Political theater is tricky. What can a play do that a good documentary—or even a late-night TV show monologue—can’t? Put a right-wing Donald Trump voter and a pussy-hatted protester onstage together to talk thorny social issues and you’ll soon find out.
That’s what writer-director Chris Henry does in her new production, Women on Fire: Stories From the Frontlines, a fictionalized but research-based night of monologues that span the current ideological spectrum. Women on Fire assembles a mosaic of urgent female energy in chaotic times. Henry, a founder of Royal Family Productions, presents the piece (with dance choreography by Lorna Ventura) with a starry rotating cast that includes Penny Fuller, Rosa Arredondo, Stephanie Jae Park, and many others. What Should We Do?! got on the phone with Henry to find out what sparked this theatrical bonfire.
What Should We Do?!: What inspired Women on Fire?
Chris Henry: When Trump was elected, I was surprised. Shocked and surprised. I got more and more upset that somebody who could say, “grab ’em by the pussy” could get elected. And women voted for him. It was physically upsetting, like crying and waking. Then it kept getting worse. When they tried to ban press from the White House briefing room, I said to my partner, Lars, “If this doesn’t stop, I’m going to go to the White House and set myself on fire.” And he turned to me and said, “Do you think there’s something more productive that you can do other than self-immolation?” And that was the beginning. I realized what I had to do: Understand why people voted for Trump.
“Do you think there’s something more productive that you can do other than self-immolation?”
WSWD: Then what happened?
Henry: I started talking, really started talking, to people. There’s a woman whom I’m good friends with, a Latina, and she said, “White women need to shut the fuck up already with #MeToo. This is what we’re going to worry about? Some guy touching our ass? Why are we not worrying about better pay? Or better schools?” Then a woman who does my eyebrows, a Muslim woman, told me how she actually got justice after being sexually assaulted.
WSWD: Justice within the Muslim community?
Henry: In the American community. She’s an immigrant from Bangladesh. She was harassed in her salon. The manager didn’t do anything about it. So she fought the guy off. They went to the police, and the man and the manager were arrested. They were put in jail. She got counseling. We have to remember that there is also justice.
WSWD: Who else did you talk to?
Henry: I talked to women of color. I don’t want to tell a woman of color’s story without her permission. I am not co-opting. I try to listen to women of color and hear what they’re saying. Those are the people we need to listen to, in my opinion. I watched the Bill Cosby conviction with one woman and I recount her reaction to it, which was, “He was like my dad.” That was such a sad day. And then the super pro-Trump person from my hometown in Maine. I let her talk. I don’t interrupt. I frame it, because I’m a writer. There’s another monologue inspired by my friend Carmen. She was the daughter of Castro’s former Speaker of the House. She talks about how they escaped. She came to this country, and they rebuilt. She talks about how Castro tried to kill her father. How many of her friends were killed. She talks about Che Guevara: The idea of people wearing Guevara shirts is, for her, like wearing Adolf Hitler T-shirts. Why is that OK?
WSWD: Since you set out to understand women who voted for Trump, how have your political views changed in creating the piece?
Henry: I think my eyes have opened up a little more to how it’s so systemic. First of all, I’m a white woman; I have privilege. We need to listen to the Trump supporters to a certain degree and find what part of their truth is true. There’s a character in the show who isn’t often around people of color, so she thinks that society is fair. She doesn’t understand that things aren’t actually fair for people. That’s where she comes from. That’s OK. I mean, it’s not OK, but you can start to understand her.
WSWD: It sounds like you found strength in listening. Sometimes in terms of political statements in art, some of the most powerful work is being done by people of color in pop music—like Kendrick Lamar or Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and recently “This Is America” by Childish Gambino.
Henry: Oh, my God! It’s amazing, that video. I was like, that’s how I want the play to end. It has to be like that. But it’s not that. We do that a little bit in the play, too, but that part I don’t want to tell you. I pull the rug out from under people all the time.
Chris Henry’s Faves…in a NY Minute
Community Food & Juice.
Place to take out-of-town guests?
Women on Fire: Stories From the Frontlines
Royal Family Performing Arts Space
145 West 46th Street (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues), Midtown
Friday, May 18–Monday, May 21