In Revolt, She Said, philosopher Julia Kristeva imagines "revolution" as a constant state of being. The moment a revolutionary stops questioning her tenets, stops holding her leaders accountable to their actions, and stops questioning her own role in the revolution, the radical wheel screeches to a halt. The revolutionary idea becomes the status quo, complete with its old, oppressive hierarchies.
Alice Birch's Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. plays on Kristeva's book title and theory, enacting her vision of revolution in a series of increasingly dreamlike scenes that build up to a silent scream.
Each scene dramatizes a question or presents a tension that's burning up the blogosphere and/or marching through the halls of academia today. Does language shape gender roles or do gender roles shape language? Is marriage inherently possessive or can it be a meaningful promise of eternal love? Hey girl, is this what a feminist looks like, or is my T-shirt merely a virtue signal that obscures the real policy work people have been undertaking for decades?
Take the heavy handful of personal/political complications of the play's opening scene. In Washington Ensemble Theatre's production, a couch sits center stage. White linoleum stretches from the floor to the ceiling, as if someone grabbed one side of a kitchen, ripped it off the ground, and held the end up in the air. A projector emblazons the back wall with the words "REVOLUTIONIZE THE LANGUAGE (INVERT IT)," one of the evening's many calls to action.
A man (Joe Cummings) attempts to seduce a woman (Ayo Tushinde). She edits his dirty talk as he fires it forth. He wants to make love "to" her, but she wants to make love "with" him. The language of invasion and objectification forms the bedrock of his sentence structures. He wants "in" her "gap"—but she corrects him. Her vagina is an organ—not a gap—and she puts it on him, she swallows him, devours him. Her linguistic and physical dominance gets her off, and he's left to sulk in the corner of the couch. The fact that Tushinde is a black woman adds meaningful layers to her victory. Here we have a black woman taking charge in the bedroom (or the living room, in this case), constructing the language of consent during seduction, and enjoying herself the whole time. These are rare sights on a stage.
But the academic premise—a woman getting off on grammar correction (if only wishing made it so)—and the slightly cartoonish acting invites critique. Is it not revolutionary for a woman to want to feel objectified during sex? That is, is she being a bad feminist if she doesn't mind the "gap" talk? And what if a man likes to be submissive in the sack? Does he get revolutionary points for that? Is the ultimate point here that women should feel empowered in the bedroom, and that inverting the language is one way of sometimes doing that if you're into that kind of thing? Or is inversion, as the all-caps title suggests, mandatory?
And what exactly, is the real benefit of "revolutionizing the language" by "inverting it?" Look no further than Matt Hickey for an example of a man using "inverted" language—in his case, the language of sex positivity and consent—allegedly to lure women into his bedroom and rape them. And yet, since language is communal, and since we do navigate the world using metaphors, aren't meaningful language inversions, on the whole, urgent changes to fight for?
This is the level of complexity involved in one scene of this show. Whether or not you find the questions easy or hard to answer and the tensions simple or complicated to resolve will depend on your personal experience wading in the swamp of sexism. But Birch isn't trying to answer a lot of these questions for you; she's trying to make sure you're always questioning your answers.
WET's production highlights that core element mostly successfully. Director Bobbin Ramsey keeps the pace quick and expertly orders the chaos in the pulsing, powerful, and other p-words penultimate scene. The acting was uneven in the show I saw—I couldn't tell who was making the choice to overact on aesthetic grounds and who was just Acting—but Tushinde and Anna Kasabyan displayed the most range and control. Kasabyan turned in equally impressive performances in the comedic, dramatic, and absurdist scenes. Many in the cast overdid overdoing it, but she didn't.
Despite these few shortcomings, though, the production lives up to Birch's command in the script: "This play should not be well-behaved." It's anything but.