“I am a revolution!” shouts Mary Woolley in Bryna Turner’s Bull in a China Shop, based on the famous teacher, activist, and President of Mount Holyoke College. She wants to convert the college from a finishing school for wives to “a f*ing preeminent school of critical thought for women.” She also wants to change the world.
That expression, back in fashion of late, is tricky, not to mention totalizing. It has the scope of empyrean ambition but lacks specifics. Where to start? The whole world? What usually follows the expression are a few protests and endless ideological bickering. Woolley (1863-1947) had a foothold. In 1932, she campaigned to disarm the world. She did not succeed.
Her life was full of firsts: first woman to graduate from Brown University (Bachelors, 1894; Masters, 1895); first woman senator of Phi Beta Kappa; first and only woman to attend the Geneva Conference of 1932 (she argued that “moral disarmament was as important as military disarmament”), etc. She never entered a fight gleaming with naivete or far too aflame. And she never led with her chin. “You are right in thinking there are difficulties… in being a woman,” she wrote in 1932. “I must be effective, but not aggressive; womanly but not womanish; informed but unable to take my pipe and join other ‘pipers’ in the corridors [of power]…et cetera!”
Woolley battled within the system. Jeanette Marks (1875-1964), her life partner for 50 years, refused to acknowledge boundaries. She was a writer, gifted teacher, and unfettered firebrand. Woolley could be one too, but compared to Marks she was an unlit match.
They met at Wellesley College. When Woolley became President at Holyoke, she gave Marks a teaching post in the English Department (Marks founded the Laboratory Theatre in 1928). Woolley and Marks had to keep their relationship a secret or be fired. It wasn’t a complete secret, though. They had a large, underground fan club of devoted students.
The title, Bull in a China Shop, fits both women. It’s the beginning of a new century and each wants to change the status quo. One of the strengths of Turner’s play: the China Shop becomes an equally strong metaphor for what they’re up against. Though women’s suffrage is making headway, many still insist that women must be “headless wives.” One wrong step and Woolley and Marks are out on the street. But they refuse to tiptoe.
Another strength: conflicts come from without and within. Based mostly on their correspondence, the play covers four decades of their relationship. Each has a different sense of time. Woolley believes in common sense and a “smooth revolution.” She’ll run the race when the gun goes off. Impetuous Marks wants to jump the gun. As they “lead the college into the new century,” she sometimes forgets they’re in enemy territory. They clash about the scope of a revolution: one seeing too much, the other seeing too little.
They have to be distant even when together. Once again, Marks leaps a boundary. She has a brief affair with young Pearl. Woolley is in China, at a conference (she stays three months to throw off suspicion about their relationship). Pearl, head of the fan club, has a boulder-sized crush on Marks, who justifies having sex because it will broaden Pearl’s experience. When rejected, Pearl becomes bullish enough to smash every item in the china shop. She hurls rocks at Marks’s window and — as played by Andrea Agosto — lets out with an unconditional love/hate monologue that brings the house down at Diversionary.
The play moves in short scenes like snapshots and covers a lot of territory. Too much, and too sketchy for those interested in greater detail about the two women and the times they lived through. A possible positive here: the play prompts one to track down information about the pair, fill out the portraits. It is also a comedy, a choice that certainly entertains but often lessens the women’s underlying seriousness, since both were warriors.
China Shop is another example of a current trend: call it the Hamilton Effect. The play combines then and now. As in that great musical, multi-racial casting enhances themes and appeals to a wider audience. Contemporary slang and F-bombs, however, feel too linguistically liberated for women in the early decades of the 20th century (when Clark Gable said he didn’t “give a damn” in 1939's Gone With the Wind, he shocked much of the country).
At the heart of the play, and the Diversionary production: over the 40-year stretch, Woolley (Joanne Glover) and Marks (Tamara McMillan) reverse roles several times. Wooley works within the system. The higher up she quests to change the college and the world, the more she must compromise. Marks resents this approach and the system, but must compromise to keep her job — and their love. Their differences illustrate the struggle for equality in miniature.
Credit to director Kim Strassburger for wrestling with a multi-styled text, to Ron Logan for his minimalist set, and to Diversionary Theatre, now in its 33rd season, for staging plays with important subjects San Diegans wouldn’t see elsewhere.
Bull in a China Shop, by Bryna Turner
Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, University Heights.
Directed by Kim Strassburger; cast: Andrea Agosto, Maybelle Covington, Jo Anne Glover, Tamara McMillian, Milena (Sellers) Phillips; scenic design, Ron Logan, costumes, Beth Connelly, lighting, Curtis Mueller, sound, TJ Fucella.
Playing through October 14; Thursday at 7:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m.