School drama programs can help young people have formative experiences and cultivate a love for the arts as they make authentic connections to content and generate new understandings of the world. School drama programs can also be rigorous creative spaces, where teachers and students approach productions critically and create theatrical work that moves us closer to the world we hope to see. These productions can offer diverse, responsible representations of race, culture, gender and sexuality that both resonate with young people and expand their experiences. When searching for plays of such depth and resonance with young people, school theatre teachers should pay particular attention to the canon of feminist TYA plays.
What is a feminist TYA play? My research and conversations with friends and colleagues have not yielded a definitive definition, which speaks to our need for continued dialogue around this topic. Here’s where I’ve landed for the moment: Just like the characters it seeks to portray, a feminist play is such because of its layers and nuances. It doesn’t just pass the Bechdel Test, meaning two named women talk to each other about something other than a man. It isn’t always written by a woman. It isn’t necessarily explicitly about feminism nor does it always have a female protagonist. It does have strong female characters.
What is a “strong female character?” In “What Is a Feminist Play, Anyway?: Getting Specific,” Catherine Castellani explains that women in feminist plays are not always the most moral and upstanding. These women can make poor decisions and sacrifices. These women can be flawed. What makes them strong is that they are whole, exhibiting the full range of human experience and standing alone as characters. Therefore, a feminist TYA play is one that centers young people and includes holistic representations of women (and all genders for that matter).
Students that participate in the traditional education system are in school throughout their entire childhoods (as we define childhood legally). During this formative time, they learn about themselves and their identities. They discover how to “stand alone.” It is schools’ responsibility to offer students tools and guidance as they claim their autonomy. While young people are in school, they should have opportunities to study theatre that helps them explore and process those years of their lives. When young people study feminist TYA plays in particular, they disrupt gender stereotypes as they investigate layered, holistic young characters. They also participate in an aspirational world in which all genders are acknowledged as equals. The more they participate in this imagining, the more they move society closer to it.
Two of my favorite forward-thinking feminist TYA plays may not be the most obvious choices. This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing is written by a male playwright, Finegan Kruckemeyer. Anon(ymous) by Naomi Iizuka has a male protagonist. However, both depict women with rich layers and distinct personalities. I offer these particular examples so that school drama teachers and the TYA field more broadly may expand their view of what a feminist TYA play is.
Finegan Kruckemeyer’s This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing centers three sisters whose father abandons them at a young age. The title alone reflects the singularity of each woman, who respond to this trauma in different ways; Albienne laughs, Beatrix cries and Carmen does nothing. They each embark on different life paths with conviction and their journeys are defined by their choices and their choices alone. Albienne decides to move forward and becomes a warrior and a protector. Beatrix decides to travel backwards and becomes a word explorer and a celebrity that is idolized by her fans. Carmen stays where she is and builds a home for herself, which she opens to others in need. These women are resilient, skilled and capable. Albienne galvanizes armies and leads them to victories. To cross the ocean, Beatrix fashions a ship from a lighthouse. Carmen builds a home in the woods from scratch. Though men sometimes bring them happiness – for instance, Carmen finds a partner named Peter and they start a family – their happiness and self-worth is never defined by men.
A play does not have to explicitly center women to represent them holistically. The protagonist of Naomi Iizuka’s Anon(ymous) is a young man named Anon, but is filled with deep, powerful women that are essential to his coming of age. Anon’s mother Nemasani survives a shipwreck and endures sweatshop labor. She craftily thwarts the advances of her maniacal boss by promising to marry him when she finishes sewing a shroud for her son, which she unstitches at the end of each day. The character Ritu comes from a war-torn country, runs a restaurant with her blind husband and supports her young daughter. A goddess named Naja helps Anon begin his journey back to his mother. Each woman is strong and complex, and her identity stands on its own.
These are only two feminist TYA plays of many. I hope that school theatre teachers seek out more feminist TYA for their programs so students can connect to content, celebrate their wholeness as human beings and support gender equality. I also hope that more playwrights and theaters create new works that expand both the canon and our definition of feminist TYA. The more that young people engage in theatrical narratives where all genders are equal, the more we might see this become a reality.