Playwright Lauren Marie Powell can sum up the insidiousness of rape culture with chilling brevity. "It's the silent, unwritten history of the world," said the author of The Condition of Femme, running through April 1 at the Pride Arts Center, 4147 N. Broadway.
Inspired by the words of more than 100 survivors of sexual abuse and assault, the Circle Theatre production explores a culture where many women aren't always equipped to grasp when they've been assaulted, let alone able to advocate for themselves.
"I have a friend, for years we'd joke about how she lost her virginity in a threesome," Powell said of one stories that inspired the play's dialogue. "For years we laughed about it. Like'hahaha! You really jumped into the deep end right away didn't you?' It wasn't until years after that she realized she hadn't had a threesome.She'd been raped by two men.
"Part of the problem is a lack of education,," Powell added. "I'm 27. Did I have hours of sex ed in school? Yes. Was I taught the first thing about advocating for myself in a sexual situation? No. Nobody teaches you that."
Like Powell, director Amanda Jane Long hopes "The Condition of Femme" and its all-female cast of 12 will open up conversations as well as eyes. Staged readings of the play have done just that, although the questions provoked aren't always easy to hear.
"There's a scene where a woman is assaulted on a crowded CTA train," said Long of a monologue when a young woman realizes with stomach-churning horror that a man is masturbating against her back. "There's a cop on the train who sees what's happening, but he doesn't do anything. When she gets off the train, he asks her if she's OK, but that's about it. Menand it's always a man who raises his hand and says thiscan't believe the cop wouldn't do something. Intervene. Go after the assailant."
"Over and over, women in the audience would say 'because that's not what happens in real life,' " Long said. "It's always shocking or upsetting for men to understand the reality of the situationthat for womenand especially for women of coloryou cannot count on anyone helping you, not even people who are supposed to be these pillars of safety and helpfulness."
The Condition of Femme has its roots inof all placesFacebook. After realizing many women she knew had similar stories of being harassed, abused or assaulted, Powell created "The Lady Project" page. She invited about 120 friends to join. She was soon inundated with messages from women who had endured everything from catcalls to rape.
Powell followed up with interviews, her subjects providing inspiration for the drama's series of monologues. Among the 100+ women Powell interviewed were two women who had volunteered at a rape crisis hotline. Powell distilled them into a single character, and made her the spine of the play, the thru-line that connects all of the women. Initially a one-woman show, a series of readings lat year turned the piece into an ensemble-driven drama.
Under Long's direction, the piece also includes a striking video component, with the audience intermittently barraged with images and headlines that starkly illustrate the massive, entrenched systems that allow female subjugation to thrive. Organized religion and the criminal justice system are the tip of an iceberg that also includes wage disparity, objectification of women in everything from soap ads to tires, and legislation designed for the sole purpose of stripping women of their reproductive rights.
"There's a line in the show about how easy it is to rationalize," said Powell. "You can insist, 'Oh, my church doesn't do that.' Or 'I've never seen that in my world.' The projections point out what people already know, what's already out here. Maybe you didn't see what happened to this one woman in the story, but this isn't news to you. You've seen it before. We're showing you the systems where you've seen it," Powell said.
"I don't want there to be any finger pointing," Powell added. "My mantra all along has been 'Call them in. Don't call them out.' Make people aware."
Education is crucial, Long concurred.
"We need to teach children how to have autonomy over their bodies from a young age," she said. "The way it is now, men are socialized to see sex as something you have to get, or conquer. Women are taught it's something they have to protect until they decide to give it to someone else. They aren't taught autonomy, they aren't that sexuality isn't something you have to guard until you give it away.
"If we teach children from the beginning, 'hey, is it ok to hug you?' Or, 'can I hold our hand?' that's teaching consent," Powell said. "That's teaching empowerment. That's what we all need."
The Condition of Femme continues through Sunday, April 1, at the Buena Pride Arts Center, 4147 N. Broadway. Tickets are $28; visit www.CircleTheatreChicago.org .