twitching and restlessness takes over, and her eyes wander.

Both actors rock the small Aurora setting with their dynamic portrayals of two headstrong women who have goals for social, educational, and political reform both similar and singular that sometimes are in synch and sometimes sorely clash.  The rollercoaster ride of their relationship through the years stays on track even after major wrecks along the way because of a love that is so visceral in those moments when each longs for the absent other – noted maybe as in a slightly quivering lip,  word said with some slight hesitation, or a look frozen in a faraway horizon. 

And while the story of their on-and-off love plays out, the two each lead forth in taking stands for the increased rights of women – be it Woolley’s moves to replace a male-dominated faculty with half that is female, Mark’s determination to start a playwrighting class for the women students against the wishes of a Dean who sees such a profession as not one for women, or their paired crusade (after Woolley’s initial hesitation) to take public stands in favor of women’s suffrage.  And in those and other revolutions pursued, each actor moves as a force not to be upended by a traditional dean; by a lover who is feeling dismissed; or by her own temporary hesitation, distrust, or feeling of inadequacy.

Stacy Ross & Mia Tagano
Mia Tagano is the tow-the-line, tight-lipped Dean Welsh who yet garners the reluctant courage at times to give in to the shifts and changes that both President Woolley and Professor Marks want to undertake.  She protests to Woolley, “You’re making the school too political,” and suggests, “You might be trying to upend the concept of womanhood,” only to be a wonderful mixture of stone-faced, shocked and maybe just a bit satisfied in hearing from Wooley that she is correct on both counts.

A further, excellent performance is provided by Rebecca Schweitzer as philosophy professor, Felicity, who is a big-hearted friend and oft-jolly housemate of Marks and who turns into her own model of firebrand and mover/shaker when it comes to the fight for suffrage.  As a communication bridge between the two during one of their periodic breakdowns, her Felicity is hilarious as she conveys messages from the downstairs to the upstairs.

Leontyne Mbele-Mbong & Jasmine Milan Williams
Jasmine Milan Williams places herself on the ballot for ‘best featured actress’ as she delightfully, devilishly plays undergrad Pearl who has proclaimed herself president of a fan club of a few young women at Holyoke who are rooting for the success and continuation of the relationship they see between Woolley and Marks.  As a work-study student who is assigned linens in the faculty dorm, she has discovered letters under Marks’ sheets that have led to their secret society and to her own vividly portrayed, puppy-love infatuation of Marks herself.

Ulises Alcala has dressed our principals in clothes both of the time and ahead of the time but in keeping with their vision for women and for themselves.  (Culottes or ties for the president?  Sure, why not?)  The exquisite scenic design of Nina Ball suggests ivy-covered walls and the interior of a college’s chapel while quickly opening panels and drawers in the wooden wall to allow the interiors of offices and bedrooms to appear.  The lighting of Kurt Landisman brings the dappled shadows of a tree-filled campus to mind while also sharpening the focus on moments of individual crisis or wrapping in warm hues a couple’s passion.  Lana Palmer’s sound design adds touches like low, background booms warning of impending quarrels and the playful signs of a young girl’s rocks hitting her professor’s/would-be-lover’s window.

Aurora Theatre’s staging of Bryna Turner’s Bull in a China Shop is fun, inspiring, educational, and sexy all at the same time.  But even more, the play reminds all of us whatever our sex or age or profession that having the odds supposedly stacked against us is no reason not to plow ahead if the vision of where we want to go and what we want to accomplish rings true in our soul and heart – be it a vision of social/political change, of love, or of both.

Rating: 5 E

Bull in a China Shop continues through December 8, 2019 at Aurora Theatre, 2018 Addison Street, Berkeley.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 510-843-4822.

Photo Credits: David Allen

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