Review: #These Are Not Your Mother's Karens

The Karens

Written by Peter Gray

Directed and edited by Michael Alvarez

Presented by The Muse Collective via streaming

August 13-27, 2021

Morgan Danielle Day, Felicia Santiago, and LaurenSage Browning. Courtesy Emily Owens PR.
Watching the protagonists of Peter Gray's comedy The Karens market social justice as part of their personal brand strategies, it is hard not to think of Nancy Fraser's analysis in Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory (co-authored with Rahel Jaeggi) that capitalism presents differences "as consumer of lifestyle options" (186) and that what she calls "progressive neoliberalism" has appropriated emancipatory politics in order to "'diversify'" the existing meritocracy rather than "abolish social hierarchy" (Polity Press, 2018, pp. 186, 203-204). The eponymous Karens here are not the entitled middle-aged, manager-and-police-summoning white women for whom the name became a shorthand in popular discourse, but rather a diverse younger generation of extremely online Karens, the type to liberally sprinkle their conversations with the word hashtag and to take a presence on Instagram as a given. These latter Karens decide that they are going to reclaim the name by posting videos, live-streaming, and party planning their way to a better society—and maybe by selling some t-shirts or inclusive pussy hats along the way.
Morgan Danielle Day as Karen X. Courtesy Emily Owens PR
Having formed their own clique in high school, Karen X (Morgan Danielle Day), Karen Y (Felicia Santiago), and Karen Zed (LaurenSage Browning) reunite—over video chat anyway—in the summer of 2020. Amid plenty of pink and white, the overall impression is of performativity and unearned self-regard, perhaps unavoidable when self and brand are synonymous. Throughout the play, the Karens' conversations with one another are interspersed with their individual livestreams and videos, which both discretely showcases each actor and breaks up the video chat format, even bringing Karen X outdoors for a few segments. The segments also underscore what we gather from their conversations as well: while the Karens are well-intentioned, they are also not quite as good at being woke as they think they are (Karen Zed, who is white, experiences a particularly steep learning curve in one segment, which also comments on the difficulties of trying to live up to the standards of a whole internet full of strangers). At least two of the Karens, we come to find, are also relatively privileged, which introduces additional wrinkles to their public ideological personas, but all of this is also balanced by intermittent moments when something more authentic comes through.
Felicia Santiago as Karen Y. Courtesy Emily Owens PR
The Karens satirizes its central trio as exaggerated types, in the tradition, say, of Clueless and Legally Blond (and maybe adjacent to that of Three Busy Debras), but it doesn't limit their making of valid points to those moments of authenticity, even as they invite mockery (their discussion of the non-inclusivity of the pink pussy hat is both one of the funniest sections and one that ably strikes this balance). The disconnect that appears between their affect and their arguments points to the role of social media in mainstreaming emancipatory politics (though of course it does the same for the regressive and conspiratorial), gesturing to the way that merely ventriloquizing social justice terminology can lead to ineffective action, no action, or self-interested appropriation (social-justice washing?). But, with repetition, even parroting or incompetently (Karen Zed's word) putting into practice a mode of thought may eventually have some transformative effect. By the end of the play (which is surprisingly lengthy for a straight comedy), there seems little escape from the girl-boss-influencer universe that we all inhabit to the great profit of enormous tech corporations. But, as Karen Zed tells us, in a great line that doubles as a pithy metacommentary, "Satire is the sincerest form of social justice."

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards 

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