Girls! Girls? Girls. is a provocative one-woman play written and performed by Marjuan Canady, who transforms herself into 10 diverse characters, capturing the voices and concerns of black women worldwide. The satire explores how we have looked at black women in the past, in the present, and in a funny yet frightening future. Who would've imagined we'd reach a time where women are dying from botched injections because they believe a bigger bum is the key to beauty, yet historically, Sara Baartman's butt made her an object of ridicule and display? After graduating from Fordham University in 2008 with a B.A. in Theater and African Studies, Canady spent a year auditioning with little success. "I had this idea that life would be full of amazing roles, but I was often cast as a video model/love interest with flat character development. And, I was never black or Latina enough," says the actress. Canady was repeatedly told by casting directors: "We just can't place your ethnicity, so we can't book you for this role."
As Canady struggled to make a living as an actress, attending graduate school at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts became her next role. A performance class studying how creatives use satire to push a political message through humor changed everything. "In the summer of 2010, I started writing short poems about black women's bodies and black feminism in my living room, and three months later, Girls! Girls? Girls. was born," she says.
Years later, Canady's one-woman play remains relevant and has been featured Off-Broadway, at national festivals, regional theaters, and will be released as a documentary in summer 2017. In celebration of Women's History Month, Canady will perform an excerpt from Girls! Girls? Girls. during the Amplify Black Women of the Movement Symposium in Philadelphia.
We speak with the writer and actress about her inspiration behind the play, getting into an activist mentality, and her efforts to encourage the next generation of female leaders.
Can you tell me more about Girls! Girls? Girls. and introduce some of its characters?
The premise of the play follows a fake world where black women are always on display. It's so extreme and over-sexualized, but because it's normalized, no one thinks it's a problem. My experiences living, auditioning, and performing in New York and L.A. informed my character development process. From the casting directors who typecast me for roles to people I knew personally, met by chance, or saw in the media—they all became characters. For example, I'm a rapper named 40 Ounce who is based on Plies and other rappers in society. I remember when Plies had a Bust it Baby contest on BET where he was looking for his next video vixen. In the play, I changed this to 40 Ounce looking for his next Pussy Rim Chick.
Roberto is inspired by a man I met on an NYC train, and explores sexual harassment. Sara Baartman is a real woman few people learned about in black history. She was put on display and her body was sexualized and victimized—raising issues of race and gender. And, Beverly Brushetta is a combination of Wendy Williams meets Oprah. By incorporating elements from life into characters' storylines, everyone relates to someone and history becomes interesting and relevant.
Why did you choose to play all 10 characters yourself?
I was interested in the experimentation of solo performance. And, I was inspired by Whoopi Goldberg and Sarah Jones's one-woman plays. I wanted to express black feminism, history and pop culture in a specific way. And, as an actress who was frequently rejected, I had a fire to prove to myself and others that I was a skilled performer.
How do audiences respond to the play and how do you use it to encourage girls?
The play is a great way to spark real conversations, and see things from other people's perspectives. Audiences are entertained and equally disturbed. The power of satire is that it exposes the truth through a comedic lens, which can be painful. And it's important to understand the larger messages we've been told by the media as women, especially black women, and acknowledge how these messages impact our daily lives.
To date, I've performed the play at 50 colleges plus additional high schools. With a recent grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, I created the Miss Media literacy program for high school and college girls. This will extend my work by taking elements of the play and crafting workshops around themes like self-esteem, bullying, and issues girls face in their communities. Then, the girls will create content around the themes to see that art isn't just something that belongs in a museum or something that belongs to old, dead white men. Their voices matter, they're valued, and they can write their own stories.
How do educators and schools respond to Girls! Girls? Girls.?
Educators are on board, and I always let them know what to expect beforehand. However, I'll never forget performing for a 10th grade class in the Bronx, and the principal walked in during the "Pussy Rims" song. As a person, I was horrified, but as a performer, I couldn't break character and had to keep going. Afterwards, we all sat down and had a real conversation about what we listen to on the radio, and how this influences our interactions with each other.
Do you feel like the state of black women is improving?
Black women are more prominent in public, entertainment, and media today—just look at Shonda Rhimes and Issa Rae! Women are writing and producing more, which gives young women more space to tell their own stories in a vibrant, full way. But, there's more work to be done. Those of us who are afforded opportunities to have our work, content, and name in the public must provide a lane for those coming behind us.
What are your hopes for women and black women looking ahead?
We must create our own institutions and believe our work can penetrate the mainstream. We must place ourselves into history on our own terms. This requires an activist mentality. I encourage girls and women to explore your passions and commit to your craft. Find mentors and supportive friends. Be patient with yourself. And, as scary as it might be, take on leadership positions at school and in your community.
Text Jacqueline Lara