If you’ve been keeping score, you’ve probably noticed: Women have been getting sweaty on New York stages lately. They punch and kick. They jab and run. They push themselves and each other to their physical limits, until someone erupts in triumph or defeat.
In Deborah Stein and Suli Holum’s “The Wholehearted,” at the Abrons Arts Center through April 1, a boxer wraps her hands, puts on her gloves and hits a bag as violently as she would the abusive husband who almost killed her. In January, Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer Prize finalist “The Wolves,” about teenage girls on a soccer team, ended its third New York run in two years; a month later, we could watch two high school fencers for whom friendship is a weapon as sharp as a blade in Gracie Gardner’s “Athena.” Reaching back a few years, Ruby Rae Spiegel’s harrowing “Dry Land” was set mostly in the locker room of a girls’ swim team.
Football? We got that too: Julia Brownell’s “All-American” explored the dynamics in a family where a daughter did not want to be her school’s quarterback anymore, while Tina Satter’s “In the Pony Palace/Football” gleefully appropriated gridiron tropes by having women play boys. Coed plays about tennis have included Anna Ziegler’s “The Last Match” and Kevin Armento and Bryony Lavery’s “Balls,” which reproduced the infamous “battle of the sexes” match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.
This is starting to look like a trend. But then, there should be a better term for the act of making up for decades’ worth of women playing the male star’s girlfriend (“Rocky the Musical”), wife (“Lombardi”), mother (“Magic/Bird”) or temptress (“Damn Yankees”). Telling untold stories is not merely a “trend,” not 46 years after Title IX passed, forbidding sex-based discrimination in federally funded education programs or activities.
All these new plays have been written or co-written, directed or co-directed, by women. And in most of them, sports is more than the background; rather, it is a dramatic engine for exploring socialization and self-image, femininity and power. For many women, athletics is one of the few places where it is acceptable to show ambition, where it is O.K. to want to win-win-win.
Tellingly, several of these new shows have focused on adolescence, a time when a girl’s body is simultaneously ally (it has newfound abilities) and foe (it changes in uncontrollable ways, triggers unpredictable moods and draws attention that may or may not be welcome). Teenagers can take pleasure in their power without necessarily having it linked to notions of attractiveness.
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