Danielle Mohlman examines the women laying claim to sports via the theatre, and their inspiration for doing so.
My dad was a star athlete in high school. Letterman jacket, full page in the yearbook, the whole nine yards. He was a water polo goalie and to this day the number he wore on his swim cap – 22 – is significant for both him and my mom. Every “22” they’ve ever seen in the wild has been photographed and framed. It’s the date of their wedding anniversary. And it was etched into the pin cushion my mom used in home economics, silver-headed pins forming the curves of each number. My parents met in high school. She was a cheerleader, full of school spirit and there for every water polo game and swim meet. Pom poms in hand, she watched him pull through the water, breaking records in freestyle and backstroke.
As a teenager, I lived for the hours between the end of school and the beginning of sunset. I’d flash my completed homework at my mom and then run down the street to my neighbor Gilbert’s house. If we could assemble a team of neighborhood kids, we’d play touch football in the street, yelling “Car!” every time someone’s parent got home from work. We had more timeouts than any regulation game and, it seemed, just as many injuries. If we couldn’t get a team together, I’d strap on my roller blades and speed up and down the sidewalk, jumping off our homemade ramp. If he was patient and I was calm, Gilbert would continue his lifelong quest – teaching me how to ollie on his skateboard. I was never any good, but I was relentless. Still am. I’d fall and get back up again, bloody palms and all. Despite everything, I’m the furthest thing from an athlete. But sports are starting to creep their way into my plays – and I’m not the only one.
Spend enough time on the field and you’ll come away with blood. But the blood that opens Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves isn’t skinned knees or thousands of burst blood vessels congealing into a purple bruise. It’s menstrual blood – in all its coagulated glory. The Wolves’ thirst for blood isn’t quenched by the jealousy-fueled competition these young soccer players seem to thrive on. Their drug instead, is frantic whispers about a sheltered teammate who chooses pads over tampons. And jokes about pregnancy that quickly become unchecked abortion rumors. These girls are sixteen and it shows.
Interspersed in this dialogue about uterine lining and inefficient feminine products is a discussion about former Prime Minister of Cambodia, Nuon Chea, who at 90 years old is giving testimony about the Khmer Rouge genocide. The audience is momentarily faced with an odd juxtaposition: the murder of hundreds of thousands of Cambodian citizens and the torture of a particularly heavy period. Offstage, another soccer team warms up – a team just as driven, just as talented, just as vicious.
Sarah DeLappe’s dialogue in The Wolves perfectly intones a teenage and athletic vocabulary. These girls turn around crude language as though they just learned how to form the syllables with their mouths. They litter their sentences with expletives, gossiping about a “sweet old lady” with only one breast, claiming that the winter air is “colder than a witch’s” – well, you can finish the rest. As the Wolves warm up for their games, they name-check each other by jersey number and masculine epithets like “man” and “dude,” as though their feminine first names betray the very nature of their competitive spirit. It’s reminiscent of every male dominated sport out there. They don’t want to be weak, so instead they’re “man” and “dude.” It’s easier that way. It’s armor.
In my own play, Dust, I also dive into the ferocity of teenage girls. My athletes are a high school swim team, condemned to an unfinished life – the entire play lives in the memory of the young man who killed every one of them, but even in his distorted lens they’re magnificent. The swim team’s captain, Wendy, is the queer object of this vicious man’s attention. Everyone else was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even in death, they work together as a team, shifting the perspective memory by memory.
When I told my parents about this play they were surprised I’d chosen an athletic path. Those football games on the street went on for years and at one point I actually took a chance on organized sports, playing two seasons of softball. But their perception of me has always been divorced from the athletics they know and love. They describe my upbringing as musical – a decade of clarinet and nearly the same amount of dance classes. Today, I lack grace. It’s like my body has forgotten how to move. But as a teenager, I’d show up at my community center on Tuesday nights, poised to learn another thirty seconds of choreography. I wanted so badly to dance to Tchaikovsky. Instead, my teacher brought in the Runaway Bride soundtrack. To this day I can’t hear Shawn Colvin without thinking about those long mirrors, the ballet barre, and the smell of high school girls learning to dance. As I raised my hands high above my head, blood dried on my palms. My mind was on the asphalt road of our makeshift football field.
All those years of dance make their way into Dust as well. In an effort to communicate with the audience that something is very wrong, the play never stops moving. Dance is an integral part of the play’s vocabulary, conveying everything from an overactive imagination to a mass murder. This play lives in a zone where words are not sufficient on their own. It’s the unsquareable moment of my bloody palms in a ballet class. It may look delicate at first glance, but upon closer inspection it’s everything but.
While I was finding inspiration for Dust in my dad’s legendary tales about his high school swim records, Lauren Yee was looking to her own father’s obsession with basketball as she started writing The Great Leap. In her author’s note, Yee writes that her father played basketball all day and all night growing up. As a 6’1” Chinatown kid from San Francisco’s projects, he dominated asphalt courts and recreation center floors. He was never going to go pro – he knew that even then. But he was good. He was really good.
Lauren Yee’s father first visited China in the 1980s, playing a series of exhibition games against China’s best teams. Yee says that The Great Leap isn’t her father’s story – his American team was defeated too many times to count. But it’s a story like her father’s. In The Great Leap, Manford, a rec center-trained teenager from Chinatown, busts into a basketball practice uninvited, barreling at the team’s point guard, twisting his ankle in the process. With a newly injured player and a life changing exhibition game against Beijing University on the horizon, the University of San Francisco coach, Saul, is livid. In the moment before the play begins, Saul tells Manford that he has thirty seconds to explain why he was “sh—ing all over his practice” before he calls security. While other players might leave immediately, running through the door they came in, Manford takes full advantage of the thirty seconds.
“I will win you games. I will score you points. I will make you layups. I will shoot from half court, full court. I will shoot over whatever, whenever, whoever is getting in my way. I am quick. I am relentless. I am the most relentless person you have ever met, and if you’ve met someone more relentless than me, tell me. Tell me and I will meet them, and I will find a way to become even more relentless than them.”
Despite his short stature and brash introduction, Manford makes his way onto the University of San Francisco team. Because he’s right. He is relentless. But he’s also undeniably talented.
We live in a city that pulses with Seahawks spirit, even in the off season. But March through May, a new cavalry of athletes is taking over. Manford and the University of San Francisco are commanding the Leo K. Theatre at Seattle Rep. Wendy and the Mermaids are taking over Youth Theatre Northwest, aptly surrounded by water on Mercer Island. And the Wolves are running drills up and down the Allen Theatre at ACT. It’s an athletic embarrassment of riches, helmed by three female playwrights who aren’t afraid to walk away with a scraped knee and a couple of bruises. As every coach we’ve ever encountered has said, “Rub some dirt on it and walk it off.”
The Great Leap by Lauren Yee runs at Seattle Repertory Theatre from March 23 to April 22.
The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe runs at ACT from April 20 to May 13.
A workshop production of Dust by Danielle Mohlman runs at Youth Theatre Northwest from May 11 to 12.
Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.