The Gibson Girl: Re-drawing identity

BOSTON — “You belong simply because you are,” said Valerie, the character of an African American teenager in the play, The Gibson Girl. Valerie struggles with her self-image and sense of belonging. Only after studying the works of famous writers, such as Nikki Giovanni and Langston Hughes, did she become empowered and self-assured about her place in the world.

The theme of belonging is central in The Gibson Girl, written by Kirsten Greenidge and directed by Victoria Marsh. The play premiered at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont St., Boston, on March 14-April 5, 2008. The audience was packed with people from all sexes, ages, races, and socio-economic levels, waiting to experience the captivating message of the play.

The Gibson Girl tells the story of several people simultaneously struggling with the impossible image of what one should be in today’s society. Their struggle is characterized by the vital issues of color, class, and opportunity in the United States.Top - Brittany Lang (Win) Bottom - Nyla Wissa (Valarie) The title sets the tone for the performance. The concept of a Gibson Girl is readily identified with Charles Dana Gibson’s early 1900s illustrations, featuring an elegant woman who was fashionable, athletic, well-educated, beautiful, and caring. This image was unattainable for most women of the 1900s and still is today, due to its fixation on perfection. The play asks us to question our society’s unrealistic expectations of image and how much we will sacrifice for our own personal ideals.

The issues in the play are heavy, but are lightened by Greenidge’s strategic use of comedy.

Marsh comments that the play works so well because “it’s able to be funny at the same time that it touches you and gets you to think. You relax and then you open up…laughter is a very powerful emotion, it opens the way for all other emotions.”

The play focuses on a single mother raising twins with notably different skin colors and personalities, while going to extreme lengths to attain the image of a perfect family. One twin, Valerie, played by Nyla Wissa, rebels against her mother’s conforming image and the other, Win, goes out of her way to conform. The mother, Ruth, is so desperate for answers she turns to a $10 psychic. The absence of their father, an accomplished writer who focuses on radical ideas of the perfect African American, causes desolation and confusion, while conversely sparking immense creativity.

While Ruth struggles with her family affairs, her sister, Thelma, harasses a young man, Ladell, in a Salvation Army store. Time and time again, Thelma and Ladell meet, arguing over an item that Thelma claims is hers despite Ladell’s possession of it. Thelma bribes Ladell to join her for dinner at her cousin’s house, attempting to play matchmaker to Ruth and Ladell.

Ruth and Ladell are not the only characters experiencing new romantic relations. Ladell’s sister, Nia, has been conversing with the janitor of her apartment building, Nelson. Nelson is a complex character who has two different personalities, Nelson and Charlie. Nelson is a Caucasian male who believes that he is deeply in touch with what true African American women need because of his obsession with the twins famous father’s writing.

The entire performance is acted on a single set comprised of five permanent scenes that are transformed into other locations by the use of stationary props and lighting effects. The transformation of the stage noticeably captures the audience’s attention as they anticipate which character will be focused on next. Old school hip-hop music, such as KRS, is played throughout the transformations.

Valarie and Win dance and rap along with the hip-hop music as a way to free themselves from the constraints of their mother. The concept of music being a form of freedom and self-expression is grasped by the audience as they dance, sing, and move along with the characters. Music is just one of the ways that the audience is able to connect with the concepts featured in The Gibson Girl.

Absent fathers, broken dreams, and unattainable ideals are part of the lives of many Americans. The issues and themes discussed in the play are real and need to be addressed in order to be resolved. The Gibson Girl sets the stage for conversation.

“I hope the play sparked a number of conversations. I think the most valuable impact of any piece of art is to get people connecting with each other,” said Heather Fry, who plays the role of the psychic.

“My hope is that people would find an opportunity to talk about it. It would be a tragedy to not talk with a person different from oneself,” said J.J. Jackson, audience member and mother of Fry.

Conversation innately creates new concepts and ideas, which is precisely what Greenidge desires.

“I have had two hours to present what I think, I’d love it if audience members could trust themselves and use those moments to discuss what they think,” said Greenidge.

The Gibson Girl
possesses a unique and eccentric style, separating it from standard African American plays.

“Often times you have ‘African American plays’ about issues taking place on a stoop in the ghetto,” said Marsh. “Those issues are important, but if all plays about African Americans in the U.S. take place in that area and problem set, you are ignoring masses of other sets…you reinforce the stereotype. Kirsten’s characters are middle class and about a part of culture not often talked about. I think it’s really important for people to see they are just as much a part of society.”

In a society supposedly free of racial, sexual, and socio-economical tension and insecurity these topics may seem regurgitated, but Greenidge points out that people continue to struggle with them. She explains that these issues are still alive and thriving today and thus they need to be addressed.

“This will continue to be important until each and every last one of us believes we belong because we exist,” said Greenidge. “We are still living a long way away from that time.”

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