Phyllis Labanowski design
Her inspiration, says Christian McEwen, was The Vagina Monologues, that revolutionary piece of interview theater that put a hitherto “unspeakable” subject into the public conversation. “What else,” she wondered, “do women have these complicated, multi-layered, oh-so-private feelings about?” Of course, she realized, it was money.
“Except that money is even worse, even more contorted, more high-charged, more private, and more shameful. Because a woman will provide you with a detailed account of her childhood sexual abuse, her battles with alcohol or drug addiction, she will repeat, word for word, the precise dialogue of her private pillow talk, before she will tell you how much she earns, how much she’s saved and how much, God help us, how much she still owes.”
That brainstorm led to Legal Tender: Women and the Secret Life of Money, a true-life theater piece that premieres in Northampton this weekend and next. The other impetus for the play came with the financial crash of 2008 when McEwen was spending a lot of time listening to coverage of the crisis on National Public Radio. “And what I heard had almost nothing to do with women,” she says. “The pronouns were almost all male. You really had to listen between the lines to know that women and children were still in the picture, still being affected by that greater tumult. And this in a country where, even now, women make 77 cents to every male dollar.”
Legal Tender is the fruit of monetary conversations McEwen had with more than 50 women over a five-year period. They ranged in age from six to 93 and across all economic strata, from “women who’d inherited big money from their families [to] others who’d had to scrimp and save for every penny.” Her questions probed each woman’s relationship with money, from childhood memories to work experience to “What was the most satisfying purchase you ever made, and how much did it cost?”
“What struck me,” McEwen says, “was that in many cases people were telling me stories they had never told before. There was anger, there was outrage, on more than one occasion there were tears.” And linking many of the stories was “this tremendous undertow of anxiety. Several women mentioned the fear of being a bag-lady” because in old age, or after divorce, they worried they wouldn’t be able to support themselves. (Not an entirely irrational fear, it turns out, even among the supposedly stable middle classes. McEwen quotes a chilling statistic: 80 percent of elderly women in the U.S. are living at or close to the poverty line.)
McEwen says she chose her title because “I liked the little pun,” Legal Tender referring to money itself but with “a sly reference to tenderness, sweetness. Because women are supposed to be so kind and sweet and tender, right? What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and all things nice. Well, maybe. Wait until you’ve seen the play, and then you can decide about that.”•
March 8 and 15, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., sliding scale $10-$20-plus (no one turned away for lack of funds), Quaker Meeting House, 43 Center St., Northampton. Tickets at Broadside Books.
Chris Rohmann is at StageStruck@crocker.com and his StageStruck blog is at valleyadvocate.com/blogs/stagestruck.