Review: The Neo-Political Cowgirls Rustle Up a Medley of Female-Identifying Talent for Their Annual Gala

 Andromeda's Sisters: An Arts & Advocacy Forum

Written, choreographed, and directed by various artists

Presented by The Neo-Political Cowgirls via Musae and Zoom

August 14, 2020

Kate Mueth. Image courtesy Emily Owens PR
On August 14th, not-for-profit dance theater company The Neo-Political Cowgirls (NPC) held the first part of its fourth annual fundraising gala, Andromeda's Sisters: An Arts & Advocacy Forum, virtually, presenting a series of monologues and dance pieces created by female-identifying artists. NPC and its gala are dedicated to, as Founding Artistic Director Kate Mueth said, the need to protect and amplify women's creative voices. One need look no further than this past week's attempts to label Kamala Harris "mean" and "nasty" (a tactic that may sound familiar) because of having displayed insufficient deference to powerful men for an example of the way that patriarchy continues to work to police gender roles and to silence women and thus of the continued urgency of the work and goals of NPC.

The virtual waiting room for the event featured music by Long Island artist Nancy Atlas, after which Mueth introduced the evening's program, speaking to the way that the pandemic has relocated theatrical expression into a space that is not quite theater and not quite film, and of the challenges posed in putting the gala together by problems with technology, tropical storms, and at-home filming. Mueth dedicated the night to the women of Poland, whose government plans to withdraw from an international treaty intended to prevent violence against women, as well as to women of color, Indigenous women, and victims of and those threatened by global femicide. Transitioning into the night's performances, a short video summarized NPC's mission and 13-year history, including dance, poetry, and site-specific, devised theater productions, and its multiple arts education outreach programs.
Sila!, an excerpt from Vanessa Walters's Ripening. Image courtesy Emily Owens PR
The performances opened with Sila!, a dance piece choreographed by Vanessa Walters and featuring music by A Tribe Called Red that is part of Ripening, an ongoing canon of work exploring aspects of our relationship to time. In Sila!, five women dance opposite one man with a shield and horned mask, the ancient Greek look of his costume creating a symbolic contrast with the prints of the women's costumes, along with their occasional visceral cries. His stasis additionally contrasts with the women's powerful movements, which resolve into a softer communality at the end of the piece. Shot in Queens, Sila! is part of the upcoming virtual reality performance experience Ancient Fury, and you can visit Salon des Sauvages for more.
Ellen Dolan in MAD. Image courtesy Emily Owens PR
Playwright Lynn Grossman's Bitch, up next, offers a monologue by a female-identifying character four months into the pandemic: that character just happens to have four legs and a tail. Dynamically embodied by Welker White, she chastises her guardian to overcome his inertia and take responsibility for his "own shit," and she contemplates her own aging and the inequality in their relationship. As the title punningly implies, the canine and human here are humorously but suggestively analogous. Shifting to a different kind of family dynamic, MAD, directed by Kate Mueth, comprises two short monologues from Sarah Bierstock's in-process play originally titled Mothers and Daughters. Grandma and Mom (a.k.a. Karen), not usually doubled parts but both played expressively here by Ellen Dolan, successively provide a glimpse into their personal and family lives just before Christmas. Grandma discusses raising her children in the same house that she herself grew up and lived her entire life in, and her daughter Karen moving back home with her own daughters after a breakup. The second monologue finds an anxious Mom on the phone with the father of her children in anticipation of the family's being reunited for the holiday. In its brief time, MAD deftly limns the loves, worries, and struggles of these two women as individuals, parents, and children. In My Dreams, a short film adaptation of writer and artist Mia Funk's short story of the same name, shifts in a less naturalistic direction, as its female speaker ponders the possible disjunction between her relationship as conceived in her dreams and as it exists in reality (there are perhaps some interesting parallels to be drawn with Bitch regarding defining and advocating for one's desires). The film, created and performed by Funk, is appropriately dreamy, its deliberate and meditative atmosphere complementing the poetic gracefulness of the writing. 
Laura Gomez in A Brown Girls' Guide to Self Pleasure
