REVIEW: “Usual Girls”
“It never fucking stops”.
That’s the best four word summation I can think of when describing Korean-American playwright Ming Peiffer’s new play, “Usual Girls”, presented in a world premiere as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s Underground series at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre.
Hardly an indictment of length—I was thoroughly enthralled by all 90 minutes—that line reflects the blistering dramatization of rape culture that is captured by this shattering new play about one woman’s perilous journey from girlhood to womanhood under the male gaze. I cannot recall a sharper articulation of an idea—here, rape culture—through story and character than what Ms. Peiffer achieves with her play.
Set in “playgrounds, bathrooms, and basements”, in a series of quick scenes spanning the 1980s to the present, the play follows Kyeoung (a captivating Midori Francis) through adolescence to adulthood in all its awkward and painful glory. Like “Dance Nation” and “The Wolves” before it, “Usual Girls” offers a raw and honest look at life through the perspective of a young girl—this time with the added dimension of race.
If you don’t like what you see, that feeling represents recognition of the traumas we all experience but also the larger, more pernicious failure of our culture and society to address the ways in which girls and women are subjected to constant dehumanizing behavior and violence at the hands of boys and men, in addition to the persistent mistreatment and marginalization facing women of color.
“It never fucking stops.”
And yes, it starts with boys. Yes, like the play, it starts on the playground, amid an innocent game of “lava monster” that quickly turns into a taunting of Kyeoung, mocking her race and even her anatomy. And yes, no one—including those boys and men— is unscathed. Toxic masculinity is a prison for men and a threat to women, as is racism for the racist and his victim. But the focus here, rightly so, is on the female perspective.
This is the second play I’ve seen in a short while—the other being Ngozi Anwanyu’s incandescent “Good Grief”—in which adult actors, playing children, suddenly lose control of their bodies in spasmodic movement meant to suggest youth. Sure, children are less dexterous than adults, but such exaggeration is both lazy shorthand and completely unnecessary. Costumes and dialogue supply enough context for audiences to understand that adults are playing children.
Otherwise, Director Tyne Rafaeli elicits a bevy of commanding performances from the nine member ensemble cast—at times humorous, but more often heartbreaking and even horrific. Ms. Peiffer’s work is joltingly explosive and explicit, pervaded with a constant sense of tension and discomfort. It offers a vivid window into the experience of being a woman—and particularly a woman of color—in America, and the ways in which female sexual exploration and adolescence is shaped and shamed by men, and weaponized by fellow women.
“It never fucking stops.”
Bottom Line: Ming Peiffer’s shattering new play, “Usual Girls”, presented in a world premiere through Roundabout’s Underground series, offers a blistering dramatization of rape culture through the lens of one Korean-American woman’s journey from girlhood to adulthood. Raw, explicit, and joltingly explosive, this is a bold and important new play.
Black Box Theatre
Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
Roundabout Theatre Company
111 West 46th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: November 5, 2018
Final Performance: December 23, 2018
All Tickets $25