It’s a comedy, as well as a period piece of sorts, and a lesbian love story to boot. “Bull in a China Shop” has just opened at Out Front Theatre Company.
Director Susan Reid read the play when she was looking for possible productions to stage at Georgia State University, where she serves as an acting/directing professor. She fell in love with it and tried to get the rights to produce it, but was told someone else had the rights to do it locally. When she realized it was Out Front, she met with artistic director Paul Conroy and the two decided they should jointly produce the show. During this time, Reid was writing a CENCIA grant through GSU and the grant was crucial for the two parties to be able to pay for the production.
The show is inspired by the previous president of Mount Holyoke College – Mary Woolley – and her relationship with her partner Jeannette Marks that spanned from 1899 to 1937. Woolley was the president for almost 40 years and she brought her lover Marks – a teacher and writer 15 years younger – from Wesley College. During the course of their relationship, both did extensive traveling and were away from each other so they wrote a lot of love letters. According to Reid, the letters were kept and the school put them in a box and hoped no one would see them. They were brought out eventually and a book was written about the situation and an art gallery exhibit was held in conjunction with the combined letters.
Playwright Bryna Turner follows the women’s relationship, though it’s not told in a strict chronological order. “What’s so lovely is that it combines the love story part of their relationship with historically what was going on at the time and how it affected Wooley’s tenure as president. There is a lot of talk about the suffrage and there is mention of the wars that took place.”
The relationship wasn’t a secret. “People were aware of the fact,” says Reid. “Mary would walk Jeannette to her school housing and kiss her goodnight. Mary ultimately had a president’s house built and Jeannette moved in with her. So people knew. Honestly, I think the reason they asked Woolley to step down was 1937 was that the pendulum had swung and people were moving to a more conservative place. Her replacement was a family man with a child. After 100 years of the school being led by a women, the school hired a man.”
Making matters worse was that during the time, options for women were sparse. “Women during this time were marred or were teaching or were nurses,” says Reid. “That was it. The women teaching were spinsters and unmarried. That was their societal place.”
“Bull in a China Shop” is a fairly new play that was produced by the Lincoln Center black box space in 2017. It’s a very specific play, Reid says. “I went to a women’s college and what’s here isn’t archaic. Turner takes this period piece and makes it modern. There is a lot of modern language not spoken in a period way. Turner calls it a comedy but it walks a line. Some things are funny but some things are heart-wrenching too.”
Elsewhere, Out of Box Theatre has just opened the drama “We Are a Masterpiece.” Taking place as the AIDS crisis has just begun, “Masterpiece” focuses on a no-nonsense nurse who steps up to take care of gay men as they begin dying en masse. She eventually takes in an artist and becomes something of a mother figure to him.
“Bull in a China Shop”
Through Feb. 15
Out Front Theatre Company
“We Are a Masterpiece”
Through Feb. 2
Out of Box Theatre