They Played With Dolls. Did That Make Them Playwrights?
A group of schoolgirls uses baby dolls to powerfully subversive effect in Erica Schmidt’s Shakespeare adaptation, “Mac Beth.” Fifth graders smuggle “slave dolls” around their school in “Underground Railroad Game,” the Obie Award-winning play that Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard made with their company Lightning Rod Special. A Cabbage Patch Kid called Babs Kimbra is a little girl’s prized companion in Bess Wohl’s wistful comedy, “Make Believe.”
Dolls are having a moment Off Broadway right now, leading us to ask five playwrights — including Aleshea Harris, the Obie-winning author of “Is God Is,” and Amina Henry, whose “The Great Novel” and “Sleeping Beauty” open this month — to talk about their childhood history with dolls and how it shaped their storytelling. Here are edited excerpts from what they had to say. LAURA COLLINS-HUGHES
THEN Babs Kimbra was the name of my best friend’s Cabbage Patch Kid. My Cabbage Patch was Felicia Vivian, and Babs and Felicia were best friends. Felicia Vivian was definitely a huge part of my life.
I also had Barbies that I loved. When I was a kid, my mom worked at Ms. magazine. To even have a Barbie was so rebellious. And then at one point I had sort of a freakout — I must have been like 10 when this happened — and I chopped all their hair off. I gave them all these punk crew cuts. It’s a powerful, powerful feeling to have a doll.
NOW Creating worlds for little characters is very connected to being a playwright. I had a Barbie Dreamhouse, and I also had a very beautifully made dollhouse that was passed down through my family. And those little rooms to me are little environments. On a very simple level, there is something about wanting to move little bodies around in space and put them in relationship to each other that is a similar impulse to being a playwright. We give ourselves total permission with our dolls. It’s a scarier thing to enact when you’re older and it’s real people.
THEN I had a Raggedy Ann kind of doll and then a Cabbage Patch. But I wasn’t heavy into dolls. You know that Golden Book, “Mommy and Me”? The dolls are meant to be about playing at being a mom as a little kid. That was so never a part of what we were doing with Barbies. But I wasn’t doing the “blow up the G.I. Joe figures,” either, which was what the boys in the neighborhood did.
NOW In the play, I’d really struggled with what the apparitions are within the girl world. The idea is that everything they have comes from their backpacks and would be things that girls would have. These visions that Macbeth sees, the apparitions, two of them are children or babies. So it felt like, what are babies to these girls? They’re their dolls. Somehow when the babies came out, it solved the way that the girls were performing the apparition scene, and it unleashed in them a wildness that really helped inform the rest of the piece. That just sort of happened when the dolls came in the room.
THEN I moved around a lot when I was a child. I was an only child until I was 10, so I spent a lot of time alone in new places that I didn’t necessarily have friends yet. I did have a really special Grover that I had from age, I want to say 2, up until college. Then I lost him in college, which was devastating. He went with me everywhere. I would play with him a lot, and I would hang him from the ceiling fan, and we would have adventures, and I slept with him all the time. His arms fell off several times and had to be sewn back on. I loved him.
NOW Having Grover really helped me develop my imagination, and find solace in my imagination. I haven’t used dolls in any of my plays, but I feel like I often have a character that functions the way Grover did. Last year, I did an adaptation of “Cinderella.” My Cinderella had a pet rat who was kind of like a Grover because no one else knew that he could talk. He would go with her on her adventures.
Scott R. Sheppard
THEN I played with lots of stuffed animals. We had this puppet stuffed animal whose name was Bowser. One of the things Bowser would always do was bite people — that was part of his shtick — and I thought it would be a hilarious idea as a second grader to go bite my teacher’s butt. I got in big trouble. I was surprised that she didn’t understand that this is what this dog was made to do.
NOW We’ve been really interested as a company in toys and dolls and the ways in which what we do as young people shapes our lives. I definitely think it’s shaped how I think about writing pieces of theater and making them sometimes very explicitly, like in “Underground Railroad Game,” about dolls and about how we played.
I always played with dolls and the dolls were always fighting, always like banging into each other. They’re kind of these landing places for all of our wonderful and awful human attributes. They’re totally teaching us how to have power over something in sometimes sweet and wonderful ways and often in really terrible ways. Which is learning how to become a human being.
THEN I did play with Barbies, and then I played with what I called teddies, which is just stuffed plush animals. I played with them separately, so they had two different worlds. And I took it really, really seriously. I was really into American Girl books, and I remember re-creating those stories. When I was a kid they were pretty white, and they were of a different time, so it was a different context. I remember trying to bring it into my own context.
NOW I’m working on a few things now, and I recognize that I’m trying to challenge things that I’ve seen in the theater. I’m calling out the same old story that I’ve seen a million times, which I think is connected to this erasure that I experienced as a young black girl reading American Girl books, and putting myself into those narratives.
It feels like my characters are dolls. I put these figures into a room and they tell a story, and I have to come up with each person’s voice. I dress them, I figure out what the culture of their world is, and I put them in it and see how they sort of smash into one another.
“Mac Beth,” adapted by Erica Schmidt, through June 9, redbulltheater.com
“Underground Railroad Game,” by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard, through June 15, arsnovanyc.com
“Make Believe,” by Bess Wohl, July 30-Sept. 15, 2st.com
“The Great Novel,” by Amina Henry, June 7-29, newlighttheaterproject.com
“Sleeping Beauty,” by Amina Henry, June 22-30, witfestival.projectytheatre.org