General Electric just bought Greece, Pfizer owns every politician, and the few remaining women on earth have been forced to become child-bearers or prostitutes. Sound familiar? Perhaps you’re thinking of “Children of Men,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” or that fever dream you had the other night where George Bush was elected for 10 consecutive terms.
But, no, this is the world of “The Benefactor,” a play by Kimberly Lynne, which StillPointe Theatre Initiative is producing at Emmanuel Episcopal Church through Feb. 21, that attempts to use this dystopian setting as a means to explore gender and sexuality. Judith (Courtney Proctor), a professional child-bearer, is on strict orders to stay indoors for the health of the baby she’s pregnant with. She is occasionally visited by her nurse, Maria (Joan Weber), but still complains of being restless; soon, she starts receiving a weekly visit from David (Derek Vaughan Brown), a writer sent by a secret, wealthy benefactor to interview Judith so he can “channel a woman’s voice” for the biography he is writing of the benefactor’s mother. He and Judith sign a contract in which they agree to discuss “art and gender” over the course of a month —but, as it happens, there is little talk of either.
Instead David begins by reading a quote to Judith, and asking her to determine whether it was written by a man or a woman. At first Judith is, understandably, perplexed by this task, but gradually comes around, insisting that her “woman’s intuition” gives her the ability to distinguish the gender of a voice. Women, she explains to David time and again, are more emotional and communicate better with their bodies. Although she was an artist before she took up child-bearing, when asked how she feels about Peter Paul Rubens she is only able to say, “He turns me on.” The art that Judith used to created was made primarily of smeared menstrual blood, because she felt that expressed her experience as a woman.
And yet, as entrenched as she is in gender essentialism and the trope of the sexy, pregnant earth-mother, Judith also expresses frustration, albeit misplaced, about the gender binary. Women are subjugated, she rants, because they were either too concerned with upsetting the patriarchy or had internalized men’s expectations of them. For her, gender equality isn’t really a possibility. And David doesn’t have an opinion, on this or anything else, really. He is confined to acting either as sounding-board for Judith or a secret-keeper for the benefactor, neither of which allow his character to develop.
As much as “The Benefactor” wants to be a progressive play about gender and sexuality, it can’t escape the sticky traps of stereotypes and essentialism. This is not to say that “The Benefactor” doesn’t have its charming or funny moments—it does. And, if anything, it serves as a reminder that as far as talking about feminism is concerned, we still have a long way to go.