Show/Venue: Usual Girls at the Harold & Miriam Steinberg Center // Black Box Theatre
Date: Saturday, December 22nd, 2018 @ 1:30pm
Starring: Midori Francis, Abby Corrigan, Jennifer Lee, Ryann Redmond, Nicole Rodenburg
One of the best parts of about living in NYC for me, is the accessibility to important works of theatre. Usual Girls at the Roundabout Underground became one of those pieces that the theatre community was quickly buzzing about. Ming Peiffer wrote a stunning and thought-provoking piece about a Korean-American girl growing up in the Midwest (Ohio) and dealing with adolescence & racism in the 80’s and 90’s. Based on this description alone, I knew I would relate to this show.
I had the opportunity to see Midori Francis (Kyeoung) in The Wolves at Lincoln Center last year, so I was anxious to see her in this work. The play opens up with the girls in early elementary school, where they’re playing a game of “hot lava,” jumping from block to block while not touching the ground. Soon the conversation shifts to the adult magazines that Kyeoung found in her father’s room. The other girls can’t believe that her father knowingly shares these “dirty magazines” wit her and doesn’t have a problem. Another girl, Lindsay (Nicole Rodenburg), mentioned that she saw her brother & his girlfriend having sex and got cussed out by him. Then a young classmate, a boy named Rory (Raviv Ullman), appears and threatens to tell their teacher that they were swearing and talking about sex about unless Lindsay kisses him. When Lindsay refuses, Kyeoung offers to, but Rory calls her names and says he doesn’t want her because of the way she looks. The taunting goes back and forth and Lindsay starts to kiss Rory before Kyeong runs across the playground and pushes him, giving him a bloody nose.
The theatre goes dark and 90’s girl pop music plays and when the lights come back up Anna (Abby Corrigan) and Kyeoung are in a basement making out with their stuffed toys and wondering what a real kiss feels like. The play turns sexual as the girls hump their toys, but they don’t really understand what they are doing; they are only mimicking what they have seen their older siblings and parents do. Anna wonders why they only play “boyfriends” with their toys, but not “girlfriends.” Kyeoung decides that they can play “girlfriends” and Kyeoung’s Dad (Karl Kenzler) comes into the basement to find Anna on top of Kyeoung, grinding her hips and saying “I love you, I love you, I love you…” And then more blackness.
Now the girls are pre-teens/teenagers and at a slumber party. They can’t believe that Sasha (Sofia Black-D’Elia) has already grown public hair and want to see. Sasha reluctantly shows them and reveals that she also bought her first bra and has her period. The other girls are full of questions, wanting to know what everything is like and how her mom actually lets her shave her legs! (They all gather round Sasha to feel her smooth shins.) Suddenly, a group of teenage boys come up to the basement window and start knocking and pounding on the glass. Some taunting starts and the boys moon the girls; who then take turns mooning them back. The boys start to encourage the girls to let them into the slumber party and with some hesitation, they finally let the boys in. In a matter of moments, the boys are all over the girls and in the dimly lit set, you can assume that some of these boys are going past first or second base. As the lights come up, the girls are in various states of disarray before all the lights go out and the set changes again.
We next see Kyeoung dressed in her volleyball uniform, as she waits for her Dad to pick her up. Rory approaches and comments on how short and tight her shorts are. Kyeoung is confused as to why he keeps talking to her; he’s never been nice to her and has always caused her grief. Rory feins that he’s doing her a favor as Lindsay (now becoming the IT girl at school), is spreading rumors about Keyoung giving a schoolmate a blow job. We’re not really sure of what’s actually true, but we know that Lindsay isn’t innocent in the situation. A few older girls approach Kyeoung after Rory has left and interrogate her about this rumor. Of course, Kyeoung defends herself and as her father finally appears, although visibly drunk. He quickly sees these other girls as his daughter’s friends, not realizing that his presence is making things worse for Kyeoung. As Kyeoung stuggles to get her intoxicated father to the car, he stumbles while trying to make friends with this group of girls. While struggling to walk, he reveals some dark things about Kyeoung’s life at home (how her mother left and remarried, his relationship with his daughter & how she was a mistake) and one of the girls starts to sympathize with her.
The story shifts slightly into a memory play, as an older version of Kyeoung (Jennifer Lim, Chinglish), recalls some of the incidents of her adolscence. She comes out onto a playground and remembers some of her struggles growing up. She then sees her younger self in the bathroom, wanting to shave off her pubic hair; a way to make her more desirable to boys. Older Kyeoung interacts with her younger self to really try and question why she wants to do this.
Moving foward to the college years, Kyeoung and her sorority sisters travel to the city. In a nightclub’s restroom, the girls refresh and snort some coke. Kyeoung then runs into her childhood friend, Anna, and they catch up on their lives. Anna laments about the sorry state of dating that girls have to struggle with. Yet Kyeoung can’t help but ask Anna over and over again about why they didn’t stay friends all those years ago. Anna, not thinking clearly, brushes off her questions and snorts more cocaine before they go back to the dance floor.
In another scene, Older Kyeoung remembers a late night where she was assaulted. Her younger self comes home and just wants to take a shower. Older Kyeoung tries to enocourage her to go to the police and not take a shower, but her protest doesn’t work. After a powerful struggle between the two, younger Kyeoung gets into the bathtub as her older self remembers what happens that night; how she was drunk, how the boy got on top of her, how she didn’t scream “no” and how he walked her home and got her a cup of coffee afterwards.
Older Kyeoung comes forward, addressing that night and some of the other experiences she has had with men; mostly dark and upsetting. She closed with the statement: “It just keeps happening.”
In the lobby of the Black Box Theatre // Roundabout Undergroud there’s a display of power women. Naturally, I was drawn to the poster about Margaret Cho and all she did for the Asian-American experience in popular culture.
After the show came down, I wanted to sit in the theatre to think about the work I had just seen. Roundabout Underground gave each audience member a program that talks about Ming Peiffer’s work, the ideas addressed in the play and some interviews with the actors. I was fascinated to read that the play started as a commentary on slimy CEO of American Apparel, Dov Charney, and how he used overtly sexualized photos of young girls to market his clothing brand to consumers.
Obviously, I identified with many themes in this play, but the tone and even the shock of some of the racist comments thrown at Kyeoung, were easily identifiable for me. (You could hear the audience’s intake of breath when Rory asked a young Kyeoung if her vagina was sideways, like he heard all Asian women’s were.)
While not a play that could show on a larger stage, the intimate setting and story were a perfect fit for Roundabout Underground.