Bonnets and Booze: Inside the MainStage Production
Pink braids cascade over the ceiling, forming a maypole that frames the large theatre, bleeding into the back seats. The smell of fake cigarettes — sweet and a bit like a fire pit — overtake the theatre, and its smoky haze fills the room. A student calls out for pre-show sound, and “Pynk” by Janelle Monae softly flows through speakers.
The ensemble of 15 actresses, who quickly join the stage to jump, run, stomp and claim their space, are rehearsing for the JKB theatre’s new mainstage production, We Used To Wear Bonnets & Get High All The Time. The play, which opens on Nov. 16 and deals with themes of addiction, inheritance and womanhood, was written and directed by Julia May Jonas, professor of playwriting at Skidmore.
The project began after Jonas walked out of a play — one she will not name —feeling that the playwright had used femininity as a sort of cultural capital. As a way to rebel against this narrative, Jonas decided to write five plays in response to five plays written by men, creating a new, voluminous canon.
"I wanted to write a play in which I get to see women really do things as women and where I get to see these big adventure arcs and stories that we think of being the foundational tragedies and stories of our culture,” explained Jonas.
After its conception, Jonas very quickly came across the five plays she wanted to do — including All My Sons by Arthur Miller and, perhaps most importantly, Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill. Her response to O’Neill’s play happened recently, its genesis beginning only last year.
Much like Long Day’s Journey, Jonas’ play is broken up into four different periods. However, unlike the natural progression of day into evening, as seen in the original, Bonnets transcends over large gaps of time, beginning in the 1890s before entering 2018, 1940 and 1992, respectively.
At first, the play starts “in a factory, and the predominant mode is really survival—survival and labor,” explained Jonas. “And then we skip to 2018, where there’s this sense of listlessness and leisure. We experience a sense of leisure in 2018 that we didn’t have before.”
For one of the Assistant Directors, Kallan Dana ‘19, her favorite “part of the play is how much the time periods bleed into one another. I think what’s exciting is that each of the time periods, while different and removed, are intersecting and are simultaneous.”
What combines these four drastically different periods — in the sense of fashion, lifestyle and female expectations — is a prevalent theme of addiction. While opioids, as we understand them in 2018, and their various connotations from previous decades, may not have existed in the 1890s, opium products were vast and just as life-altering.
“[Bonnets] is very much looking at female addiction from the inside. I felt like it was important for me to try and explore addiction with people who are actually addicted to drugs,” explained Jonas. “I was interested in seeing if you could make a play that gets inside of their actual world.”
On stage, this multifaceted story of addiction and inherited trauma is triple-casted, which means the characters — Laura, Meg, Edith, Rose and Ollie — see many different iterations of themselves throughout time. Depending on the period, each character is given a numerical identifier, creating a sort of lineage — either through actually being related to each other or through shared experiences of trauma and addiction.
Such overlapping creates a beautiful opportunity for the actors to work together to build their characters, sharing commonalities and physicality within their characters that will proceed all generations. As explained by Rowen Halpin ‘19, who plays Meg 1, Bonnets “is a very supportive environment, and it’s cool to be a part of something that’s still evolving.”
Even when a scene involves just three or four actresses, the rest of the ensemble can be found behind three hanging windows, adding elements of dance and music to the story.
Jonas, who has a background in dance theatre, chose to include dance to “create a textural, visual world that is attacking your senses from all different sides. In the way that we have different experiences with taking in stories, whether through hearing a song about it or reading an article about it or seeing a photograph.”
This layering continues with the use of music in the play. In the first act, all the performers who are not onstage are seated in a removed enclave, creating a percussive score that continues to live underneath that first act.
Once everything combines — the music, the dance, the actors — a wonderfully complex and intricate meditation on inherited trauma, addiction and the agency we have as humans to alter our fate bridges the surface: "Primarily in the form of looking at ideas of addiction, but also this sense of inherited trauma — and not only what happened to somebody, but poverty and abuse and scarcity mentalities, all things the characters bring in as a result of the generations before,” explained Jonas.
This question of how much control individuals have when it comes to how interdependent factors affect the choices available and the choices made, is something that has interested Jonas for a while, and will be a prominent theme in Bonnets.
“I believe that change is possible, but circumstances have to be available for that change to take place, and we don’t necessarily have control as to whether we are in those circumstances,” explained Jonas. “I feel like all of the characters are struggling to get to a place where they can actually help themselves.”
However, this is not to suggest that the trauma and problems each character experiences throughout the play miraculously disappear; rather, each character is developing a sense of stability within themselves in how they adapt and understand what they’ve inherited.
Blending comedy and drama together, Bonnets attacks inherited trauma head-on, providing characters that react like real people. With a sense of understanding and whimsicality from Jonas’ approach to playwriting, the play pushes boundaries, and has fun with it, too.