In January 1892, American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman first published her short story The Yellow Wallpaper in The New England Magazine. Gilman's female protagonist Mary suffers from, according to her husband (a physician of 'high-standing') "temporary nervous depression." "John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad," Mary writes in her journal. "You see, he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do?"
Over 100 years later, in borrowed spaces around town after work and on the weekends, nine women are answering Mary's century-old question — what can one do? — with a play about women who have, god forbid, expressed some form of human emotion. They've been labeled: Crazy Bitch.
"What we did with the script is we started with historical pieces and were pulling from those. We ended up selecting six historical figures to make as characters and then we created a composite modern day character, Jane," says 5th Wall's artistic director Blair Cadden. "The plot follows this contemporary woman who has been involuntarily committed to an aslyum [by her significant other] and these historical figures come to her as guides, to help her through this."
Whether these visitors from the past are ghosts, or perhaps manifestations of Jane's mind, are up for interpretaton says Cadden. Whatever vessel these voices are speaking through, they're able to connect to Jane and to each other, building on conversations they never had the opportunity to begin.
"It's been a really fun part of the process," says Cadden. "To see how much these historical figures have to say, to speak, to this day. And these are genuine words, we haven't put any words in their mouths." The source material ranges from the work of women, similar to early activist and feminist Gilman, who were writing to raise awareness for situations they were in, to women writing about "shady ways they were often incarcerated by men" and the subsequent treatments they received at these institutions.
It's important to remember, Cadden points out in the 5th Wall description of the Piccolo production, that some of these historic figures, and many modern women, did or do suffer from intense anxiety and depression. Some may need to be taken to an instituion to receive medical attention and treatment. But many women, diagnosed then with "nerves" or labeled today as "drama queens" are just human beings, unable, as Cadden writes "to fit into the narrow mold society deemed acceptable for them."
Recent College of Charleston theater grad Cat Morrison plays Jane, the modern day iteration of someone like Mary. Instead of having to stare at the same yellow wallpaper — "The color is repellant, almost revolting ; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight" — day in and day out, she is involuntarily committed to an institution.
"Because it is the modern voice it is an opportunity," says Morrison. "This has been a big year for women, and we're actually able to speak up and be heard so I do feel a little bit of pressure that it does come across, that message."
Local poet and writer April Bandy-Taylor is behind the play's original script, incorporating her free verse poetry into the historical narratives. "We have the chance to let someone see their sister, their aunt, their neighbor, through this piece," says Bandy-Taylor. "Like Cat said, she's portraying modern Jane but you may see yourself in one of the historic women's story. When I was writing Jane you know it was easy to pull from their stories, the stories may be from 1815, but the stories are the same."
You can hear them now, the verbiage may have altered, slightly, but the stories are the same. Crazy. Unhinged. Dramatic. Wacko. Drama Queen. Psycho. Intense. Insane. These words are the makings of a cruel comment, an insult flung, landing on an unsuspecting victim: the ex-girlfriend, your female coworker, the woman who lives next door. More dangerous, though, than these purposeful verbal assaults are the casual ones. The ones whispered, the ones uttered mindlessly, "Damn, she's crazy." It could be someone you've heard about — "well one time she actually yelled at so and so" — or maybe someone you've read about. It could be someone you just met.
Cadden says she's been toying with the idea of this production for some time. While 5th Wall continually produces progressive, contemporary work, this is the first time the theater company has collaborated with multiple people to create a work organically, in a matter of two months. Bandy-Taylor connected with Cadden in March, and says since then it's been an honor, "to have an opportunity to tell these stories, and to give those women a voice now, in the platform and time that we have. People are finally saying I see you, I hear you, I believe you." Cadden agrees; while much of the play draws on voices from the past, the time is now.
"The further we got into this year of women's reckoning the more it seemed the right time for this play," says Cadden. "I always go into a production with 'why this story and why this story now.' And particularly the second part of that question had a very clear answer."