The sighs and gasps of recognition from women were double-edged during a recent performance of Ming Peiffer’s piercing play, Usual Girls, at the Black Box Theatre of the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center.
This Roundabout Theatre Company play about a woman growing up Korean-American in Upper Arlington, Ohio, reaches out directly, and sharply, to all women watching it—and hopefully men too. We follow the life story of Kyeoung (Midori Francis) as she progresses from young girl to adult woman, from the 1980s to 2018.
This vibrantly colorful and raw exploration of female identity, friendship, and isolation—performed by an excellent, almost all-female company—looks at the male-sourced damage done to young women, and the damage young women can do to each other in direct and indirect response. This is a very personal history of #MeToo. It isn't a smooth play, it is proudly scuffed at its edges. It feels workshop-py, rather than neat and sleek.
In a tiny basement space, director Tyne Rafaeli summons up bitty expositions of elementary school, middle school, high school, college, and the present day in a production full of scattered energy and inquiry. Arnulfo Maldonado’s simple sets evoke “playgrounds, bathrooms and basements,” as the program puts it.
Tei Blow’s sound design of pop and rock blasts away when the lights go down and the years spin forward. Jen Schriever’s lighting pulses brightly, before momentary total darkness descends and a new set magically materializes. Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes playfully span generations. This is a play with all kinds of volume turned up.
What strikes you first is that before boys enter girl-world, while everything isn’t rosy, it sure isn’t as complicated and nasty as things can sometimes get.
We first meet Kyeoung and her friends (the adult actors play the characters as girls and grown-ups) as they play in the playground, trying to balance on beams and not tip over into the mulch, as they talk about things they know they shouldn’t: private bits of their bodies that shock them into hysterical laughter as soon as they say them. “Everyone wants to see girls naked,” the very young Kyeoung notes.
Enter Rory (Raviv Ullman). This is the first significant invasion of female physical and psychological space by a male in the play, and while Rory is just a young brat, his intervention is tellingly abusive and controlling. If Kyeoung’s friend Lindsay (Nicole Rodenburg) doesn’t do as he asks he will do something terrible to her. When Kyeoung intervenes on Lindsay’s beliefs, he says because she is Korean American her vagina is sideways unlike other girls.
Later, at a sleepover, Rory and a gang of other boys gather outside the windows. They look like a squad of assassins, and soon they invade that space very physically. Kyeoung is caught between two awful poles: the racism of a mainly white environment where suspicion and dark deeds are attached to anyone who isn’t white. The girls pick on Kyeoung because they recognize how convenient and seemingly powerless a target she is.
Before the boys poison the girls’ world, the cast of young friends (including a standout Abby Corrigan as the tall and eccentric Anna—all beaky questioning and barely suppressed proto-lesbian passion) bounce around, gossip, and learn to masturbate with soft toys.
The invasion of men, and what that does to this group, has lifelong effects. Rory’s viciousness blooms in his and Kyeoung's teenage years. His racist, sexualized disgust is fully expressed after a volleyball practice. There is a wrenching scene where Kyeoung goes from being bullied by a group of girls to physically holding up the drunken wreck of her father (Karl Kenzler).
The sexual perversity that gets her labeled so derogatorily by her so-called friends—they chant “skank,” “whore” and other insults at her behind her back—is rooted in racism, ignorance, and the apparent fear on the part of her persecutors that they too could be persecuted too. (It's no excuse, but still.) Francis gives her character a bracing strength and canniness as both weapon and sustenance.
As she ages, Keyoung acquires an older shadow self (Jennifer Lim), who tries to connect to her younger incarnation, to help her through the maze of pain, mistrust and damage that she has suffered.
It’s moving to see Kyeoung older and seemingly happier at a club with a group of young women from her sorority, all doing drugs (but this is also a visually confusing scene as the other women are played by the same actors who have just bullied Kyeoung). Kyeoung bumps into Anna, and it is a very different Anna than the one she recalls. Kyeoung wants to know why her friends rejected her as a little girl; what was wrong with her.
Usual Girls makes clear that there was nothing wrong with Kyeoung. There was everything wrong around her. The last part of the play focuses on Kyeoung’s response to an unseen sexual assault, and this isn’t the “correct” response you may see on a TV show or another play.
This final subversion is in line with Peiffer’s uncompromising vision throughout Usual Girls. Its candy coating of sleepovers and girlish giggling has long soured thanks to the men like Rory who invade female space early, helping to change lives forever.
Usual Girls is at the Black Box Theatre of the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, NYC, through December 16.