Local playwright stages a satire about the manosphere

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Set in a pie shop, the satirical Red Pill Diaries pokes fun at the men's rights movement. From left, Alya Ayers, Dianne Chapman, Hayley Heninger and Jenni Robinson appear in the local production. Photo by Rodney Smith/Tempus Fugit Design

Controversy in theater is nothing new. Henrick Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was protested as an attack on family, and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was deemed obscene. A production of Tony Kushner’s AIDS-related Angels in America, at the Charlotte Repertory Theater, “resulted in a $2.5 million loss to the North Carolina Arts & Science Council’s annual fund,” according to Backstage. But it’s unusual for the backlash to precede the production.

That’s exactly the case for Red Pill Diaries by local playwright Toni Sherwood, which opens at N.C. Stage Company on Thursday, Aug. 18.

The production, a satire about the “manosphere” (or men’s rights movement), takes its name from the The Red Pill online community, hosted on Reddit, “where men go to air their toxic views about women,” as The Guardian said. It was inspired by the events that unfolded last year around Waking Life Espresso. “I went down the rabbit hole,” says Sherwood, who was obsessed with the story of local café owners Jared Rutledge and Jacob Owens, who discussed their alleged sexual conquests, in graphic and derogatory detail, on a podcast. The news went viral, picked up by New York magazine and Daily Mail, among other outlets.

And, although Red Pill Diaries — which stars John Cantley, Hayley Heninger, Darren Marshall, Dianne Chapman, Alya Ayers, Dakota Mann, Jenni Robinson and Bri Tureff, and features comedic song and dance numbers — is not a literal retelling of the Waking Life scandal, it hit a nerve. Victims feared humiliating details would be rehashed. Sherwood received a number of comments on social media and enlisted Our VOICE to help mediate between her and those who do not want the play to be staged.

“Once we started the talks, I was able to hear and listen to their concerns,” Sherwood says. Because the script had been leaked, the requests were specific, such as to remove all references to actual events. She did. For example, instead of a café, the play is set in a dessert shop called Pie Hole.

Sherwood had initially used some transcripts of Rutledge’s and Owen’s podcast and agreed to get rid of that material. “I realized if I did that, I could come up with something really funny and even better,” she says.

Though the end result may be better for it, criticism was hard to take. “There was a time when the only person who wanted to put this up was me,” Sherwood says of the production. But she was inspired to tell the story because she recognized the misogynist behavior. In the mid-1980s, she was among the first wave of women traders on the stock exchange floor in Chicago. There, sexism and harassment were tools of intimidation. “Being called a c**t in front of 50 guys who hate you is really hard,” she says. “But I knew at that moment, if I cried, my career was over.”

When Rutledge and Owens’ podcast became public knowledge, “everyone was shocked, but I was like, ‘I’ve heard this sh*t before. This is nothing new,’” Sherwood says. She went to a meeting, held in the event space of lingerie boutique VaVaVoom, where women could discuss the Waking Life scandal. “I found it fascinating to be in a room with people who agreed with me. … I remember at the end of the meeting, everyone was like, ‘What can we do now?’”

Sherwood began to pen Red Pill Diaries. “Silence is power,” she says. “If I hadn’t written a play, I would have done nothing.”

And, despite a number of trigger warnings on promotional material for the production, the ultimate intention is humor and parody. “My attitude is, let’s get together and laugh at these f**kers,” Sherwood says. “They’re absurd and pathetic.”

N.C. Stage, which hosts the play as part of its Catalyst Series, has also been supportive of Sherwood’s vision. The series “is a venue for other theater artists, aside from N.C. Stage, to explore their artistic voice,” says founder and artistic director Charlie Flynn-McIver. “Such shows have included benign comedies and dramas, [burlesque troupe] the Rebelles, experimental dance and theater and also dramas and comedies that handle more difficult subject matter.”

He continues, “N.C. Stage is not in the habit of censoring its Catalyst Series companies in their effort to express their artistic voice, even or especially regarding controversial subjects. We have determined as a nation that the best remedy for perceived offensive speech, in this case the behavior and culture of the men’s rights movement, is more speech, not less.”

Flynn-McIver adds, “Seeing as how, in this election year one of the major political parties’ nominee is a particular hero of the men’s rights movement … it felt like now was the precise time to support Toni in helping her fulfill her mission of bringing this behavior to light and scrutiny.”

WHAT: Red Pill Diaries
WHERE: N.C. Stage Company, 1 Stage Ln., ncstage.org
WHEN: Thursday, Aug. 18 through Saturday, Sept. 3. Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. $12-$22

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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27 thoughts on “Local playwright stages a satire about the manosphere

  1. boatrocker

    Ohhh yea. I like me some onstage satire.

    The “Men’s Movement” sounds just as ridiculous as
    “Blue Lives” or “White Lives” Matter.

    Cuz all three groups are soooooo oppressed.

    posting time 3:31pm, Aug 16, 2016, AD.

