BWW Review: BULL IN A CHINA SHOP at Aurora Theatre Dramatizes the Love Letters of Women's Rights Activist Mary Wooley
Bull in a China Shop
Written by Bryna Turner
Directed by Dawn Monique Williams
Inspired by real letters between Mt. Holyoke President and women's right's activist Mary Wooley and her lover Jeanette Marks, writer Bryna Turner, herself a graduate of Holyoke, has fashioned a passionate, educational story of romantic commitment and the early struggle for suffrage. Buoyed by a stellar cast headed by Stacy Ross and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, Bull in a China Shop is must-see lesbian history 101. Written in 2016 when Hillary Clinton was challenging male patriarchy in politics, Mary Wooley led an educational revolution, transforming the expectations placed on women.
Turner structures her drama as series of vignettes, moving from the couples move to Mt. Holyoke, the sometimes-contentious clashes in philosophy's, an affair, their successes and long-term romance. Using modern vernacular, the strident Wooley won't take no as an answer and she strives to turn Mt. Holyoke from a factory for future wives into a bastion of self-empowerment and examination. Ross is indomitable and driven, clashing with Dean Welsh (Mia Tagano) on all matters from agendas to donors to Jeanette moving into the President's House. It is the early 20th century and the events portrayed in Bull in the China Shop were revolutionary.
While Wooley is controlled and authoritative, Marks is passionate and dramatic. Classes on playwriting (a man's profession), cigarette smoking and the abolishing of traditional roles are a cause of concern for Dean Welsh and the college's major donors. Add to the mix Pearl (a scene stealing performance by Jasmine Milan Williams), a star-struck pupil, enamored with Marks and president of her fan club. When Wooley is traveling in China, an affair blooms between Marks and Pearl, for one it's a mentorship, the other youthful infatuation. Rebecca Schweitzer has a juicy supporting role as Mark's roommate caught in the crossfire of the two lovers.
There's some beautiful staging by director Dawn Monique Williams, particularly an intimate love scene between Ross and Mbele-Mbong. We can see the relationship mature over the decades covered, immersed in their personal and public struggle that engulfs them both. Wooley and Marks become real living people through the skill of these two fine actors and a smart script by Bryna Turner.
Bull in a China Shop continues through December 15, 2019 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. Tickets available at www.auroratheatre.org or by calling 510-843-4822.
Photos by David Allen