Review: The Multiplicity of (the) "Matriarch"

Matriarch

Written by Jesse Bliss, Sigrid Gilmer, Sheila Govindarajan, Tamar Halpern, Taylor Lytle, Roger Q. Mason, and Diane Rodriguez

Created and directed by Jesse Bliss

Presented by The Roots and Wings Project and Houston Coalition Against Hate via streaming

October 8-30, 2021

Bahni Turpin in Remember This. Courtesy Emily Owens PR
This past weekend's nationwide marches for reproductive justice represent only one of the more visible signs of the fraught position of women living under patriarchy and its intersections with and support of other oppressive hierarchies. Co-presented by California-based theater company The Roots and Wings Project (RAW) and the Houston Coalition Against Hate (HCAH), Matriarch brings together a selection of short single-actor works that create a probing, polyvocal tapestry of life and lives in our heteropatriarchal nation. Pre-recorded from live performances at the MKM Cultural Arts Center in Los Angeles, Matriarch will stream online, with its premiere on October 8th at 6pm CT/7pm ET/4pm PT followed immediately by a live panel discussion. The discussion will be moderated by HCAH Executive Director Marjorie Joseph and will feature Jesse Bliss, founder and Artistic Director of The Roots and Wings Project, and local domestic violence prevention advocates including Dr. Nusrat Ameen (Senior Director of Legal Services for Daya) and Barbie Brashear (Executive Director of the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council). Audience members can register here for the October 8th livestream, which will be available on HCAH’s Facebook page and on YouTube. The performance and panel conversation will also be streamed online for free on The Roots and Wings Project’s Facebook Page, from October 15th to 30th, Friday and Saturday at 7pm CT/8pm ET/5pm PT.

Cristina Frias in The Truth About Perfecta. Courtesy Emily Owens PR
Matriarch 
opens with the roar of Jesse Bliss's Lioness, in which a woman, played by Bliss, issues a blisteringly astute, funny, and profane rebuttal to an implied offscreen critic of her "openly" breastfeeding in a car. And while such an opening may seem as if it is setting up a program of straightforwardly "empowering" works, what follows ends up more complicated and thorny than that. After a primarily sung interlude written and performed by Sheila Govindarajan, Matriarch presents Diane Rodriguez's The Truth About Perfecta, in which the titular character (Cristina Frias) takes her children (desgraciados, in her view) to task in a way that is inextricable from her love for them before admonishing the wider world in turn for making assumptions about her way of being in it. By the end, as mythic overtones creep in even as Frias deftly weaves moments of humor into her performance, Perfecta deconstructs binaries and reconstructs them as duality.

Morgan Day in The Formula. Courtesy Emily Owens PR
Next up is Gabriel's Monologue, an excerpt from Memorial, by Tamar Halper, in which a man named Gabriel (Gabriel Diamond) delivers a eulogy for his mother (an artist and writer whose independence when it comes to romantic partnership creates an interesting echo of Perfecta). The hindsight that Gabriel applies to the long arc of his relationship with his mother is sometimes melancholy, sometimes painful, and sometimes affirming, and Diamond's gracefully naturalistic turn not only ably negotiates these nuances in mood but also provides a climactic, dialogue-free discharge of emotion accompanied by a remix of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good," a neat symbol of generational admixture and inheritance. The version of writer and activist Taylor Lytle who speaks Lytle's The Formula, which inserts stretches of spoken-word poetry into its monologue, also admires her mother but, unlike Gabriel, does not have a lifetime of maternal memories to pore over, having entered a foster system characterized by abuse, secrecy, and injustice. Played by Morgan Danielle, Lytle, an organizer with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, excoriates through her own narrative not only the same failings in the nation's failed, inhumane system of mass incarceration but also the criminalization of women of color even before any involvement with that system. Not content to merely delineate such problems, however strikingly, The Formula ends by calling on the audience to help uplift someone who is suffering.

Ramy El-Etreby in Age, Sex, Location. Courtesy Emily Owens PR
Matriarch closes its strong lineup with a pair of standout pieces. In Sigrid Gilmer's Remember This, a dying woman named Margaret (an excellent Bahni Turpin) talks to her daughter, Angela, for what she knows will be either the penultimate or final time, depending on whether Angela decides to return later. Seated and enveloped in voluminous skirts and a wrap, Margaret talks about regrets and taking ownership of her story, and she passes on advice gleaned from her experience to Angela. This advice does not quite conform to heteronormative expectations—the wonderfully phrased "weight…[of] biology and convention" comes up along the way—and gets to the heart of both familial and social questions about women's lives. Finally, the rawly funny Age, Sex, Location, written by Roger Q. Mason, shifts us back to the child's viewpoint, as one person (Ramy El-Etreby, in colorblind casting and great heels) recalls their relationship with their friend Jared, including bonding over a shared love of Ella Fitzgerald and 1940s women's fashion. The reaction of their parents and the medical establishment to their queerness is less than supportive and propels them onto the (dial-up) internet for answers.

Matriarch's medley of perspectives, experiences, and voices shares enough commonalities to produce fruitful echoes and juxtapositions throughout the production without coming to any easy consensus about the themes at hand. Periodically provocative and always entertaining, the pieces of Matriarch add up to 90 memorable minutes.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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