I will take any opportunity to keep Mae West‘s memory alive here on THM - I’ve worshiped her since I was a child. Not just a film actress, West was a pioneer of the stage who didn’t wait around for parts to be written for her. Nor did she shy away from the subject matter that interested her most – sex. So it just stands to reason that she would write a vehicle for herself which she could star in – and title it bluntly.
Almost a century later, I’m absolutely ecstatic that The Dirty Blondes will present a staged reading of Mae West’s infamous stage play, SEX, for a limited engagement September 29-October 2 at UNDER St. Marks, directed by Courtney Laine Self. Written by West almost 90 years ago, SEX is about a sharp-witted prostitute from Montreal’s Red Light District looking for true love. It was initially shut down in 1927 during its Broadway run, and West was jailed for “lewdness and corrupting the youth.”
I got to chat with Ashley Jacobson, the Artistic Director of The Dirty Blondes, who took a minute out of her hectic schedule to talk about sex, SEX, how some things never change – and how the things that DO change are not always what you think.
It is SO GREAT to see someone take this great play out of the trunk, dust it off, and give it a good shine. I’ve been a Mae West fan since the age of 8, so literally grew up knowing about Mae West, her work and her mission. But why don’t you go ahead and tell us a little bit about how you came to know about SEX and what made it seem like the perfect script to do as a staged reading?
Ashley Jacobson: I always grew up knowing about Mae West as well, but mostly just about her stardom/Hollywood Fame. I came across her book of plays on Amazon one day when I was looking for plays by women, and was so confused! I had no idea she had been a playwright, let alone one that was produced on Broadway. Then I just fell down the research rabbit hole and became more and more impressed by her and excited by the play’s history. She was the patron saint bad-ass we have been looking for! As a company with the name “Dirty Blondes” we are clearly interested in playing off people’s perceptions of femininity and sexuality and challenging these notions with surprising theater. Mae West literally embodies everything we think about ourselves as a company, so it seemed like the perfect thing to explore.
We also wanted to do it as a reading because we wanted it to be presented as a conversation starter, rather than a perfectly polished piece. There is a lot of meat in her play and a LOT to talk about – in terms of the play itself and what Mae West meant by all of it. There are also some problematic elements, including the way race is discussed in the play. So we wanted to present it and make sure we had the opportunity to provide the context and conversation around it. A reading seemed like the best way to accomplish all that.
There’s a lot that’s changed in the 90 years since SEX was seen by its original audience. Obviously what was considered shocking and scandalous back then is almost yawn-inducing now. Does this script hold up? And in the parts where it may not, are you playing it straight, or giving a bit of a wink-and-nod to the audience?
Ashley: The script holds up! Not just for its salaciousness, but Mae wrote some really interesting characters in her play and good characters will always hold up. The story itself, about redemption and about this woman finding her way to a new life, is a timeless story. We’re playing the script straight, letting it speak for itself but also being completely conscious of things that might be considered problematic NOW. The play still needs a “trigger warning” – and not for the same reasons it was considered problematic 90 years ago. There is a lot of talk of violence against women, some racist language – these things were considered fine then, but they certainly aren’t now. Mae West captured a moment in time with this play, and showed us how it was for women in the 20s. We’re interested in exploring that much more than the raunchiness of the story – which, you’re right, isn’t anything to bat an eye at now.
Mae West was a pioneer – a feminist long before the feminist movement. If she was around today, what updates do you think she’d be making to her work in general? And more directly – how different would SEX be if she were to write it in 2016?
Ashley: Wow! What a question! You can see that Mae West progressed as a feminist even in her own life. By the time she reached Hollywood she was one of the biggest advocates for including people of color in her films, and when she was on Broadway she insisted on casting gay & lesbian actors, even though they weren’t allowed in the union. I don’t know if I can speculate on the type of artist she would be now – although I’m sure she would be basking, enjoying the fearlessness of some fellow female performers in the comedy and TV arena – but I honestly don’t know if SEX would be all that different. I would hope it would have a better take on race relations now, but I think it would still focus on how women are continuously reduced to the lowest common denominator. I think it would still talk about the struggle to find empowerment in female sexuality, while avoiding being defined by it. Violence against women is still a serious issue, human trafficking and unfair treatment of sex workers are all important issues now and she sheds some serious light on them in her play.
The Dirty Blondes embody so much of what Mae West was herself – a feisty, strong female doing it all – creatively – herself. Talk to me about what it would be like if you could bring her back and have her come see your staged reading. Do you think she’d be honored? Pleased? Or a little threatened even?
Ashley: Oh God, that would be incredible. (Also thank you for the very nice description!). I would hope she would be honored and excited for us. I would hope that she would see how she paved the way for us to be more fearless and unapologetic – to create the theater that we aren’t seeing anywhere else. She might be a little overwhelmed by how much we intend to dissect the work in our talkbacks but I hope she would see that we are doing that because we believe that she had so much to offer; that her play, although it was widely panned by critics during its time, is actually a full and fruitful story with so much to say about being a woman then AND now. I think Mae West, were she alive today, would be a huge proponent of sisterhood and supporting women artists. There is room for all of us, and I believe that Mae West believes that. She wrote roles for herself and then cast as many people as humanly possible in her plays – she was an artists’ artist.
Finally – staged readings are fantastic. I’ve seen some where you forget you’re not watching an actual play. However, there’s always hope for bigger and better, right? In which case I’m wondering – does The Dirty Blondes have any hopes of doing a full-out production of SEX if this reading goes well?
Ashley: I guess we’ll have to see, but I think the fact that its a reading is a really big part of what we’re doing. We have scheduled some incredible talkbacks with current and retired Sex Workers, Feminist Burlesque Dancers, and an incredible Mae West historian. We really wanted to place the play at the center of a larger conversation – and sometimes you can’t do that in a full production. So presenting the piece as kind of a work-in-progress is important to us. But who knows, if we get the lightning to hit just right, there could be room for bigger aspirations!
Thanks so much for not only answering these questions, but for bringing this back to the stage. I can’t tell you how excited I am to know that new audiences will be seeing this work – even (if only for now) as just a reading!
Ashley: Thank you for such thought-provoking questions!
For a little extra fun, I’m going to leave you with some Mae West Drunk History courtesy of The Dirty Blondes themselves. Take it away, gals …
FRIGID NEW YORK @ HORSE TRADE
IN ASSOCIATION WITH
THE DIRTY BLONDES
MAE WEST’S SEX
directed by Courtney Laine Self
September 29-October 2
UNDER St. Marks
94 St. Marks Place
(between 1 st Avenue and Avenue A)
Performances: Thursday through Sunday at 7pm
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Kick off the opening night with some bad ass feminist poetry by Maya Osborne and guests, and stay after the show to grab a drink and talk to our amazing cast.
Friday, September 30
Native New Yorker LindaAnn Loschiavo is a journalist, dramatist and Mae West Historian.
Saturday, October 1
Juniper Fleming previously directed, produced, and performed in an all sex worker revival of SEX, at Dixon Place Theater this past June.
Sunday, October 2
Veronica Varlow is a siren born of the 1940s Fantasy of Pinup Girls and Femme Fatales. Beguiling and beautiful, Varlow weaves a spell upon her audiences like none other.