The next two pieces both came from a play by Dipti Bramhandkar consisting of 13 monologues. A Brown Girls' Guide to Self Pleasure, showcasing one of the night's best performances, a nuanced and compelling turn by Laura Gomez, recounts a married woman in her late 30s discovering masturbation for the first time, asserting her right to her own pleasure. In The Funeral, with another standout performance in Florencia Lozano's multilayered, emotionally genuine portrayal, another married woman processes the death of her married lover and their long history together. Inspired by the story of man's several wives and mistresses attending his funeral, this monologue forces the uninvited lover merely to imagine the event—as she says, death is intimate, but funerals are public. Both of Bramhandkar's evocative monologues excel at economically conjuring the sense of rich, authentic inner lives and personal histories for these women.
Doll Dance, an excerpt from Vanessa Walters's Ripening. Image courtesy Emily Owens PR
The second dance piece by Vanessa Walters, Doll Dance, marked an approximate halfway point in the program. Also from Ripening, this excerpt from Ripening/Yield (you can watch the full 28-minute short film here), set to original music, presents a quartet of female dancers with the curly hair and short frilly dresses of dolls performing in a dim, attic-like space. Their movements often display a clockwork or marionette quality, but this quality, potentially symbolic of gendered expectations, is disrupted and subverted by more organic touches like a sideways glance, some scratching, or a lifting of skirts. The "dolls" cover a substantial age range, but as a group, they also gesture towards our culture's ubiquitous association of childishness and sexuality, countered perhaps by their loud, powerful movements at the end of the piece. With its slightly eerie aesthetic and intriguing subtexts, Doll Dance is a memorable creation.
Nehassaiu DeGannes in 1000 Miles. Image courtesy Emily Owens PR
1000 Miles, written by Tanya Everett and directed by Raz Golden, returned us to the realm of monologues. The speaker of 1000 Miles (Nehassaiu DeGannes) interrogates, with scotch in hand, the circulation and veneration of images of performing what she characterizes as ridiculous feats to prove love, and whether such a thing can be proven in the first place. DeGannes is terrific, sharp and funny, as her character takes on prevailing relationship models and articulates her own alternative. Lucy Boyle's Goody Garlick, from an in-process piece inspired by an actual witch trial that took place in East Hampton in 1657, similarly questions dominant norms. The scene finds Goody Garlick (the wonderful Blythe Danner) commiserating with her friend, Goody Louisa Birdsall (an offscreen Boyle), after being charged with witchcraft, primarily because of the postpartum death of the 16 year-old of a wealthy landowner and with the help of a not insignificant portion of elderberry wine. Among other observations, Garlick bitingly wishes that she actually were a witch so that she might enjoy some of what women's labor and place in the community denies them. 
Blythe Danner in Goody Garlick. Image courtesy Emily Owens PR
Where Are You At?, written by Joy Behar, brings us back to the present, but it too deals with the compromises necessitated by a woman's labor. The piece's title becomes the refrain of a woman, played with engrossing naturalism and humor by Catherine Curtin, whose husband keeps going out late, supposedly for work. Eventually, she discovers the truth, and she must consider not only their marriage but also her own career in what she does next. To close the program, Kate Mueth introduced writer, activist, and professor June Jordan's 1980 "Poem About My Rights," given a powerful reading by actress Portia (you can read the poem here in the portfolio under "more..."). The core of Jordan's poem is that her speaker does not have sovereignty over her own body because of her sex, age, and race, and this subject position gains metaphoric resonances as she ranges through contexts from colonial expansionism to her relationship with her own parents. This potent reminder of the importance of intersectionality was followed by a live Q&A on Zoom, moderated by director, producer, and founder of Black Henna Productions and Theatre Beyond Broadway Malini Singh McDonald, with many of the night's playwrights, creators, and performers in which they addressed concerns such as what action looks like beyond the artist's words on the page, recording and making space for women's stories, and how theater can better drive community action.

For the first part of Andromeda's Sisters, The Neo-Political Cowgirls assembled an impressive testament to the rich diversity of female-identifying artistic voices and a trenchant reminder of the ongoing need to cultivate and champion those voices. The second part will take place, again virtually, on September 3rd and will focus on the advocacy portion of arts and advocacy. Participants will include journalist Dahlia Lithwick; Amy Spitalnick of Integrity First for America; litigator Roberta Kaplan; and Kerry Kennedy of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the NPC website. And, as always, remember, women's rights are human rights.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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