Toward the beginning of her one-woman show, “PussyGrabbingREVENGE,” Elaine Magree pointedly looked at the audience, noting that her show was thematically going to get quite dark. She softened that warning with a joke, the first of many to land successfully even when delivered after a particularly grim revelation or two.
As part of TheatreFIRST’s first annual “Queer Voices in Rep” event, Magree put on “PussyGrabbingREVENGE” at Berkeley’s Waterfront Playhouse and Conservatory on Saturday. It was a good-spirited night, Magree making everyone laugh despite rape culture being at the center of the discussion her show raises. Magree is an outstanding performer, using exaggerated physical comedy and voices freely, yet she manages to not wear them out. She has few costume changes, and even these are minimal in that they’re more layering and delayering than they are actual changes.
But most importantly, her comedic timing is impressively on the mark and also the show’s chief strength. Magree garnered laughs the minute she made her dramatic entrance, bouncing onstage in an apron that clashed harshly with her otherwise androgynous clothing, carrying a wand and looking ready to tell a whimsical story.
The performance itself, and how it entertains for entertainment’s sake, is fine. What is troublesome starts with the show’s format and what argument that format is working toward. Perhaps the most fitting way to describe “PussyGrabbingREVENGE” is as a performed essay — Magree isn’t just laying out a narrative, she’s explicitly making an argument. In some ways, “PussyGrabbingREVENGE” is like a TED talk, if TED talks were sometimes put on as dramatic performances.
Thus, Magree speaks not through a fictional lens, but through her own voice, pulling narrative evidence from both her own life and the world beyond her. This isn’t a story about her; it’s an argument made about attitudes toward rape culture, and her own experiences simply help her make her point.
Speaking of which: what exactly is that point? What Magree argues is that anger toward men who engage in and perpetuate rape culture, while understandable, isn’t productive when it becomes about wanting to take revenge. At the same time, Magree talks herself in circles and seems to commend certain women who have taken revenge against men. This won’t change anything, she says, but she still appears to praise the validity of acting on these revengeful impulses.
It’s hard to know what exactly Magree is going for in “PussyGrabbingREVENGE.” The forefront of her argument seems to be recognizing nuance in the anger that is stirred by rape culture. But how nuanced is that anger, really? One could wager that what Magree is asking, first and foremost, is for people victimized by rape culture to ruminate on their anger. And, if so, this is inherently flawed insofar as it diminishes the existence of individualized trauma responses from survivor to survivor. Is it really fair to ask victims to stop and ruminate? Is it productive to ask this of them?
Magree also shoots her credibility in the foot during one of her show’s sequences in which she addresses how infighting affects solidarity, acting the parts of women shouting at each other. One of these hurled insults is simply, “You have too much privilege!”
This line’s tone-deafness speaks volumes to the confused nature of “PussyGrabbingREVENGE” and the fact that in this show, Magree, unfortunately and probably unintentionally, seemingly plays into white feminism. A statement like this that ignores the intersectionality of the problem at the center of Magree’s show undermines everything else about the show, including all the times Magree talks about issues specific to people of color. A statement like this makes all of these other instances feel performative.
One can’t ignore the lived experiences that Magree has had as a result of rape culture, nor would it do to not praise the bravery it takes to be honest about these experiences in front of an audience. But “PussyGrabbingREVENGE” isn’t just a cathartic piece of art — it’s a call to action. To what action? Maybe Magree herself doesn’t even know.