Theater Review: “The Pink Unicorn” — Hugging the Cactus
By David Greenham
SpeakEasy Stage Company has (once again) chosen a bold script for its audience.
The Pink Unicorn by Elise Forier Edie. Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. Associate direction by Shira Helena Gitlin. Video production design by Ari Herzig. Music by John-Allison Weiss. Dialect coaching by D’Arcy Dersham. Production stage management by Adele Nadine Traub. Produced by SpeakEasy Stage Company, presented online through March 18.
Trisha Lee (Stacey Fischer) is a proud member of her church and her community. She’s survived the grief associated with the death of her husband, partly by putting all of her focus on her beautiful, school-aged daughter Jolene. Trisha Lee dreams of becoming a grandmother, of seeing her daughter grow into a woman and a mother.
She is speaking from her kitchen to the Family and Faith Virtual Summit Series. At first, her virtual presentation has a folksy and charming feel. But a chafing surprise awaits the devoted evangelical Christians who have tuned in for the talk. Trisha Lee has a problem. During the summer before high school, Jolene underwent a transformation. She cut off all her hair and demanded that her wardrobe be mostly black. Worst of all, Jolene became Jo and began using the pronouns “they” and “theirs.” The culmination comes when Jo crushes Trisha Lee’s dream with a simple declaration: “’I’m gender queer Ma,’ she tells me.”
The Pink Unicorn is the story of triumph and defeat: how a daughter’s world came into its own and her mother’s world crumbled. Trisha Lee explains that she would have been prepared if Jo had announced she was pregnant “or the Mormons got a hold of her.” But there is nothing in the Presbyterian faith’s tried-and-true rule book when it comes to dealing with gender fluidity. With her southern twang, Trisha Lee relates her attempts to convince Jo that she should recant. She wishes that the whole problem would just go away: “In my day, we had no internet and just two genders. And they told you which one you were — pink or blue!”
Playwright Elise Forier Edie’s 80-minute monologue packs a punch, its episodic structure (with a few surprising twists) paints a story of ignorance, conflict, and unconditional love. The play pulls off the admirable trick of being both entertaining and thought-provoking. As Trisha Lee, Fisher lands a nuanced gut-punch to a wide-range of American hypocrisies. Don’t view this show thinking that you will be spared moments of unease. The Pink Unicorn touches on many of our favorite “isms.” Chances are good that some of your unexamined biases will be challenged.
At this point, it has become clear that American culture has been complicit with the political airbrushing of our history: voices and views have been systemically hidden, marginalized, or ignored. Us college educated smart folks are learning that a fair amount of what we think about ourselves and the past has been deeply rooted in white, male, cisgendered myth. Playwright Elise Forier Edie’s drama looks at this newly complicated world. one in which easy answers don’t exist. Trisha Lee is filled with explicit and implicit biases that are calculated to make the proceeding uncomfortable. And, to up the iconoclastic ante, the episode takes the form of an evangelical training video. We are invited to imagine just how the bible-thumpers in the audience might have responded to the protagonist’s twisting journey, her recognition of a different kind of spiritual light. Her change is very effectively handled: the writing is vivid and imaginative and the narration is always plausible. It would not be surprising to learn that the play was inspired by actual events.
It has occurred to me that we’re learning an enormous amount about performance during Covid. Theater companies are presenting pre-recorded productions in ways that take the virtual experience beyond that of mini-films. Fischer’s spot-on performance is both intimate and immediate — it is seemingly presented in one take. The performance exudes plenty of “live” energy, which is what we’ve been missing so much in our Covid cocoon. M. Bevin O’Gara’s direction and Ari Herzig’s production design contribute mightily to bringing the script’s dour world to life.
SpeakEasy Stage Company has (once again) chosen a bold script for its audience. It is likely that most of the show’s viewers are somewhat closer to accepting “others’ than the story’s major characters, such as Pastor Dick and Sparkton High School Principal Cyril Laverne (you can almost picture both of them, can’t you?). Still, to their credit, the playwright and SpeakEasy Stage recognize that none of us are as “woke” as we think we are.
The troupe follows the performance with a discussion featuring four transgender individuals who helpfully explore a diverse number of perspectives. You should definitely stick around for that. What’s more, the on-line program book includes resources and contact information for organizations who work in the areas of social justice and understanding.
We live in interesting times. I watched the play on Sunday, the day when the NBA All Star Game did its best to show just how much the league celebrates the voices of Black people, as if they always had (they haven’t). At the very same moment there was the Oprah interview in which Prince Harry and Meghan Markle revealed that at least one member of the Royal family has expressed concern about the skin color of the Queen of England’s great grandchild. This is a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ dosey doe that we’re doing.
Kudos to SpeakEasy and The Pink Unicorn team for making us dig in our heels as we dance. There will be moments that viewers will find disagreeable. That’s the idea. Or, as my friends at the Southern Poverty Law Center like to say, we all need to learn to ‘hug the cactus.’ No painful truth, no meaningful gain.
David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Executive Director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.