    Of course Asheville being Asheville, the featured pies will be touted in future food articles as opposed to simply being used as a prop.

    More viewers will click to see what kind of pies are being served than what is being performed onstage, if they are vegan/gluten free/free range pies ( I made up the free range pie part) and arguments will ensue over Key Lime vs. pecan vs. apple via Twitter, Instagram, etc.

  2. Nope

    “Sherwood received a number of comments on social media and enlisted Our VOICE to help mediate between her and those who do not want the play to be staged.”

    This is false. The victims initially reached out to to OURVoice to mediate a conversation between Toni and themselves. Get your facts straight.

    • Alli Marshall

      The facts are accurate: Our VOICE provided mediation. I chose the word “enlisted” to mean the organization was engaged, not to credit Toni with being the first to reach out.

      • luther blissett

        You should probably use a different word, then, because “enlisted” implies initiation, when that was not the case. Words have meanings. Not too late to correct it online.

        On the substance of the piece: did Mx contact Our VOICE for comment here, or just the author and NC Stage? Treating this like just another play to be previewed feels like a dereliction of duty. Everything about its progress suggests that had the script not leaked, the play would have proceeded as initially conceived, with a setting and material that drew directly from what happened last year. The original call for auditions included the line “this high-energy comedy makes misogyny fun!”; the author showed no willingness to respond directly to those with concerns, and only did so once Our VOICE stepped in to mediate; the rationale has finally arrived just as the doors are about to open.

        Anyway, Asheville has a small enough arts community that anyone directly associated with this ill-conceived project will find themselves covered in something other than glory for a while.

        • Alli Marshall

          This was not intended as a story on the Waking Life scandal or on Our VOICE. This *is* a preview about a play. Preview and review coverage of local theater is an important part of our Arts & Entertainment section. I understand and respect that not everyone will be interested in this play (and I have not yet seen it, so I can’t speak to its execution), but as an arts writer, I support local artists in their endeavors to create art. The mission of the A&E section is to provide a platform for that.

          • luther blissett

            Well, that’s a tremendous cop-out.

            Injecting the Waking Life horrorshow into the local arts scene is newsworthy in and of itself. Let’s state some facts here: Asheville is an artsy city, but its theater scene is not very big, and there is considerable overlap between the arts community and those affected by what happened around Waking Life’. There are actors and backstage staff who chose not to touch this project with a ten-foot pole. Those who have done so will be remembered for doing so.

            There’s a weird incoherence on display: other pieces recognize that the arts are in a conversation with the city as a whole — for instance, the way that the city has become a locus for aerial arts, which benefits those who can receive training from the incredible talent clustered here. But when a play treats a number of the city’s residents as fodder, the attitude becomes “well, our mission is to support local artists.” That just doesn’t work in Asheville.

          • Peter Robbins

            Yes. One is reminded of the play reviewer who went home without filing a story because, upon arrival, he found the theater was on fire.

    • Nope x 2

      Toni never once put up a post asking any information to victims, We had to contact her first.
      She was also hesitant to meet.
      We had to “enlist” “get” whatever lingo it is to actually get her to sit down with Our Voice.

      Save your money and do not go see this play, it is hurtful and re-victimizing my experience. I managed to get an advance copy of the script and what they wrote about me and specific experiences were in the play. Also the initial promotion of this play through their Facebook for audition calls had horrible memes with the word Fa*** in it (why? Why is this necessary??? Anti LGBT) and also weird memes with women in bikini, “make me a sandwich” crap. This lady is a charlatan posing as a mediocre playwright.

      • boatrocker

        Posting time 4:49pm, Wed Aug 17, 2016 AD.

        Hmmmm. so whom should I believe- someone who was sadly part of that fiasco or one of the dyed in the wool ‘hard journalism’ types from the Mtn X who are corrected on practically a daily basis for the most basic of errors and whose editors tell us the reading public that they are soft community news and not real investigative journalism?

        The result either way is sad- who to believe.

        For the record though, if the word you referred to rhymes with maggot and is another word for a worthless bundle of sticks not suitable for burning from the French language, it is spelled @#$^!*.
        I think you missed a $ or # or whatever. The same way N@$&! is a country in Africa, but N*^&2# is what Trump calls his workers after he fires them.

        • Able Allen

          Please don’t mischaracterize our statements about Xpress. We have never, nor would we ever say, we are “not real investigative journalism.” It is irresponsible to make statements like that. The people here are stretched thin covering this burgeoning community with the limited resources of a small independent weekly magazine/newspaper and we are proud of the work we do. Is all of it investigative? Of course not. Do we leave some beats like run-of-the-mill crime and even some big, fast-moving stories to more breaking news oriented agencies? Yes. Do we do what we can to promote community dialogue and report important news, while acting responsibly and with integrity? Absolutely. You are being ridiculous- this is a responsibly produced piece on an upcoming play.

