The audience sits patiently ten minutes before the show starts. Chattering and laughing fill the air as the clock ticks closer to 8 o’clock when the show is scheduled to begin. Suddenly, the room turns pitch black. The audience is left in complete silence, and three hooded figures move out from the shadows, laying themselves across the staged dirt pile in the center of the room as a dim light fades in from above.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s theatre department’s latest performance, “Girls on a Dirt Pile,” is an original play written by UMBC’s own Susan McCully, a professor and playwright of feminist theatre. “Girls on a Dirt Pile” explores the world of Greek gods — a world that is chillingly similar to our own with its themes of female oppression and sexual assault.
From the beginning of the show, the audience is quickly introduced to the three original Graeae and their “children” — the gods Demeter, Zeus, Hades and Hecate. The plot follows the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, who was taken to the underworld by Hades so that she could be part of the twirlers, a group of dancers in skin-tight clothing. More and more evil is revealed as the show goes on, and it becomes clear how much Persephone is suffering at the hands of Hades. And nobody is able to help her.
In the second act of the play, the world is at its end because Demeter, trying to protect her daughter, destroyed everything necessary for survival. The gods and goddesses must find a way to cohabitate; otherwise, they might fade out of existence.
First to note in the performance is the students’ acting. “Girls on a Dirt Pile” is a complicated mix of modern and ancient language, complete with the intricacy of hypocritical, all-powerful characters and the much needed comedic relief. Even McCully acknowledges, “It’s a very, very difficult script, because it is so epic and because they have to go bounce back and forth between being broad and doing this poetic language and creating worlds just with words and then, in the next scene they have to do a highly realistic relationship type theme…”
Despite the difficulties in language and the somewhat stilted delivery of it, each actor was able to bring their character to life. Ronnita Freeman, playing the role of Demeter, skillfully characterized motherhood. Hades became despised on stage as a gaslighting abuser through the acting of Lloyd Ekpe.
The set, on the other hand, is relatively simple. A well with a wooden cover stands center stage, surrounded by a pile of dirt and puzzle pieces. Two wooden doors stand behind it. A smaller set complete with a stone table and a curved stone seat is off to the side. This set did not actually reveal the time period nor was it able to be changed dramatically to fit each scene. It was with costumes, pantomiming from the actors and flawless changes in lighting that the audience is able to imagine where the characters are and what they are seeing.
This stability of the set definitely forced the audience to focus more on the characters and the story, rather than simply being impressed by multiple scene changes as is common for modern productions. Thus, it provides a solid base for the audience to realize the real purpose of the play.
“Girls on a Dirt Pile” is a tale of modern politics. The setting of the play, which is most likely set sometime around 600 B.C., matters very little; the characters’ firm stance on political issues, sexual assault, gender inequality and climate change is what the play begs the audience to pay attention to.
And the performance does not halt its presentation of these issues for even a second.
Because of this, the entire play is extremely frustrating. There are constant jeering remarks made by multiple characters throughout the play. “Women. We are all too much alike,” says one of the Graeae. There were the unbearable sexual assault scenes where Persephone, the innocent, pure and good-hearted daughter, endures something she should never have.
Yet it is the unbearable discomfort of those sexual assault scenes that brings us closer to the depths of the meaning in the play. “I have really big feelings about showing that scene … Part of the ‘Me Too’ movement is that it’s really important for women to raise their hand and say ‘this really happened’ and to be believed. So sort of the whole entire play, we witness it all,” says McCully.
The audience can clearly see what is wrong with the way all the women are treated, their fates held in the hands of men that do not deserve that authority. Demeter and Persephone’s helplessness tears into the hearts of the audience members because these two women have so much power, yet their status in life as women hinders them.
Act two demonstrates the cyclical nature of the patriarchal system in which women, even after striving for freedom and change, can fall back into the same roles as before. The characters are shot forward 2500 years to the end of the world and, still, Hades controls Persephone and, still, Demeter cannot save her own daughter. It is an agonizing wait until the end of the play when a half resolution is made.
Even with its flaws in execution and with its frustrating nature, this play is one that should be seen by as many as possible. It retells the story of sexism and patriarchal societies during the ancient Greeks’ reign. It welcomes a new generation of plays where female protagonists, antagonists and the female experience in general are showcased. It even manages to grab a few laughs. Most of all, “Girls on a Dirt Pile” digs its hands into some of the crucial debates that afflict our modern society and comes out with biting responses to them all.
“Girls on a Dirt Pile” will be performed at the Black Box Theatre from Dec. 6 to 8. Tickets are available online. A limited number of free tickets will be available to students for the Sunday matinee performance.