"Put a Smile on Girl"
Philadelphia Artist tackles the issue of street harassment through theater in her new play.
It was a dreary day in Philadelphia. The sky was overcast with a whitish gray hue that contrasted the marble gray steps of Headlong Studio at 1170 S Broad Street.
I sat eagerly on said steps in anticipation for the reading of Morriah Young’s new play, “Ayoma”.
As I waited, the actors who were set to perform the piece joined me, some of whom engaged me in casual conversation.
It was from this conversation that I learned that Young is fond of serving food at her readings -a fact that both myself and my empty stomach were happy to discover.
Soon after the actors and I had finally assembled, Ms. Young arrived, determined to get started.
After some delicious chicken Alfredo, prepared by Young herself, the actors and myself filled the studio.
After entering the space, the actors immediately began to set up. Two long, wooden, fold-out tables were placed in the center of the studio. Four chairs rest behind each table- the left for female characters and the right for male characters. There was a space strategically left in between said tables that was reserved for the person reading stage directions.
Before guests arrived, the actors quickly breezed through the script to become familiarized- making the read not especially cold, but lukewarm.
The piece confronts the topic of street harassment, better known as “catcalling”, by examining the lives of four black women and how they deal with said harassment on a daily basis. When the women are at their wits end, they resort to supernatural, feminine enchantment to quell their frustrations.
During the talk back, Young explained to the guests that she was inspired to write the play after being catcalled while waiting for the trolley.
“.......Ayoma was written in a week. This is the first draft- completely untouched and completely unedited. One day I was going home from work and I was waiting for the trolley and I was basically harassed…….”
She further explained that the experience was so visceral that she had written the piece in a week, the fastest she had ever written a play.
The attendees (most of which were women) applauded Young for her vulnerability, authenticity and ability to create such fleshed out characters. Some of the guests felt like they knew the women depicted in the play- each representing different perspectives on catcalling that are embodied through distinct personalities.
Though the men were integral to the plot, Young still found a way to de-center the male point of view which ultimately better served the intentions of her play. Male voices within the play didn’t serve as any particular individual (save for the main character's boyfriend who’s named but never appears) but rather as something similar to a Greek chorus- representing a masculine voice.
As a whole the piece definitely challenged my thoughts on street harassment. Prior to the reading I thought that women should handle catcalling much like how we were taught to handle a bully- just ignore it.
Despite this long held belief, seeing how Young depicted street harassment made me realize that it is far more serious than I had imagined. Through a handful of poignant monologues, vignettes and montages, Young made it clear that this was a near, constant issue. So much so, that she even has the female cast scream in shared frustration after dealing with back-to-back harassment.
In addition to making this issue feel tangible, Young also used said montages and monologues to touch on how the issue of street harassment affects black women in particular.
During a monologue, the play’s main character Morriah, portrayed by Iman Aaliyah, vents her frustration at being harassed by men to her three friends. It is during this discussion where she reveals that she’s especially annoyed when black men participate in street harassment. She explains further that this is because black men understand more than any other race of men what it's like to be judged based off of your appearance. From there she likens the profiling of African American men by police based off of their clothing (Hoodies, baggy pants, etc...) to some of the victim blaming that takes place after or during an incident of harassment (“shouldn’t have been wearing that skimpy outfit”, “Maybe if she would have covered up more that wouldn’t have happened”, etc…).
When it comes to tackling issues like this, this is why artists like Young are important. Not only do they make art that initiates difficult conversation but they also point out issues and nuances that feminism in its more broad brush/one size fits all form tends to avoid or overlook. Intersectionality is of great importance when talking about women’s rights. Without it, the lense through which we look at women’s issues becomes narrowed.
Article and Photos by Rovelle Vialva