Meditations on the Strength of Women


Playwright Joyce Carol Oates says she doesn't write plays.

Speaking from her home in Princeton, N.J.--Oates is a humanities professor at the university--she explains that her form is the "collage play, assemblages of voices." As in a graphic arts collage, she takes chunks of life and juxtaposes them in patterns that give them new dimension.

Her play "I Stand Before You Naked" is just such a mosaic comprising 10 women's monologues.

In conversation, Oates, better known as a writer of novels and short stories, is soft-spoken and reserved. Hers is an elegant, gentle voice, much different from her writing, which is more harsh and insistent. "I Stand Before You Naked," her most successful play to date, conveys the volatile dangers facing women.

The play, at the American Renegade Theatre in its temporary quarters in North Hollywood, has been seen in New York, London and Chicago and ran for two seasons in Paris. The play's message might be best understood by women, Oates says, but is just as important for men to hear. And she is fascinated by the fact that, with one exception, the play always has been directed by men.

"Naked," Oates says, is about the strength of women and a kind of stubborn resilience--even optimism--they have, even in the midst of suffering. The play ends with the story of a pregnant woman, standing looking at the rising sun. It's a new day. The nine other women in the play are not so fortunate.

Two of the actresses in this revival feel as strongly about the subject matter as the playwright. Jillian McWhirter plays a paranoid schizophrenic who is about to snap in the monologue titled "Nuclear Holocaust." In "Darling, I'm Telling You," Susan DeCenzo is a topless dancer whose naivete leads her inexorably to a tragic end.

DeCenzo explains that her character ran away from home following a bad childhood, became a topless dancer and made the mistake of falling in love with the wrong man.

"She feels safest and most in control when she's dancing. She has an illusion that the men she's dancing for are respecting and loving her. She comes to a very abrupt realization that probably most of those men out there have very violent fantasies going through their minds as she's dancing. It turns out it wasn't the safe haven she thought it was."

Oates says that "Naked" is about the decisions women make. For DeCenzo's character, the first bad choice, running away, paved the road for other bad choices.

The choices made by McWhirter's schizophrenic character are on a different level. "I'm trapped inside myself and I want to be freed by death," McWhirter says of the character. "At the same time, I feel like I am one of the freest of women. I'm happy when I'm talking about Jesus, about God, because he talks to me." McWhirter recalls reading an interview with Oates in which the writer described her own sister's institutionalization as a child.

DeCenzo is impressed with the power of Oates' writing, which she describes as very Gothic. "She writes about everyday bloodshed," DeCenzo says. "She doesn't hide behind flowery words or romanticize anything. She's very, very realistic and very blunt. She even finds a sort of liberation in murder, a sense of being freed."

That sounds more like the late French author Jean Genet, who celebrated the poetry of murder. But Oates' stories of violence and disruption are metaphors for the day-to-day struggles of average women.

McWhirter amplifies that thought. "Oates uses a lot of the violence, the sexuality, the religion to get through to a point," she says. "A lot of these women were never really loved in a healthy way, from their mothers, their fathers, from society. This is why they ended up where they are. Basically, they're saying: 'This is me. Look past all these situations that I'm in, the problems in my life, and just love me.' That is the healing power."

DeCenzo remembers people told her the play was about man-bashing, but she refutes that idea.

"If anything," she says, "there's a great lesson to be learned, as far as accepting one another and accepting people for their faults and for the place they're in, no matter how decrepit or battered, no matter how many bad choices they've made. Accept them for who they are and where they are right now."

Before rushing off to teach a class, Oates talks about how the play developed over a period of time listening to women's voices in her head: the anorexic teenager, the confused woman who marries a jailed serial killer and all the other symbolic characters in her collage.

"It's really bizarre," Oates says, the smile in her voice transmitting clearly over the long-distance wire, "but I was kind of exploring female masochism."

* "I Stand Before You Naked," American Renegade Theatre, 5303 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Dec. 15. $10. (818) 763-4430.

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