Women are on the run in the National Capital New Play Festival at Round House Theatre. The fugitive women could not be any more different on the surface: the first is Ella Jean Hill Chaudhuri, a real-life Native artist-activist who advocated stringently for the political and legal rights of Indigenous folks, specifically the Muscogee nation of which she was a citizen. The other is Jennifer, an overworked and underpaid caretaker dissatisfied with the circumstances of her life. These two women separated by time, geography, race, ethnicity, class, and occupation but united by gender took flight in two distinct yet incredibly interconnected ways.
Over two nights, I watched as Jean and Jennifer changed the circumstances of their lives. Mary Kathryn Nagle’s On the Far End tells Chaudhuri’s story in her own words. Portrayed with aplomb by Nagle herself (which was a beautiful surprise to me, having gone into this production with no prior information of either play), we were instantly folded into Chaudhuri ’s world. I normally find myself unenthused with most solo performances as I find the idea of having to follow a singular person for over an hour to be draining and visually uninteresting. None of that happened here. I was familiar with Nagle’s other plays (I saw and loved Sovereignty when it premiered at Arena Stage years ago, actually recently returning to the play when I taught it in my theatre history course at Howard University, and I remembered seeing her play, Return to Niobrara as part of the Kennedy Center’s New Visions/New Voices Festival in 2018). Consistent with her artistic oeuvre, On the Far End was profoundly researched and delivered important elements of Native history, politics, and culture with skill and equanimity.
But what captivated me the most is exactly the thing I thought I might not have enjoyed about it: hearing the playwright’s words through her own performance. The medium of the solo show is a powerful dramaturgical form for minoritized artists, as it forces an audience member to watch someone who is often deemed unimportant and disposable for an extended amount of time. Watching Nagle’s skillful command of the stage (and in her professional acting debut) reminded me of this medium’s dramaturgical power. The play’s title comes from Supreme Court Justice, Neil Gorsuch’s statement after the majority ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma that read: “[O]n the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise.” The opinion, which resulted in sovereignty to the Muscogee Reservation, is a rarity in American history, where a promise to Native people was kept. I was capitvated by one of the play’s fugitive moments, where Jean runs away from the boarding school where Native children were forced to attend in order to assimilate. Hearing the story of her running and running away and finally succeeding on her eighth attempt speaks to the power of leaving for women, especially Indigenous women.
It shouldn’t have shocked me that Jennifer left, as the aptly named Jennifer, Who is Leaving told me exactly what was going to happen there. But I was seduced by the seemingly “simple” plot: a caretaker and her patient, after getting a flat tire, stop in on a cold, snowy night at a Dunkin Donuts. While there, they meet Nan and Lili, who both work at Dunkin Donuts, and delve into conversations about family, motherhood, work, and pressures of…well, being a human being. Specifically, being women. Specifically, being wives. Specifically, being mothers. While the “funny until it’s not” play is a theatrical genre that is found in many plays, I still didn’t quite see this one coming. Jennifer, Who is Leaving is devoid of big reveals or surprising plot twists, but yet and still, I was shocked that Jennifer actually abandoned her life.
I was in tears throughout the entire last half of Jennifer, Who is Leaving. In her, I saw my own mother who picked up my brother and me from school almost every day, shepherded us back and forth to all of our various activities, bought all of our clothes, took care of the house, made sure we had everything we needed. I thought of the ways I am now seeing who she really is, her true personality after she left him. I saw in Jennifer the future my mother didn’t (and doesn’t) want for me, the ways she always encouraged me to follow my own paths, make my own way, to not deny human connection like love and romance, but never at a huge personal cost. The camaraderie between Nan and Jennifer, where Nan helps her leave her life, broke me.
There were moments in watching both On the Far End and Jennifer, Who is Leaving when I felt my discomfort bubbling just beneath the surface, begging for some kind of recognition or release. As a black femme, there were ways I felt invisible in these narratives, not in the way that I believe that I must relate personally to every piece of art I consume, but rather in ways that briefly took me away from the story. I twitched at the presence of the racial epithet of “the n-word” that appeared in Nagle’s play, a reference to the fact that Native people also experienced that word being weaponized toward them. This structural inheritance also showed up when Jean’s child also experienced being called that name, illustrating the ways oppression is circuitous and unending. I longed for a deeper development and engagement of Lili in Gould’s work, as the only person of color who appears in the play. Because it deals so skillfully with women’s oppression in a patriarchal society, I desired for Lili to also lament the ways she is falling victim to the system, beyond the teenage angst of taking SATs and applying for college. Being a young Asian woman, there are certainly things she is experiencing that might make her experience of the world—especially in the case of this play set in a small town—vastly different than that of her white counterparts.
All in all, both On the Far End and Jennifer, Who is Leaving confront the systems that are failing us. But most importantly, these two plays value and affirm women’s rage, women’s grief at the white cisheteropatriarchy. These plays were for women, who must leave, and for all the women (especially Native women) who grew up on the far end.