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