Washington’s second Women’s Voices Theater Festival is a winner simply because it exists again as a needed surge of work. As it was during the first festival in 2015, this is a parity project, and a plain numbers game: American theater continues to produce far more new works by men than by women. Washington is the only major city not only noticing the disparity, but trying to change it.
“Let’s hope it keeps coming back,” Laura Collins-Hughes recently wrote in the New York Times in a marker of the attention the festival is generating, “with sustained focus and tenacious commitment, until it isn’t needed anymore.”
Amen. But Washington can’t solve the country’s problems. When are other cities going to step up?
Meanwhile: Collaborating on this scale can be dicey, of course, and D.C.’s companies — with Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, Round House Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Signature Theatre, Studio Theatre and Woolly Mammoth as originators and prime movers — are still working on getting it right. The guidance was tightened this time so that the final slate included 24 shows, not the overwhelming 50 or so of the radically inclusive first iteration. On the other hand, the definition of “new” was loosened for this more consistently professional round. Instead of only premieres, second and third productions were also allowed.
So of course this collection feels less risky, and it’s no surprise that the most polished shows have featured road-tested scripts. Moira Buffini’s comic Thatcher vs. Elizabeth “Handbagged” at Round House and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s seeds-of-American-democracy drama “Jefferson’s Garden” at Ford’s already fared well in Britain. Woolly pivoted from Sheila Callaghan’s crazily subversive “Women Laughing Alone with Salad” during the first festival to Danai Gurira’s easy-to-love comedy “Familiar” now.
That’s not to knock this year’s shiniest work. Of course, “Handbagged,” “Familiar” and Sarah DeLappe’s girls’ soccer team drama “The Wolves” (at Studio Theatre) need to be seen, and are thoroughly recommended. (I’ve seen all 24 shows except Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew” at Baltimore Center Stage, which I caught last fall at Studio.) And having Theresa Rebeck premiere her splashy money comedy “The Way of the World” at Folger Theatre begins to correct a long local oversight of Rebeck’s gimlet-eyed work.
But except for Heather Raffo’s big Iraqis-adrift-in-Manhattan “Noura” and small experiments such as Brave Spirit Productions’ group-devised gender and gentrification exercise “The Trojan Women Project,” the festival isn’t as freewheeling. Sadly, for a town with a proven audience for musicals (at least the broad comedies and chestnuts), there are no musicals on the roster. Even Signature Theatre, the city’s song-and-dance leader, opted for Annalisa Dias’s Guantanamo drama, “4,380 Nights.”
There are 13 premieres, and the rate of foul tips has been high. Arena Stage was right to champion Mary Kathryn Nagle, the lawyer-Cherokee Nation citizen-playwright of “Sovereignty.” Nagle has emerged as one of the festival’s most articulate voices, but the play itself — about the disturbing history and ongoing legal dilemma of Native American jurisdictional rights on tribal land — sagged under the weight of volumes of announced information. It didn’t seem ready.
The most rewarding premieres have been “Noura” and Caleen Sinnette Jennings’s buoyant solo play “Queens Girl in Africa,” the follow-up to her semi-autobiographical “Queens Girl in the World.”
The upside of taking chances is that I now count myself a Nagle fan eager to see her next play (“Manahatta” is slated soon for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Manhattan’s Public Theater.) I’m hoping “Sovereignty” gets another crack at bringing audiences its legally rigorous mash-up of past and present. Still, the palpable lack of breakout discoveries raises questions about the city’s literary muscle — the ability to identify and develop top scripts.
Should the festival be curated? Reportedly, the organizers are already asking themselves that.
But this kind of Darwinian ranking, inevitable as it is, illustrates the poison of the bias that got us here in the first place. It’s not fair to relegate women to roughly one-fifth of new productions across the country and then judge harshly when scripts are finally put on stage en masse. Premieres are always challenging — plays need audiences — and these shows can’t be expected to succeed at a higher than normal rate. In January, Nagle told me that some writers already spoke of feeling like crabs in a bucket, inevitably fated to drag each other down.
Would that be mitigated if this felt more like a festive festival? The presence around town is oddly understated. The project needs a face. Rebeck, Jennings and Nagle have been strong voices, and Allison Janney is the honorary spokeswoman in promotional material. But the role calls for someone here with ongoing skin in the game.
The venture also needs a sponsor. Major marketing funds last time came from the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities, but no such money was available this time around. It’s too early to know whether audiences are being built and are crossing over from troupe to troupe; several big shows have just opened, and many continue into March. As late as January, the festival’s marketing said the end date was Feb. 15 — which was never right — and in many reports that has stuck. Surely theater people can figure out how to make a bold entrance and hold the city’s gaze.
All this goes into the file for making it better next time, for there is already talk about a next time, whether the theme is women’s voices or something new. You have to root for it: The theaters can only get better at collaborating, and there are still a lot of doors to open.
Collectively, the playmaking has been a strikingly rangy chorus — characters from England, Iraq, Guyana, Zimbabwe, Korea, Algeria, Nigeria, Romania and the Cherokee Nation raised comically and dramatically during this hotly contested moment, questioning culture, power and the American project again and again. It shows what the ongoing bias has been shutting down.
“I think maybe women are interested in historical consequences, as opposed to discrete periods of history,” Wertenbaker said last month. Thanks to an extraordinary effort that still needs to be made, ambitious and even splendid examples are now on stage all over town.
Three to see:
“Handbagged,” by Moira Buffini, at Round House Theatre through March 3.
“Familiar,” by Danai Gurira, at Woolly Mammoth through March 11.
“Noura,” by Heather Raffo, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company through March 11.
Note: An earlier version of this story said that the play “Familiar” would run through March 4. It has been extended to March 11.