“HerStory” adds a new voice to history

“This performance is part play, part poetry – it’s kind of a poetic Sex in the City, minus the sex.” Such was the description director Pope Jackson gave the audience of “HerStory,” the final presentation of Thursday’s Claiming Williams Day. With such an introduction, my hopes were high, and as the performance began and I was not disappointed. Four young women, each a well-known slam poet and performer in her own right, came together to battle with issues of race, stereotypes and “what a girl wants,” bringing the audience to laughter and tears in equal parts.
Despite their common interest in (and talent for) poetry, these women had vastly different backgrounds, goals and experiences. Helena D. Lewis, a young African-American woman who performs across the United States and has won several awards for her poetry, was drawn to poetry after her brother died of AIDS. In addition to the time she spends performing and writing, Lewis also works as a certified alcohol and drug counselor.
Suzen Baraka, a half African-American, half Korean woman and award-winning poet, is the artist-in-residence at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and is currently studying law at the Cordozo Law School in New York City.
Tahani Solah, a Palestinian-American Muslim woman from Brooklyn, is a dedicated poet and activist, determined to shed light on the problems faced by those innocents whose voices have been silenced.
J.F. Seary, a Latina woman living in New York City, is both a teacher and a talented poet who has performed in many venues across the country.
Together, the four artists dealt playfully with issues of race and stereotype: Lewis kiddingly described herself as “the angry black woman,” while Solah joked, “Yeah, at first I thought Suzen was Mexican, and she thought I was a terrorist, but once we got those things sorted out we were friends.” Meanwhile, Baraka described her experiences in a Korean language class, where she was seen as “the black girl” despite her Korean roots. Her teacher asked her, “What are you?”— a story that would have been shocking and sad had Baraka not been doing impressions of her old Korean teacher that had the audience too amused to be offended.
The young women quickly moved beyond race to issues such as the media. Helena pretended to audition for America’s Next Top Model, describing how she eats “imaginary sandwiches” to stay thin. Others discussed crazy diet fads, going to therapy – “after a month I got the bill … that cured me immediately!” joked Solah – pretended to audition to become wives and pursuing careers. Their careful and often spot-on humor easily broke the tension surrounding some of the most controversial issues women face today.
Yet the performance wasn’t entirely made up of jokes and humor. The young women alternated between the hilarious and the serious, taking the audience on a roller coaster ride of emotions. We were treated to one rib-crackingly funny poem in which Lewis described all the ways she intended to destroy her ex-boyfriend, should he ever attempt to speak to her again, but the four also dealt with issues of suicide, growing indifference to abusive relationships and poor self-image. Lewis asked, “How could I learn to love myself if the people like me hated themselves?” At these times, the audience was forced to consider the problems and barriers that all women are faced with regardless of background.
In a day focused on diversity and understanding of difference, the true message of “HerStory” lies not in our differences but in the problems and desires that make us similar. As the play progressed and the four young women began to discuss issues like loss, careers, love and body image, it became more and more obvious that no matter where we grew up or the color of our skin, all women face the same basic issues and are all united by a few common desires and needs. Perhaps, the play seemed to imply, the best way to bridge the gap between race, wealth, age, shape and belief is to find and embrace this common ground.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *