The morning after I saw Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern's lively punk play, Yes to Nothing, at Slim's, I opened the Sunday New York Times to find a roundtable discussion on being a woman in the music industry. The musicians' comments are well worth reading, but I got hung up on the Times' framing: "We have consistently marveled at how much outstanding rock music is being made by female and non-binary performers."
In 2017, why should we marvel that women can be talented musicians? I wished I could hear a response from Pamela, Jo, Bobbi, and Karen, who make up Durham playwright Mara Thomas's fictional Midwestern punk band, The Rags, based on first-wave British punk band The Slits. We first meet The Rags as teenagers on their first tour in 1982. Onstage at Slim's, the four women tune up, tease one another, discuss pubic lice, heckle the sound guy, down beer, and dump on dopey men. In one scene, they trade stories of their earliest unwanted sexual encounters. There's no "if." These instances are understood as a hateful rite of passage for all women. I have no evidence to the contrary. Karen (Alice Rose Turner) fixes her bass while coolly recounting an incident in which a physician masturbated while she stood, undressed, in the examination room.
The Times' mild surprise typifies the double standard women in music—or any profession—endure. Yes to Nothing exposes how these standards persist in cultural expectations regarding women's propriety. Some might bristle at the brashness of these teenagers' excessive banter and the frank way they talk and sing about their bodies. But if The Rags were teenage boys, would we think to question, let alone police, their behavior? As Karen explains to a deliciously one-dimensional male music journalist—Steven G. Cooper plays all the "assorted dudes"—The Rags' artistic project is partly to disturb audiences' comfort.
Even so, the younger Rags' dialogue sometimes drags on too long. These characters are full-speed-ahead, scathingly self-aware movers and shakers; the script could more tightly channel their verve.
Director Caitlin Wells manages temporal transitions well. We see 1982 blur into 2002 as the elder Rags wend through the crowd, brushing shoulders with their younger selves as they set up for a twenty-year reunion concert. The older actors' lines give a better sense of the characters' multiplicities. Dana Marks excels as fortysomething Pamela, anxious to regain her rocker's confidence despite her husband's jabs at her career choices. Reuniting with her band-mates strengthens her, especially in graver moments, as when Pamela performs an onstage breast check on the self-assured Jo (Drina Dunlap). The Slits' Ari Up died from breast cancer in 2010.
A smart theatrical conceit connects the timelines. Instead of a "check-one-two" or lyrical snippet, the musicians' mic checks become electrifying monologues, filling the speakers with perverted nursery rhymes and existential meditations on their changing bodies. Sound checks are normally audience-free routines, but, of course, we're there. The actors stare us down beneath the stage lights' eerie greens and purples, demanding we behold them. They remind us how alarming it is that it's still so alarming, for some, to see women unapologetically take power.