The talkback after Erlina Ortiz's She Wore Those Shoes at Power Street Theatre Company was moderated by a representative from WOAR (Women Organized Against Rape), and it was where Power Street's collective really came to life. I'm not the only one who felt that way. A man in the front row, a veteran, raised his hand and commented, “Women are just as vital to the military as men. Thank you for bringing this issue to light.”
The issue to which he referred is the disturbing rate of rape against female military cadets. In Ortiz's drama, Yudy (Gabriela Sanchez), a Latina soldier in the US Army, tries to assemble a post-service life after a deeply debilitating assault that results in a discharge. She recuperates alongside two women at a transitional home. Margaret (Asaki Kuruma) runs the home, and Persephone (Diana Rodriguez), is, like Yudy, in transition between trauma and independence. In a series of nonlinear time lapses, we follow Yudy's journey from excited cadet to survivor fighting for visibility and justice.
Teaching institutional violence
Ortiz and director Sarah Mitteldorf create a frank world. While scenes leading up to the assault drip with naiveté, in the transitional movement pieces where Yudy dons her uniform and joins the faceless army cadets, we are tipped off to the army's sinister role here. These transitions feature soldiers marching in formation, chanting disturbing, violent US Army cadences (the worst of these is “Yellow Bird”).
In these moments Ortiz focuses a pointed perspective on the US Army's influence on virtues like loyalty and obedience. Yudy is proud to have joined the army, believing in a family outside her own, only to encounter the social and legal blowback when she speaks out against this family.
Another element of She Wore Those Shoes that is so satisfying to watch is Sanchez fighting as Yudy. Yudy takes up space, physically, vocally, and emotionally, and she inhabits it with no apology. The audience is able to see what it looks like when a woman fights with power. Yudy gets violent, stepping into an aggressive response we have come to expect solely from male veterans. When Yudy expresses a wish to engage in live combat, her brother laughs her off, and in that moment we remember that we have been raised with the expectation that men fight overseas. Meanwhile, we forget that women are fighting in two places – against foreign enemies, and against fellow US soldiers.
A matter of perspective
She Wore Those Shoes is only 90 minutes, but it holds a lot of air. Transitions between scenes and emotional beats are slow, which is why it is so exhilarating when actors are finally allowed to push against each other and come alive. There are times when a slower pace can lift the playwright's words without burying them under theatrical flourish, but She Wore Those Shoes unfortunately suffers from the opposite effect. The long pauses and spaces between dramatic moments keep the actors from simply telling Ortiz's story. Nevertheless, the overall message of the evening, coupled with Power Street's commitment to community outreach, is deeply refreshing. Their approach not only attracts a diverse group of artists, but also a diverse audience, and everyone is committed to having difficult conversations.
Kuruma’s Margaret steals the show with a comedic delivery and genuine nuance (Ortiz wrote the part for her). In fact, the drama’s most fascinating scenes feature the three women at their transitional home. Each has a mysterious background (we are only privy to Yudy's). We see in these moments the fabulous breadth of responses that women — not as a gendered category, but as people — bring to situations of institutional violence. And that is what Power Street Theatre Company is doing; they are responding to institutional violence as people with their own cache of experiences.
Perhaps the most refreshing moment of She Wore Those Shoes was illuminated in the talkback. Someone asked Ortiz why she chose to give no voice to Yudy’s attacker. Ortiz responded reluctantly, saying, “I have a hard time getting into their shoes.”
Whether or not she was apologizing, I was overjoyed to see a play about an assault where the assaulter gets no say. As a woman, it is gratifying to witness a story whose perspective belongs to the survivor. I do not believe we must grant nuance to every situation; certainly not to the men in our world who believe they can do whatever they want (pinch, squeeze, rape, grab, and brag about it with Billy Bush). So, while it was a question worth asking, I was personally satisfied that Ortiz knew from the beginning that only Yudy was in charge of her own story.
To hear our podcast interview with playwright Erlina Ortiz, click here.
What, When, Where
She Wore Those Shoes. By Erlina Ortiz. Sarah Mitteldorf directed. Power Street Theatre Company. October 28-30, 2016 at the Iron Factory, 118 Fontain Street, Philadelphia. Powerstreettheatre.com.