As women find their voice to speak up about sexual harassment and reproductive health, two shows at WaterTower Theatre in Addison highlight the complicated stories of women navigating society's expectations of femininity and faith. "There's never been a more important time to tell women's stories," Kelsey Leigh Ervi, the theater's associate artistic director, said.
Ervi directs "The Ballad of Little Jo," a musical by Mike Reid, Sarah Schlesinger and John Dias now playing on the Terry Martin Main Stage through June 30. The musical's story is loosely based on the true story of a woman who disguised herself as a man to make a living in the West in the late 1800s.
In this recounting, Josephine "Jo" Monaghan is a 19-year-old whose wealthy Boston family expects her to become a debutante. When she has a son out of wedlock, she decides to move to California in hopes of creating a new life for herself while her married sister raises her son.
"Whatever social constructs she's in in Boston won't apply there. Because she's had this baby, I think in her mind there's a place where she can be a single mom," Laura Lyman Payne, the actor playing the title character, said.
Her plans quickly go awry. Instead of travelling to San Francisco, Josephine ends up in Silver City, Idaho before Idaho is a state. It is dangerous territory for a single woman and for her safety, she dresses as a man. She calls herself Jo and starts working in a silver mine.
Disguised as a man, Jo becomes a part of the community. She befriends Jordan Ellis and his wife Sara. In the song "After You," the couple sings about how important she is to them.
"They say things to her that's she never heard from her family. They say, 'You've changed our lives' and that's shocking. She didn't know Jo was making such an impact on them," Payne said. "She never fit in as anything anywhere else and she's good at being a man."
Act II is 18 years later, and the sacrifices Jo has made to maintain her secret are apparent. "Over time as she has lost Josephine, it's hardened her," Ervi said.
"In Act II, her temper is shorter, she bites at people a little bit. The weight of that sacrifice, you can feel it on her," Payne said. "She sacrifices a family of her own. She makes a family, she chooses a family, but she's never going to get married. She's not going to have more kids."
The extreme measures Jo takes to survive mirrors the pressure modern women feel to assimilate in order to succeed. "I think we see that in today's world with the way women have to adapt to a male-driven society," Ervi said. ‘We're still living in a world where there are structures in place to genuinely repress us."
Onstage in the Karol Omlor Studio Theatre through June 30, "Unveiled" explores the world of Muslim women. Playwright Rohina Malik, raised in London by her Pakistani immigrant parents, devised and performs this one-woman show about five different Muslim women as they sip tea and share stories about their faith and culture.
"In television and films, Muslims are almost always the stereotypical terrorist, rarely are they portrayed as normal citizens. This is a form of dehumanization that ultimately leads to bigotry and hate crime," Malik said. "I wrote ‘Unveiled' because I wanted to invite the audience into the lives of normal everyday Muslims, and hopefully, challenge stereotypes. I wanted to share my experience of the Muslim community that I grew up in and know in a very deep way."
In creating the five characters, Malik shows the diversity of the Muslim community. "The women and stories are fictional yet inspired by true events and by women in my mosque who I know and love. Four of the women are based in America, and one is from London, England. I wanted to create women who had different ethnicities, careers, ages and the one thing that they share is their faith," Malik said.
All the characters wear the Hijab. "The women cover their hair for modesty, the same reason other Abrahamic faiths cover their hair, for modesty. Some characters talk about how they cover as an act of devotion to God, the rapper wears the Hijab as a statement of feminism," Malik said.
Talking about wearing the Hijab is another way Malik dispels prejudice. "When you wear the Hijab, people can sometimes assume you are oppressed, uneducated, weak, submissive, and a victim who needs to be saved," Malik said. "There is a sick obsession with the Hijab that you don't find with other faiths. Covering hair is not a Muslim thing. Nuns cover their hair, Amish women, Mennonite women, Orthodox Jewish women, Orthodox Sikh women, all cover their hair, and nobody cares. However, when Muslim women cover their hair, there is a double standard, and everybody cares."
Malik regularly hosts talkbacks, welcoming questions about theater, her writing process and her Muslim faith. "Some people have questions about all the negativity they see with extremists' groups, and I love those questions because it gives me a chance to voice how extremists' groups do not represent my faith. A lot of people don't know that Islam is an Abrahamic faith, we believe in the same God as Christians and Jews, the God of Abraham," Malik said. "There is only one chapter in the Quran named after a woman, and that woman is the Virgin Mary, who Muslims believe was one of the greatest women who walked on the earth, because of her piety and because she gave birth to Prophet Jesus. If you look at any icon of Mary, her hair and neck are covered, she actually looks very similar to a Muslim woman wearing the Hijab."
The play's message is clear. "Muslim women are strong, human and just like everybody else," Malik said.
Learn more about "The Ballad of Little Jo" and "Unveiled" CLICK HERE to visit WaterTowerTheatre.org.