Bryna Turner Depicts Daring Lesbian Leader
by Barry David Horwitz
Under the old filagree wooden arches and overflowing ivy of a small women’s college–thanks to designer Nina Ball–we enter two women’s hurricane of ideas. At the eye of that delicious academic climate, we meet Mary Woolley and Jeanette Marks.
In 1901, before women’s rights, before gay marriage, before social security, Mary Woolley was appointed President of Mount Holyoke College, and she served until 1937. She also hired her young lesbian lover, Jeanette Marks, as a fledgling English Professor. How did she get away with it?
Well, simply, like a “bull in a china shop.” Powerful Stacy Ross embodies Woolley as an assertive, sharp-edged innovator for her time. And inspiring Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Marks is a bold, outspoken suffragette. They form a complementary couple—battling and breaking rules for decades—devoted to each other.
Yes, Jeanette sneaks over to Mary’s house, secretly every night. They aren’t a well-kept secret for long.
Mary Woolley devotes herself to turning out educated, professional women, turning the college into a leading force for women’s rights. Bryna Turner draws her stories of their lifelong partnership from recently discovered letters between the two groundbreaking women.
These letters constitute both the strength and weakness of the play. There’s some out-front storytelling that deflects the single dramatic arc. On the other hand, we find out a lot about their feelings, their lives, and the early women’s movement. Turner creates a moving docu-drama on two heroic women.
The lesbian lovers face disdain, doubt, and misogyny in fast-moving scenes about teaching, sex, and Suffragettes. Woolley held her job from 1931 to 1937, when she was finally shown the door.
In Ulises Alcala’s strikingly designed culottes, long Victorian skirts, and puffy blouses, we see how these women vanquish doubters. Woolley rolls right over rule-bound Dean Welsh (steely Mia Tagano), who doesn’t approve of her ideas.
Woolley paces in front of Scenic Designer Nina Ball’s beautiful 1900 wooden shelves and drawers that create an elegant, exclusive ivy-covered college. Ball amazes us with superb stage cabinetry that turns and slides out as a bed, a sofa, a bookcase, making her scenery as revolutionary as the ideas. Bravo to Ball for carved wood, stone floors, and Gothic tracery.
These are quite theatrical academic women. As Jeanette Marks, the extraordinary Mbele-Mbong takes daring avant-garde positions, taking to the streets for women’s suffrage. Fiery Marks chafes against living in faculty dorms, apart from her lover. But she becomes an astounding, revolutionary English teacher. They love Virginia Woolf and read Orlando, together, in bed.
In fact, the students so love their outrageous young teacher, that Pearl, a devoted student (spellbinding Jasmine Milan Williams), grabs our hearts with a long love letter recited to her teacher’s balcony. Williams’ soliloquy soars beyond the story, into rare poetic devotion.
Woolley boldly works her will on the former female seminary, making the school a hothouse for New Women. Here we have a revolutionary thinker, always at the top of her game, unbelievably witty and resourceful. Stacy Ross knows how to play top dog and have her way.
When Mary and Jeannette disagree, their fights lead to loving reconciliations. “Bull in a China Shop” lives up to its name, and shows barriers that women face. Surely an inspiration for teachers, students, and lovers, “Bull” smashes fussy rules, and opens the way for many liberations to come.
“Bull in a China Shop” by Bryana Turner, directed by Dawn Monique Williams, at Aurora Theatre, Berkeley, through Sunday, December 15, 2019. Info: auroratheatre.org
Cast: Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, Stacy Ross, Rebecca Schweitzer, Mia Tagano, and Jasmine Milan Williams.