It was, as Gemma Whelan puts it, “a medieval system.” Women who became pregnant out of wedlock were confined to convents or the like, not for prayer and contemplation, but to labor in institutional laundries. Shunned and half-forgotten by their families and society, these women were imprisoned, effectively, sometimes for the rest of their lives. The babies mostly were put up for adoption. But the unmarked graves of babies and women have been discovered in churchyards.
As a Catholic novice in the 1960s, Patricia Burke Brogan caught a first-hand look at what was known as a Magdalene Laundry and the lives of these “fallen women,” for whom she was a sort of jailer. She didn’t last long in the religious life.
In 1992, Brogan revisited the experience in Eclipsed, a play about unwed mothers in the convent laundry of the fictional St. Paul’s Home for Penitent Women in Killmacha, Ireland. Since then, various accounts and investigations have brought more of that sordid history to light, yet it’s a history that remains obscure.
Whelan, the Irish-born artistic director of Portland’s Corrib Theatre, wants to shine more light on this dark chapter. She’s directing Eclipsed as the opening production of a season “framed upon remembrance, resistance, and restitution.”
“I felt it was important to tell the story, in part because it isn’t over,” Whelan says. “There’s still literally bodies being found.”
Magdalene Laundries began in the late 18th century, and though the concept wasn’t originally or exclusively Irish and Catholic, it became a longstanding fixture of the church and society in Ireland. The last of them wasn’t shut down until 1996. What began as asylums for prostitutes developed into a pervasive tool of social control and moral coercion, as well as a renewable source of unpaid labor.
“We got our freedom in 1922 — hooray! — and then proceeded to make lesser citizens of women and children and the poor,” Whelan says. “There’s proof that the church and the state colluded. After independence, they decided to project an image of purity and Catholicism. They actually wrote in the Constitution that women were to have their place in the home, and weren’t allowed to work outside the home, to write checks or all sorts of things.
“I actually thought it’s necessary (to stage the play) because of our present history, dealing with how we’ve treated people as a society. I’m thinking of #Me Too and Black Lives Matter, and on and on. Socially, how do we deal with our history and the responsibility to tell that history.”
Whelan has directed the play previously, in Berkeley, California in the 1990s, and had plans to stage it in Portland a few years ago. “I wanted to produce it before but couldn’t get the funding — it’s quite a large show for Corrib. So I did a reading of it in 2016 and had a discussion afterward.”
For this production, Whelan made “quite a conscious choice” to employ an entirely female creative team. And though the play is set primarily in 1963, Whelan has cast it to reflect the racial diversity of Ireland today, with Victoria Alvarez-Chacon (who Whelan says is of African-American and Cuban ancestry) as the story’s protagonist. The cast also includes such top talents as Lorraine Bahr and Jamie M. Rea.
Despite the grim moral backdrop of Eclipsed, the Irish Times has described it as “an absorbing experience, more humane than browbeating.” And Whelan concurs.
“There is a lot of levity in it; it’s not all gloom and doom,” she says. “Part of the act of resistance is telling the story.”
In the words of one Portland icon, “What the hell is ‘ladylike’?” So maybe Darcelle isn’t a lady by everyone’s definition. The dean/doyenne of Portland drag performers, the night-life grand dame and her creator, Walter Cole, deserve whatever honorific she/he/they might choose. As far as honors go, That’s No Lady, a new musical bio from Don Horn and his Triangle Productions, looks like a nice one. The show includes songwriting contributions from Portland music stars Tom Grant, Marv Ross anád the aforementioned Storm Large, plus theater stalwarts Jon Quesenberry and Rodolfo Ortega. Broadway vet and Oregon native Kevin C. Loomis stars, and the skilled young theater maker Brandon Woolley directs. The three-weekend run will take place in Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall rather than Triangle’s customary Eastside home.
“During Ingenio, each play is assigned an individual director and cast, and after a week of rehearsals, the plays will be presented in concert-style readings to an audience, followed by post-show conversations with the playwrights and artists involved.” So Milagro describes its play-development festival. And if that sounds exactly like the template for Portland Center Stage’s JAW festival, consider the similarity a good thing. This weekend’s third annual Ingenion features plays by Julián Mesri, Andrew Siañez and Georgina Escobar.
Braid Beard, the lead character in the musical How I Became a Pirate by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman, sounds like sort of a hipster variant on the classic swashbuckling scoundrel. But what better way, I guess, for Northwest Children’s Theatre to get through Portland kids and their pirate-loving hipster parents.
The flattened stage
A recent Facebook exchange about something or other — oh, yeah, it was my complaint/conviction that the cartoon series Scooby Doo is the worst cultural product of any kind in the history of the world — led friends of mine to start pitching in their candidates for the worst TV show ever. And among the nominees was Cop Rock, the infamous failure from Stephen Bochco, who had been so lauded previously for Hill Street Blues. The 11-episode run of Cop Rock took place in 1990, a time in which I did not have a television. So over the years I’ve known the show mostly by its lousy reputation (#8 on TV Guide’s List of the 50 Worst TV Shows of All Time, compiled in 2002), and by the wacky yet intriguing concept that torpedoed it: combination police procedural, dark comedy and rock musical.
The musical, of course, is a remarkably tricky genre, so easy to flub, so difficult to get just right. But from a quick perusal of a few online remnants, I wonder why folks thought Cop Rock was quite so bad as they did.
For one thing, there’s this little clip, which includes a performance by a singer who would go on a few years afterward to, well, leave Las Vegas, have some fun, soak up the sun, and otherwise be a fine pop star.
Best line I read this week
“If you’re not vigilant, you’re going to be like the person who had his throat cut and didn’t know until he shook his head.”
— former U.S. Circuit judge and NAACP general counsel Nathaniel R. Jones, as quoted in the Susan Banyas book The Hillsboro Story.
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.