      • Able Allen

        Please refrain from using this comment board as platform for attack. It is reasonable to share your concerns, especially if you have been victimized by misogynists, but wouldn’t it be better received in a constructive way? It should be noted that as Xpress understands this play, it is meant to be a satire that tears down the ideology which you (rightly) find objectionable. It seems like the playwright is trying to be on the side of victims of the red-pill phenomenon.

      • Big Al

        This play has not even had its’ first performance and you have already deemed it unworthy based on an early script (when the article states that specific events and personalities had been changed to be sensitive to victims), on apparently derogatory memes in promotions (satire often requires exposing the ways and means of the opponent by acting like them), and on your own objections to who said what to whom FIRST to begin the mediation process (at least their was one, they could have insensitively claimed artistic privilege and ignored the victims). Why don’t you give them a chance to have their say before piling on with what appears to be a very petty personal agenda? I am a straight, white male and clearly the target audience (pun intended) of this satire against misogyny, but I want to hear what they have to say before I play two-penny critic. Maybe we can all learn from this experience. Also, being a victim of misogyny does not give you final say on the discussion of what can or cannot be said about it.

      • The Real World

        Nopex2 — It’s unfortunate if you had a bad experience with those creeps but the world doesn’t revolve around any particular person; a good thing to keep in mind.

        Clearly, you haven’t seen the play and appear to take the entire production personally. Please see above sentence. I saw it tonight and thought it was handled in, probably, the right way. It’s very much delivered in a comedic style and the bottom line could be described as: it portrays some men as clueless, astonishingly selfish neanderthals and it depicts some of their female peers (targets) as aware of the BS being delivered and some others as needy, naive and falling for it.

        Sounds like life to me. The problem is nobody ever tells females that a percentage of males are really that depraved so it would be best to give it a little time so she can discern whether he’s legit or not. If anyone wanted to learn something from the local, real life situation and/or the play, that would likely be it.

  3. Angelica Wind

    Dear Mountain Xpress Readers,

    After reading this article, I want to clarify a few points. First, at no point did Our VOICE lead a mediation between the playwright and those that did not want to play to move forward. Our VOICE was invited and participated in the mediation conducted by the Mediation Center at both parties’ request. Our role as an organization is not to mediate but to advocate for individuals impacted by sexual violence.

    Since the play was brought to our attention, we have been consistent in expressing our concerns. First and foremost, we believe that individuals impacted by sexual violence have the right to hold and share their own stories. We are concerned that any level of specificity that ties the play to actual events in the community would re-victimize those that were impacted by the Waking Life scandal.

    We sincerely hope that our concerns were heard as well as those that took part in the mediation. While parody has its place in artistic expression, making light of victimization is no laughing matter.

    As always, we encourage the community to take part in dialogue regarding rape culture, how it contributes to sexual violence, and how it can be dismantled. How a community conducts this dialogue sets the stage for whether those who have been impacted by sexual violence come out from under the shadows. We at Our VOICE believe that this community can create the best possible environment for empowering victims to seek the justice and healing they deserve.

    Sincerely,
    Angelica Wind
    Executive Director
    Our VOICE, Inc.

    • Theatre Lover

      Wasn’t there someone in town named Augusta Wind? Any relation?

  4. Big Al

    So funny to see a play put on by the Artistic Left, only to have it threatened with censorship by…the Feminist Left.

    Like crabs in a barrel.

    I do plan to see this.

  5. Jason W

    I wonder if this is similar to the reaction Aristophanes got when he premiered Lysistrata?

    • boatrocker

      Niiiiiiiiiiice allusion.
      Hundreds of Twitterappinstagramgoogle buttons just got touched to look up that relevant play.

      • Big Al

        Rest easy. This play, while entertaining did not have anywhere near the effect of causing any upset, local or otherwise.

        It might have been better to have fewer and longer segments instead of the many, often painfully brief segments which actually slowed the pace of the play.

        Hayley Heninger’s musical numbers were the best parts of the show. Jenni Robinson, while under-utilized in this play, had one of the funniest roles, that of Ms. “I want my damned ranking, Red”.

        If the lame seduction tactics alluded to the men in the play are anything like what they really did, then I am surprised that they got laid as often as they claimed. I suspect that outside of the victims whose testimonies confirmed their having been abused, a lot of the remaining unconfirmed conquests were tall tales and fish stories to pad their body counts. I certainly hope that there were not THAT many women taken in by such pitiful “game”. Then again, I probably qualify as one of those “Beta Male losers” who wouldn’t know how to play the game, so what do I know?

      • Peter Robbins

        A “brutal oligarchic regime” is getting a little above our raising, don’t you think? How’s about we just let absentee overlords divide the city into districts?

        • bsummers

          Yeah, sometimes the Twitterappinstagramgoogle button yields something fun…

  6. HRH

    funny local minutia…maybe it will instigate an anti democrackkk coup or uprising…we need one badly.

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