Review: "No Pants in Tucson" Illuminates Why It Matters Who Wears the Britches

No Pants in Tucson

Devised by The Anthropologists

Director/Writer: Melissa Moschitto

Lead Deviser: Mariah Freda

Presented by The Anthropologists at A.R.T./New York Theatres

502 W 53rd Street, Manhattan, NYC

November 5-14, 2021

Mariah Freda, Kian J. Johnson, April J. Barber, Marissa Joyce Stamps. Photo by Jody Christopherson
A divided country replete with attempts to legislatively prescribe and regulate people's gender expression: the United States in the 1860s or the United States in 2021? The answer is both, as No Pants in Tucson makes resoundingly clear. Making its world premiere, this comedy from The Anthropologists, who are dedicated to research-based theater that inspires action, focuses primarily on "masquerade" laws, ordinances that, for example, prohibited the wearing of 'men's' clothes by whom the state considered women, and that underwent an explosive proliferation in 19th-century America. No Pants in Tucson takes a playful, kinetic, intersectional approach to excavating and satirizing this means of maintaining dominant hierarchies of difference.

Throughout its short, titled chapters, No Pants introduces us to various figures who did not conform to the laws and expectations concerning gendered clothing—the consequences of which comprise a litany of arrests, fines, jailings, and institutionalizations. One such figure is Emma Snodgrass (Marissa Joyce Stamps), who was arrested multiple times in multiple cities in the 1850s for dressing in apparel designated male (i.e., pants and frock coats). Snodgrass possessed the funds to pay her fines, but others, the play reminds us, were not so lucky. We also hear from Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (Mariah Freda), the first woman U.S. Army surgeon and the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor, for her service during the Civil War, and who was pelted with eggs in the street and herself arrested a number of times for her sartorial transgressions; as well as Harry Allen (Kian J. Johnson), born Nell Pickerell in 1882, who reiterates here that he just wants to be let alone to live his life, a life belonging to a person and not an object of confusion, study, or sensationalism.
Mariah Freda, Kian J. Johnson, Marissa Joyce Stamps. Photo by Jody Christopherson
The historical record is dominated by white stories and filtered through state and media organs, so these persons mentioned so far are, perhaps unsurprisingly, white, but No Pants balances these stories with, for instance, examples of Black women who voted dressed as men and a conversation between Alice Wilson (April J. Barber) and Mary Carter (Marissa Joyce Stamps), caught in a speakeasy dressed in 'men's' clothing, that touches on racist hierarchies of acceptable female bodies and the disempowering effects of even white women's prescribed clothing. More than one of the persons in the play has a problematic encounter with the medical establishment, another direct line to ongoing contemporary struggles. And No Pants additionally brings us right up to the present day through corporate dress codes and a cuttingly funny segment on SCOTUS debates over how the way someone looks affects what bathroom they can use.

No Pants presents its era-spanning vignettes on a bare stage with lighting elements that use the same hoop skirt cages—yes, the actual term is that on the nose—worn by some of the performers. It makes some striking use of colored backlighting at various points and uses dance for the lively exposition of different ordinances (some, it must be pointed out, from the 1960s!). The performance is a true ensemble piece, with the talented, energetic cast afforded individual moments in the spotlight while working as a seamless whole.
Mariah Freda, April J. Barber, Marissa Joyce Stamps. Photo by Jody Christopherson
The Anthropologists make sure to highlight the variety of reasons that women and gender non-conforming people wore men's clothes, a decision that might be linked not only to a sense of self or freedom but also to practicality, employment, and cost. The play also underscores, especially in its final segments, how laws related to dress (along with the kind of legislation that ends up on listicles of "funny" laws) are merely different facets of the same patriarchal machinery, all part of a nexus of control over women's and queer bodies. Pants themselves, we see, can become gendered: the apparatus of oppression and control always adjusts to resist progress that challenges its hegemony. Near the end of the play, the audience might feel vicarious relief when the performers finally shed their hoop skirt cages, but the search for freedom and bodily autonomy—associated, ironically, in the American imaginary with westward movement to places such as Tucson—collides with the seemingly eternal return of "not yet."

"Not yet," however, can also serve as a spur to continue the intersecting struggles with which No Pants in Tucson engages. For those who want to learn more, some historical context is provided on screens outside the theater, and the extensive electronic program includes, among other information, a selected bibliography of works consulted in research for and/or quoted in the play and a link to a recording of a conversation with reproductive and transgender rights experts. No Pants in Tucson brings increasingly unrestrained humor and sparkle to its subject without in any way diminishing that subject's history of widespread cruelties and individual courage—a potent, tremendously entertaining mixture.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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