What do you mean when you call for female? This is one of many questions explored in Collaboraction’s new devised work, Gender Breakdown, which explores the baffling absence of gender parity in Chicago theatre in 2017. Using data from a study conducted by Kay Kron, as well as interviews with over two hundred people of various genders, Gender Breakdown is a smart, funny, moving plea for equality by women who are tired of pleading for equality.
The tricky part about gender equality is that if it if to be effective, it cannot apply exclusively to gender. The intersections of other identities—race, immigrant status, sexual orientation, age, class, and ability, to name a few—inevitably influence the effects of gender in the world, and Gender Breakdown does not ignore this fact. With a diverse cast of women of various backgrounds, Gender Breakdown features a wider snapshot of the demographics of oppression than simply “woman.” Still, the performers acknowledge in the course of the show that even theirs is an incomplete picture of gender and identity in Chicago—the play does not feature any trans performers, for example.
Even with some voices missing, though, Gender Breakdown’s cast is more diverse than any show I’ve seen in recent memory, and therein lies the point.
Gender Breakdown draws from the real-life experiences of the performers and of other folks interviewed as part of Kron’s research. Audio clips from the interviews preface each section of the performance, and many parts of the show are recreations of real-life experiences—for example, one section involves readings of real casting calls for women, shedding light on the absurd things asked of female performers (like playing a character who interviews politicians while wearing a bikini) and the stereotypes into which women, and women of color in particular, are pigeonholed.
Moments like these are funny, but the play has its chilling moments, too. Kamille Dawkins performs a bit about playing the love interest (something she’s told she cannot do, presumably because of her race) that starts out bubbly and cute and becomes horrifying as her actions change and she repeats the question “does he love me now?” At various times the actors confess “secrets” to the audience. At one point, as part of a bit in which the women dispense audition advice to one another, Katie Hawbaker-Krohn looked me in the eye, an expression of sincere concern on her face, and said “hey. Don’t work with him.” The worst part? That fictional setting is not the only place I’ve been told that.
Gender sometimes seems like a tired topic in today’s world. When we look at the treatment of women in our country a hundred years ago, it’s easy to dismiss current complaints about gender inequality—women can vote now, after all, and get divorces and own property. And maybe it feels like there are bigger issues to tackle—the many horrifying events of the Trump presidency, for example. But inequality does not exist in disparate parts, and the folks at Collaboraction have made an important choice in amplifying the voices of marginalized women in theatre.
Gender Breakdown is an honest and necessary play. The women who developed and perform the show are interesting, talented people, and spending a night with them, even a night talking about something as unpleasant as inequality, is as delightful as it is moving. No single performance can ever capture the entirety of something as complex as gender in theatre, but Collaboraction’s Gender Breakdown manages to capture a good-size cross-section and does so with a sincerity and vulnerability that makes it deeply compelling. Folks of any gender would be well-served in going to see this show.
Location: The Vault at Collaboraction Studios in the Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave
Dates: February 22 – March 19, 2017
Times: Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m.
Industry Town Halls are Monday, February 27 and March 13 at 7:30 p.m. The March 13 post-show panel features Kay Kron, Willa Taylor of the Goodman Theatre and more guests TBA.
Tickets: Single tickets to performances are $20-30; $10-$15 for students, educators and industry.
For tickets and information, visit the Collaboraction website or call (312) 226-9633.
All photos by Anna Sodziak.