The Wild World of ‘Usual Girls’: Sex, Misogyny, Racism, and Cuddly Toys
The sighs and gasps of recognition from women were double-edged during a recent performance of Ming Peiffer’s piercing play, Usual Girls, at the Black Box Theatre of the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center.
This Roundabout Theatre Company play about a woman growing up Korean-American in Upper Arlington, Ohio, reaches out directly, and sharply, to all women watching it—and hopefully men too. We follow the life story of Kyeoung (Midori Francis) as she progresses from young girl to adult woman, from the 1980s to 2018.
This vibrantly colorful and raw exploration of female identity, friendship, and isolation—performed by an excellent, almost all-female company—looks at the male-sourced damage done to young women, and the damage young women can do to each other in direct and indirect response. This is a very personal history of #MeToo. It isn’t a smooth play, it is proudly scuffed at its edges. It feels workshop-py, rather than neat and sleek.
In a tiny basement space, director Tyne Rafaeli summons up bitty expositions of elementary school, middle school, high school, college, and the present day in a production full of scattered energy and inquiry. Arnulfo Maldonado’s simple sets evoke “playgrounds, bathrooms and basements,” as the program puts it.
Tei Blow’s sound design of pop and rock blasts away when the lights go down and the years spin forward. Jen Schriever’s lighting pulses brightly, before momentary total darkness descends and a new set magically materializes. Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes playfully span generations. This is a play with all kinds of volume turned up.
What strikes you first is that before boys enter girl-world, while everything isn’t rosy, it sure isn’t as complicated and nasty as things can sometimes get.
We first meet Kyeoung and her friends (the adult actors play the characters as girls and grown-ups) as they play in the playground, trying to balance on beams and not tip over into the mulch, as they talk about things they know they shouldn’t: private bits of their bodies that shock them into hysterical laughter as soon as they say them. “Everyone wants to see girls naked,” the very young Kyeoung notes.