by Arney Rosenblat
This JC Lee play is a sharp and
compelling foray into the addictive need to both achieve and sustain relevance
in life, in this case as an arbiter of the evolving feminist voice.
Relevance is also
very much a story about generational conflicts and the inability to establish a
viable dialogue even among those individuals with whom we basically agree. The
result is a knee-jerk reaction to attack, compete with, and vanquish any one we
think might threaten or challenge us, the most popular weapon of choice today
being social media. Even the pretense of the now cliched phrase, "I
hear you" appears to be gone by the way side when addressing key issues of
At the core of Relevance
are two authors who are key forces in the feminist movement. one established
and the other a rising star. Both are attending and being honored at a
prominent literary conference, the fictional " American Conference for
Letters and Culture.". The former is Theresa Hanneck, a force of
nature, and brilliantly played as such by Tony-winning Jayne Houdyshell, who is
at the conference to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. The latter is
the African American Msemaji Ukweli, portrayed by Pascale Armand of
"Eclipse" fame with finesse and complex feeling, who is at the
conference to receive the group's most prestigious grant after setting
the literary world afire with her memoir "Grace and Virtue"
recounting a tough upbringing and the survival of a college rape.
Molly Camp, Jayne Houdyshell, and Pascale
Armand photos by Joan Marcus
What begins as an educational
debate quickly devolves into a generational battle over what should be the
direction of and who should be the relevant voices for the feminist and
post-feminist movement. The clash is heightened by the fact that
conference moderator, KellyTaylor, played with nuanced skill by Molly Camp, is
live tweeting the proceedings using the hashtag "#LitLadies" and
Msemaji has a huge Twitter following. Kelly is herself "the youngest
vice-committee chair in the history of this conference."
Theresa who initially dominates,
even steam-rolls, the content of an exchange exploring the oppression of
marginal people, by virtue of her lynch-pin role in inspiring the current
generation of smart, confident female writers, begins to feel she is being made
irrelevant to that movement by the very generation of writers she helped to
establish, particularly when the young African American writer accuses her of
fostering the position of "righteous victimhood.." These
feelings are re-enforced when Msemaji twitter followers erupt with an onslaught
of negative and nasty comments directed at Theresa.
"What better way to position
herself than by turning my Lifetime Achievement Award into a retirement
party," seethes Theresa in her room after the panel
The ability to maximize cyber
tools such as Twitter is not the only gulf between these two generations of
writers, it's how the language of the feminist movement has evolved over time.
as illustrated when Msemaji gives fresh meaning to the word bitches. "I
believe in the re-appropriation of language in order to claim ourselves.
Bitch has been used to put women in their place for centuries but we should be
proud to know our strength invokes fear, invokes comparison to an angry mother
dog, invokes the need in others to transform us so that we are not our full
There is a real tragic element to
this Lee play. The more Theresa misdirects her admirable intellect in an
alleged quest for truth and struggles to ensure her continued relevance, the
more she destroys her own legacy.
In Relevance, Lee also
examines the meaning of "truth" Msemaji, as Theresa discovers,
is actually from a privileged not an underclass background as implied.
However, she has suffered and has taken that suffering to re-invent herself in
order to establish a narrative that will give her relevance in the current
feminist movement. "I'm not a fraud for knowing what it took to get
here," she informs Theresa, "to win, to be the woman people look to
for what comes next."
and Jayne Houdyshell
Rounding out the outstanding cast
is Richard Masur who portrays David, Theresa's literary agent and former lover
with gusto.. At first he brings some much welcome humor to the proceedings but
he also has a pragmatic savvy business sense realizing that this is now
Msemaji's time in the sun.
Liesle Tommy directs Relevance
with a sure brisk hand providing tender touches in the scenes between Theresa
and David who have a long and complicated history.
The Cliff Ramos clean opening
scenic design is reminiscent of a TED Talk and efficiently transitions between
the hotel meeting rooms, Theresa's bedroom and hotel nooks where growing
adversaries can plan, bob and weave. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's production design
spotlighting projected Twitter feeds and You Tube videos significantly
heightens the drama of the concluding face-off between Theresa and Msemaji
Off Broadway Drama
Lucille Lortel Theater
121 Christopher Street, West Village
Closing Date March 11,1018