REVIEW: Hook & Eye’s “She-She-She”
Abigail Adams famously implored her husband to “remember the ladies” in America’s fight for independence. A little more than 150 years later, in the throes of the Great Depression, Eleanor Roosevelt picked up that mantle, pushing her husband to create “She-She-She” camps to put unemployed women to work at our nation’s parks as a counterpart to the New Deal’s male-only Civilian Conservation Corps created by Congress.
It’s hard to imagine now, but the federal government once funded the creation of over 90 racially-integrated camps across the country that hosted over 8,500 poor, young women between 1933 and 1937; each woman received $5 a month in exchange for work on forestation, conservation, and beautification projects, in addition to educational programming and the secure promise of housing and food, all premised upon an ideology of female empowerment and love and respect for nature.
Founded in 2010, Hook & Eye Theater’s fourth collaborative play “She-She-She”—crowd-funded for a limited run at the Mark O'Donnell Theater at The Actors Fund Arts Center in Brooklyn that ended on June 2nd—examines the experience and legacy of She-She-She campers and their contemporary descendants, set against a larger dialogue about female agency, grief, trauma, and isolation.
An ensemble piece written by Cynthia Babak and directed by Chad Lindsey (both of whom also perform in the play) in development since 2015 as a collective effort, “She-She-She” explores the interactions among six women, three in the present and three in the 1930s, on the grounds of Bear Mountain State Park in New York’s Hudson River Valley, home to Camp Tera, the most famous of the She-She-She Camps once visited by both Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt.
In the present we meet Jolene (Emily Kunkel), a young widow from rural Kentucky, Ani (Cynthia Babak), a middle-aged mother and recent divorcee battling cancer, and Tria (Nylda Ria Mark), a Ph.D. on the verge of marriage debating a future in academia or the private sector; in the past we meet their ancestors, Maureen (Elizabeth London), an agitated, closeted lesbian from Appalachia who is in an unhappy marriage, Rivka (Carrie Heitman), an enterprising immigrant from the USSR who gave up a daughter for adoption, and Cornelia (Asia Mark), an unmarried African American pregnant with a white man’s baby.
A series of comic and heartfelt vignettes weave together the stories of these women in unexpected ways, as they are chaperoned and guided by a trio of Park Rangers all named “Pete” (Chad Lindsey, Javan Nelson, and Jeremy Rafal). Eleanor Roosevelt makes multiple appearances, as does Pauli Murray, a trailblazing black activist of the 1930s who briefly attended Camp Tera and forged a friendship with the First Lady as they sparred over questions of equality and progress. Song and dance breaks and dream sequences complete the fantasia, itself a moving meditation on the powerful sustenance of nature and the importance of sisterhood.
With equal parts wit and heart, “She-She-She” lives Hook & Eye’s mission of interrogating ideas through the creation of theatre “filled with history, myth, and science”. Of all mediums of performance, only in the theatre can ideas truly take centerstage, free from the rigid constriction of form and benefitting from the cradle of collective imagination.
Performed with a playful lack of self-consciousness that is refreshing and endearing, “She-She-She” is often messy but in the best of ways, daring to break free of convention to allow stories to be told as discovered and devised, rather than shoehorned into familiar form. The play does feel incomplete and episodic, but the approach to it makes for an evening full of surprises that offers a welcomed, complacency-challenging reminder that theatre can be and do anything. While this production has closed, be sure to put Hook & Eye Theater on your radar.