Pity+Fear (a travesty) was the latest original show from Grapefruit Lab and in general it might be described as a darkly comedic Greek tragedy that per the press release for the production explores “what it means to be alive, to tell the truth, and to change over time.” The set was in the modest setting of the Buntport Theater with some lighting, a low stage, a ladder, reams of documents that the characters use to consult for information and little else. One immediately thinks of Samuel Beckett’s 1953 existential play Waiting for Godot with its own minimalist set and two characters engaged in witty and conversational dialog about the significance of existence as well.
The two leads for this play, Miriam Suzanne and Josie Cool (who also performed music at various points to accentuate and complement the themes of the play), use the vehicle of delving into both the fraught mythology of the Greek mythological figure Agraulos in parallel with foundational stories from their own lives. There are three myths about the death of Agraulos, all contradictory, but all of which reveal something significant about the Greek view of women and identity with one myth saying how Agraulos and one of her sisters opened a box containing the monstrous offspring of one of the gods and going insane and throwing themselves from the Acropolis (in Athens) or off a cliff; another that Agraulos sacrificed herself for the good of Athens and in the third that Agraulos stood in between Hermes and her sister and was turned to stone for her trouble. All stories that extol blind obedience and sacrifice. But Suzanne goes deep into Greek theater history and in unraveling stories that serve as the foundation of our culture and to a large extent our own identities and relationships with one another between that mythological framing and deconstruction Suzanne and Cool examine and deconstruct the seemingly arbitrary rules for how we learn and build our own identities.
What made that exploration of myth and personal anecdotes from life that included stories of figuring out confusing and emotionally traumatizing situations and others finally illuminating and life affirming so poignant and effective is that Suzanne and Cool are both trans women. Suzanne’s story about how her mother had a dream of having a boy before her brother was born and not having a dream of gender for Suzanne beautifully illustrated how we subconsciously know we can know truths about ourselves before we have the language for them. Juxtaposed with the myths that represent cultural norms that often impose identity and mores even when they serve little but ritualized tradition.
Both Cool and Suzanne made the material which could have been perceived as academic or theoretical seem immediate with an obvious gentleness and awareness of how these subjects impacted their own lives in a very real and direct way. Maybe it was a reference or a quote from another thinker but when Suzanne said “The body has little regard for theory” it hit with the ring of truth because humans often have all these ideas that they insist are the truth merely because there is a consensus of the moment based on incomplete information and stating that one point in an evolving comprehension of a matrix of interrelated phenomenon and existences is static and eternal. Science is catching up to a non-binary view of gender in DNA as a spectrum but of course that’s been a fact that theory has taken a long time to account for and thus Suzanne’s aforementioned quote seems even more relevant.
With the right wing trying to erase the existence of transfolk or trivialize that identity as a choice like what clothes to wear, a play like this bypasses that analysis and offers real insight into the nature of how we construct identity whether you’re trans or not. It challenged, without aggression, the very stories we learn and internalize from culture going back centuries and in doing so suggests a more compassionate and human way to understand the personal, familiar, societal and religious stories that inform who we are and we who can be and chart a path to embracing are true selves beyond rigid categories as everyone has multiple identities they navigate every day of their lives whether or not they are conscious of that fact. Pity+Fear (a travesty) was, beginning to end, incisive, insightful, sensitive and at keen times humorous without trivializing anyone’s struggles and challenges.