Author of BULL IN A CHINA SHOP
In conversation with Natasha Sinha, LCT3 Associate Director
Natasha Sinha(Associate Director/LCT3): Hi Bryna! BULL IN A CHINA SHOP is your incredibly powerful and moving play currently running here at LCT3 and your introduction to the professional theatre community! For this second part of this series, let’s talk about the play itself.
In the last interview, you told us that you were inspired by the real-life letters of Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks which you found after you graduated from Mount Holyoke, and that you found a way into telling their story after your own relationship ended. I think it’s beautiful that this play is both a powerful statement about gender as well as an example of art being a source of healing. Can you talk more about those two things and how the play came into being?
Bryna Turner (Playwright): I started writing it in January 2016, which feels like a lifetime ago, because we were still in the Democratic primaries. And when you think about that, it feels insane. But, as someone on the Left, it means I was really inundated with these debates about revolution versus reform: what’s enough/what isn’t enough, second-wave feminism/third-wave feminism. Particularly it was from looking at Hillary— critiquing her but also understanding that we wouldn’t be where we are today if she hadn’t started this thirty-five years ago. There’s this double edged sword to that. How can you expect this human being to be part of the present moment when she’s partly responsible for how we got here? So in a certain way, we’re asking for something a little bit impossible. Because she’s had to make these compromises in order to become the person we can critique now using the tools of feminism that her movement has given us, you know? I think about feminism a lot as the “ouroboros,” the snake eating its own head. We need to keep critiquing in order to keep moving forward, but there’s something really painful and interesting about that to me that I find so compelling. I definitely think that’s in the DNA of the play, because it’s just something I was deeply thinking about on a daily basis.
But then also, yeah, I had just gone through this enormous heartbreak that I didn’t totally expect or see coming, after a five-year relationship. I kept having this feeling, at the time, that time was passing in a way that I’m not totally conscious of, or that I’m missing something. I can remember five years ago. I can remember that moment so crystal clearly. And then I remember a moment like that two years in. So when I patch together the story in my mind to try and understand where we were at the end, it was structurally interesting. The way you process, and the way you go through mourning— you keep going back to different memories or going back to problems… for example, oh, this is a conflict I should have thought more deeply about. Or, if this memory is so sweet, how can this memory be so bitter? So I was thinking about how a life goes by, and how life could go by. You could love someone for forty years and things can happen that you don’t expect or see coming, but there is this way in through these moments. This play starts with, “I really want this job, and it’s going to be great, and you should come with me… it’ll be hard, sure, but it’s mostly going to be great” and in the next scene, it’s Dean Welsh from the school saying “What are you doing bringing your girlfriend, making her the head of the English department?” And so, maybe it’s not going to go as great. The way these things add up and it becomes a life—that was profound and moving to me.
NS: That’s a striking way to describe the way you see it: moments stacking up to yield a life, and not being able to see what’s coming next when you’re living in one isolated moment. That notion also reminds me of the election—and I’ve heard audience members leaving the theatre and saying this play feels like a reaction to the election, even though we programmed it into the season last summer. The spectrum between revolution and reform is so interesting when considering how to change the world. You sense that Woolley and Marks initially bonded partially because of that shared passion for women’s equality—and then the years took them in two different directions (one more radical than the other), despite staying together as romantic partners. It gives me chills to hear that part at the end when Woolley says, “Too much revolution, I guess.” And Marks counters, “Or not enough, I can’t tell which way to think of it.” That encapsulates so much in the play overall, and we see them embody those ideas over the course of forty years. What did you draw on to capture forty years of life and of a relationship? It feels very real though you’re much younger than they are at the end of the play.
BT: My favorite line from Orlando is: “others are hundreds of years old though they call themselves thirty-six.” I think I’m somewhere between hundreds of years old and twenty-six. I’m someone who takes an emotional experience and then finds a metaphor for it that’s much, much larger or more extended. I think I maybe feel deeper than is expected or allowed for someone of my age or generation. So I think that was my way in: to express what I felt about this five-year relationship, I needed to write about a forty-year relationship. I think also when you’re mourning something, part of what you’re mourning is the future that you don’t have. So it was partly cathartic in the writing process to imagine an entire life because that is sort of what I thought was going to happen. So even though it was through these other people and it was the things that they did, it was emotionally helpful to go through because I sort of got to live it out. And it wasn’t always sunny! And some of the problems in the beginning come back up again in the middle. But these particular two people I’m writing about made peace with it, and lived that life and found comfort with each other, ultimately.
