Leaving childhood can be treacherous. Filled with change and uncertainty, adolescence swiftly and ungracefully delivers us to new and frightening terrain. While this journey is unique to everyone, experiences like heartache, joy, and sorrow repeat themselves throughout our lives and, for many writers, onto the page, as they try their best to make sense of them. Playwrights have always artistically grappled with growing up, and Ming Peiffer’s Usual Girls is no exception: below is a selection of plays that also try to navigate the no-man’s-land of coming of age.
SPRING AWAKENING (1906)
Frank Wedekind’s play, groundbreaking in its approach to adolescence, follows a group of teenagers and examines how well-meaning adults in their lives fail them, triggering unprepared consequences. Moritz dies by suicide after receiving bad marks; Wendla becomes pregnant and then dies during her mother’s attempt to provide her an abortion; and Melchior, sent to a reformatory after being expelled, struggles to reckon with with the loss of his childhood.
TEA AND SYMPATHY (1953)
Robert Anderson’s play presents Tom Lee, a sensitive boy who is at odds with his brash, masculine classmates. The bullying intensifies when the other boys, perturbed by Tom’s effeminate nature and possible homosexuality, try to force him into “manliness.” Laura Reynolds, the wife of one of Tom’s teachers, observes this with alarm and decides to intervene, offering herself up as a potential object for Tom’s desire. The play’s final line, spoken by Laura, remains iconic: “Years from now, when you speak of this, and you will, be kind.”
HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE (1998)
Paula Vogel’s Obie award-winning play serves as a crinkled, cryptic roadmap to an interrupted girlhood. Feeling like the family’s misfit, Li’l Bit turns to her dashing Uncle Peck for guidance and companionship. The two bond over driving lessons, and Peck teaches Li’l Bit everything he knows. However, Peck’s attentions soon turn predatory, and when grown-up Li’l Bit reflects on this conflicting relationship, her memories prompt us to think about sexuality, identity, and how secrets build when buried in the body.
MARCUS; OR, THE SECRET OF SWEET (2010)
In the last play of his Brother/Sister trilogy, Tarell Alvin McCraney tells the story of 16-year-old Marcus Eshu, living in the fictional town of San Pere, Louisiana. In a world infused with Yoruba mythology, set in “the distant present,” Marcus begins to experiment with being “sweet”— a historically black Southern slang word for “gay.” Missing his father and feeling at odds with his surroundings, Marcus fumbles for love and a place to call his own in the days directly preceding Hurricane Katrina.
DRY LAND (2015)
Ruby Rae Spiegel’s brutal and intimate glimpse into teenage girlhood takes us to a high school locker room in present-day Florida, where we meet 16-year-old, pregnant Amy and lonely transfer-student Ester, united by swim-team membership. As the girls strategize about home-abortion tactics, they talk about typical teen things, too: feeling isolated, the way kisses taste, what college life might hold.
2018-2019 Season, Usual Girls