My Heart Is Still Waiting: A Necessary Critique on Theatre Talkbacks


written by Gloria Imseih Petrelli

Every year for the past seven, Artemisia Theatre puts on a fall festival of 6 full length new play readings performed one a night at The Edge theatre. With a self proclaimed commitment to finding new feminist works, Artemisia’s staff seek plays that center “women who have agency, independence, and are the focal point of their own narratives,” according to their mission statement. From those six, one will be chosen by the artistic director to be eventually produced in full. Following each play is a talkback billed to focus on, “empowerment, inclusion and diversity”.

I’ll begin this review by saying I (and everyone with half a heart and their NPR push notifications turn on) have been enveloped by heaviness and anxiety this week in light of the hearings for Supreme Court Justice and anti-choice Zack Morris wannabe, Brett Kavanaugh for the sexual assault of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Because of this, a night of feminist theatre would be a welcome respite from a world that consistently betrays and disappoints feminist ideals. I wanted to be immersed in art, surrounded by likeminded people who weren’t trying to invade my uterus or defund arts programs from public schools.

I saw Every Waiting Heart by Lauren Ferebee, a play about the tumultuous relationship between a single mother and her rebellious daughter as the mother navigates her newfound journey into Evangelical Christianity, with flashbacks to the 1800s of their pioneer great grandma loosely tied to the present by a passing mention of a memory of her. I’ll be honest: the play needs some work. Ferebee has a clear handle on language and creating clear, distinctive voices for her characters. If at times confusing, narratively speaking, I was clear about what each character wanted and why. The choice was made to omit the reading of stage directions, which I really feel could have alleviated a lot of this confusion, for me at least. But these kinks are natural, expected, and celebrated at a reading. I don’t view staged readings as finished products (I’m not sure why they’re ever billed that way, just in general) which is why this reflection ended up being more about my experience as an audience member that night than anything the play specifically. I was looking forward to the talkback; I really like that most of the theatrical experiences I’ve had in the last year have been followed by talkbacks. When they’re done right, they do a fantastic job at chipping away at the accepted form of modern American theatre and I’m excited to see what lies underneath formality, respectability, and convention, once this chipping is all done.

We are socialized with the idea that if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. I honestly think this harms art and expression. It doesn’t make space for nuanced critical thoughts and also I don’t want to live my life ruled by a cartoon made in 1942. In these times where making art, especially as a woman, is a political act whether you like it or not, I will not be quiet when something doesn’t sit right with me. A talkback is meant to continue the conversation the playwright begun. Space should be carved out to respectfully and critically engage with tough, sticky ideas with people who may or may not disagree with you, but will meet you with building blocks, not shut doors. Artemisia says their sole goal is to empower women and their stories, and I truly believe that happens more often than not. However, this specific talkback reminded me of math class. The facilitator asked us how this play centered women and left no room for the answer ‘it didn’t’. It was not clear if the talkback was for the benefit of the playwright to go forward with rewrites (as this was billed as a workshop) or simply a conversation about feminism in the context of the play. I would have loved to engage and grapple with the playwright and other audience members about the issues I had and moments I thought had true potential, but I didn’t feel empowered to ask any the questions I had.  And so, I’ll close with the questions that I would have loved to ask that night.

  • Why, as a woman of color living in Chicago, should I care about this story?

  • What inspired you to write this play?

  • Why was there only one actor of color cast?

  • To label yourself as feminist is empty without knowledge and action; why would you call this a feminist play?