Top Girls, a 1982 play by Caryl Churchill, should be out of date. In a world where humanity makes forward progress toward social justice, where intelligence and talent are unencumbered by ties meant to maintain a system of oppressed and oppressive people, and where common good is truly valued and not simply paid lip service to, the conflicts in Top Girls would be a sad remembrance of a darker time. If social justice advanced at anything close to the rate that technology does, the issues addressed in this play would be no more than historical observations from which we learned, as a culture, and vowed to never repeat.
Sadly, Top Girls, a bitterly depicted play about women’s personal and professional sacrifices in the workplace—and in life, in general—is as contemporary now as it was thirty-five years ago. Cell phones. The Internet. Personal computers. Humans can do a lot, but we can’t seem to find a viable solution to a single one of the problems of women working outside the home and parenting their children. And any solutions we may have found are currently under threat.
Churchill’s Top Girls, brilliantly directed by Lindsay Rae Taylor for the University of South Carolina’s Department of Theatre and Dance, is not an easy play, but it’s a good play and it requires some investment on the part of the audience. Beginning with the opening dinner party scene during which women from various time periods arrive and begin to develop their characters by talking over one another as if they were commentators on a cable news show, the audience is challenged to follow conversational threads—a task that may come easier to some than others. From my perspective I picked up bits and pieces—enough to make me eager to research the characters to find out who was real and who was not.
Fictional character Marlene, played by Kimberly Braun, is the host of the party, a contemporary character celebrating her promotion at an employment agency. Marlene is the constant in the play which takes us on a non-linear journey through time. Purposely anachronistic, the dinner party guests represent various oppressions of women throughout history. World traveler and real-life author Isabella Bird, played by Libby Hawkins, may have the most autonomy in that she elected to travel rather than tie herself down to a home life. Real-life Buddhist medieval nun Lady Nijo, played by Kelsey McCloskey, began her life in various stages of sexual servitude, and Dull Gret, a character from Flemish folklore who leads a band women into battle in Hell, as depicted in Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting, is played by Liv Matthews. Amber Coulter plays the probably fictional Pope Joan whom, legend tells, disguised herself as a male in order to pursue her studies and was eventually elected as Pope. Patient Griselda, played by Amelia Bruce, is a character from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales who marries a Marquis and agrees to always obey him. As possibly the most poignant of the dinner party guests, Griselda’s obedience requires she give up her children in order to prove her devotion to the Marquis. Finally, Cassidy Spencer plays the role of the servant, as women are wont to do.
The following scene and the second act take the audience from a British backyard where two young girls play and make their confessions and back and forth between the aforementioned employment office and the home of Marlene’s sister and child. The conflict of the play is the same conflict appreciated by so many women today—how to power through a career and deciding what role, if any, parenting will play in the process.
While the playwright made some forgivable axiomatic assumptions, given the time in which it was written and the lack of examination of the extensive role the patriarchy plays, has played, and continues to play in the relative autonomy and agency of women, the absence of women of color from the script is less forgivable. In this way the play is guilty of being a product of its time, perpetuating a practice that, thankfully, has since been identified and is hopefully being ameliorated.
Kudos to the cast of Top Girls, all of whom, with the exception of Marlene who works throughout the play, play multiple roles and they do so strongly. There are powerful women on the stage of Top Girls. Charismatic, confident, and demanding of the audience’s attention. There were no weak links in the ensemble. The use of music contemporary to the eighties lifts the drama and there are many light-hearted moments. Particular compliments are due to costume designer Anna Ison who nailed the shoulder pads as well as she did Dull Gret’s appropriation of men’s iconic war symbols into women’s wear. Finally, congratulations to the cast on an opening sequence of slo-mo poses and posturing and choreography that set the stage for an exceptional night of entertainment. Catch the play to see those first few moments of fun – but stay for the rest of the evening, and leave with your feminist fires aflame!