NS: So by refracting it into this other relationship, you could both process what you were going through personally while also being able to imbue the Woolley-Marks relationship in the play with something so fully realized.
BT: Absolutely, because even though there are all these letters between them, they’re very Victorian and flowery—so I didn’t totally know what was going on. I didn’t know what they’d be fighting about based on their letters. So, the fights are mine, the politics are mine… but they were the container for it. I had the stepping stones of their life together.
NS: Do they talk about Orlando or Virginia Woolf at any point in their letters? Or is that something you brought to the play? Orlando feels so thematically appropriate to BULL IN A CHINA SHOP.
BT: I completely brought in Orlando by myself. Someone early on who read the play asked what Marks teaches. And yes, the DNA of Orlando fell into play in such a beautiful way. And it’s partly because it is a biography, it’s a love story…
NS: Right, and it’s about time, and how fast it goes by and how much people change. It all fits so well with your take on Woolley and Marks, and what you’re tackling in this play.
BT: And it was written in the 1920s! During some of my research for this play, the ‘20s were when they say women’s sexuality was “discovered.” And so for the first time there’s a sense of “Women have a sexuality? Oh my god, if women have a sexuality… they could be gay!” You know? There was this whole avalanche of discovery that sort of changed the world. There had been this Victorian idea of women having sexless romantic relationships with each other. Suddenly, it became a little bit more questionable… And the way they made sense of lesbians was that they were women who wanted to be men. So if you look at Orlando through that lens of this story, it seems like the biggest fuck-you to this critique that had just surfaced. It’s incredible that she was able to publish that— and it’s a comedy, and it’s so absurd, which is why it’s allowed. They don’t understand, and it’s almost science-fiction or fantasy—they can’t quite figure it out, and it defies genre. So, necessarily, it sort of escapes the rigidness of the time, which is what Orlando does.
NS: Yes, I love that! Historically, women have done that a lot—placed some progressive idea in an unexpected genre, and then gotten away with critiquing those in power. Somewhat related to that, I love your author note in the script about how this is both an “excavation of queer history,” yet also you’re “queering history” in order to create a diverse group of women in any given production, rather than defaulting to five white women and calling it feminism. The casting for our production landed in an exciting way that subtly acknowledges the lack of intersectionality in those earlier waves of feminism (without detracting from the story of Woolley and Marks). For example, there’s the scene in which Felicity (played by Crystal Lucas-Perry) and Marks (played by Ruibo Qian) are pushing Woolley (played by Enid Graham) to be more radical and fight for more, even if she’s proclaiming “I am a revolution” and implying that that’s enough. It all feels so true.
BT: As a queer person, I know what representation and lack of representation looks and feels like—and it feels really important to me to have people we don’t always get to see onstage embodying full human beings in this profound way. Both personally and politically, it’s important to me. So I set forth this idea that this is a present tense story, and it can’t be performed with all white women. We can’t keep doing that in the name of “history,” which has been notoriously sanitized and whitewashed and denied to people of color and queer people. And then Lee was really smart about it. She wanted to cast along power lines, and obviously that made a lot of sense to me. We did end up with a beautiful cast. We said that we wanted women of color for many of the roles—that’s how we came in and how the process happened, with Lee’s vigilance. And then really, it was just the best actors that got the parts. But, yes, I’m so stunned by how it played out and the play is really speaking on a deeper level because of it.
NS: I think that’s what I love most about it—that it’s organically feeding the storytelling, rather than shoe-horned in to check off a box. The way you and Lee brought in a diverse group of women was really thoughtful. It honored their presence and the history of people with bodies and appearances like theirs.
BT: I’m so grateful for the way that Lee engaged with this challenge I set forth. And then I felt the way that she stepped up and thought about it plays into exactly what I wanted, which is that this is a story about today. I think there’s that note that it’s “startlingly contemporary,” and I do think that’s how it feels.
Check back soon for Part 3 of LCT3-D with Lee Sunday Evans!
Read Part 1 of LCT3-D with Bryna Turner and Lee Sunday Evans!