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  WINDY CITY TIMES

PERFORMANCE '9 to 5' in the age of #MeToo: Firebrand runs problematic play
by Karen Topham
2018-04-04

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This is the era of #MeToo, Time's Up and many other "woke" movements that are changing the zeitgeist of the country, especially where women are concerned. Sexual harassment is no longer tolerated; women are, more and more, speaking up for themselves.

Into this moment in time, Harmony France of Firebrand Theatre ( the company that gave us Lizzie this winter and brands itself as a truly feminist organization ) has chosen for her next project the musical version of 9 to 5, a movie that ( while certainly empowering ) is problematic in its antiquated portrayal of office sexual politics. I asked France what this play brought to the table at this time.

"For me," she said, "it's always been a kind of dated piece. But after the election and the #metoo and Time's Up movements, I find it isn't that dated at all. We haven't come as far as we thought we had."

France said that, as with many other movies and TV shows she enjoyed growing up, there are things in 9 to 5 that she just wasn't aware of at the time. "We're at an age when a lot of questioning is going on. But it's still a base story that everyone can relate to: we've all worked someplace where we've experienced discrimination, especially women and people of color."

Actress Sharriese Hamilton—who plays Doralee, the Dolly Parton character—agreed.

"I remember overhearing when I was bartending a man saying he was aghast because: you're telling me that a guy is going to lose his job because he whistled at a woman at work and there was just a bit of friendly flirting? And I was like, 'Yeah man.' There were some terrible things happening to women, but what [the women in the movie] are doing is a huge step. It WAS a movement for women. It's hard to look at because so much is still the same."

Hamilton said that the most difficult part for her is handling the women-on-women sexism in the show.

"We have to be careful not to victim blame and say that any way of being a woman or being feminine is wrong. What's wrong is pushing others to the outskirts where we don't feel like we have an ally. That's the sad part of Doralee: she's getting it from both sides. It's messed up but it's something that happens."

This is why France is working to downplay the harassment humor of the show.

"The script is what it is, and it's still going to be a comedy, but we're definitely not going to play that up especially with the number of women who face harassment in workplaces all over America. So much is because we have been conditioned to believe we need to compete with one another; it's still rooted in the patriarchy. One of the great things here is that they realize that they don't have to compete and become allies."

Anne Sheridan Smith, who plays Violet in Firebrand's production, also said that France is working to make sure that the experience is uplifting for women.

She said that the show will be "a little bit more layered, a little bit more complex than [audiences expect], and that's exciting. Some audiences will walk in expecting something fun, kitschy, and dated because they love the film and actors, but they might find themselves cringing more than they expected to. In a fun and light-hearted way we are coming at something much more serious than perceptions used to be. We're kind of fed up in society; there is less tolerance for that now."

Hamilton sees that element as well.

"It's a comedy so we're not going to stare at the audience and say 'SHAME, don't laugh at this.' It's the job of comedy sometimes to get people to say, as they are laughing, why are we laughing at this? You reflect on it afterward. We see how far we've come and how far we have to go."

She believes that France's vision is what will keep the play vibrant and funny while at the same time making it even more powerful. "I feel very safe in Harmony's hands. I don't know if I would do it if there was a man directing because he wouldn't get it."

France understands that her "special" cast is counting on her.

"The show already has really great themes of women getting over their differences and working together; we're going to push it along even further. It's going to be a slow burn; change will not come as quickly as we want it to. But with the #metoo movement women are speaking up. I don't think we could be doing a more relevant show at this time."

The production 9 to 5 will be presented by Firebrand Theatre Company at the Den April 7-May 20; visit FirebrandTheatre.org .


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