The Obie Award-winning Ice Factory Festival 2019 at the New Ohio Theatre boasts 7 new shows in 7 weeks. One of them is “Lordes,” co-written by Gethsemane Herron-Coward and Katherine Wilkinson, who also directs, and runs from July 31st-August 3rd. “Lordes,” a “celebration of the legacy” of Audre Lorde (Giselle Gant), self-described “black, lesbian, feminist, warrior, mother,” has a lot of ground to cover in 70 minutes. Her light-skinned mother looms large over the proceedings, and “taught me never to trust a black person, so neither of us trusted me.” Another complex relationship is with Adrienne Rich, a white poet, (Kathryn Metzger, in a nervy, earnest performance), who was instrumental in the publishing of Lordes work, and encouraged her to read her poetry in public – whether it be the 92nd Street Y, Yale, or Hunter College, her alma mater. Racism, sexism and homophobia are key elements in her life and work, and this production. Her relationship with new partner, Gloria (Renita Lewis, who shines), during her losing battle with breast cancer is a memorable highlight.
A chorus of young feminists whom she inspires encircle the stage; they are both witnesses and participants in Audre Lorde’s life. Above all, we ha
ve her poetry, her powerful voice and her gift for strong words.
Wilkinson and Herron-Coward met four years ago in the Columbia MFA program. After having worked together on other projects, Wilkinson approached Herron-Coward with the idea of a play about an influential poet: Audre Lorde. She wanted Lorde to be the centerpiece of the play, but “as a white person, I did not think I could write it myself.” She knew that Herrod-Coward could. As an undergraduate, when she was coming out of the closet and embracing her queerness, Wilkinson had discovered Lorde. She was also a poet, and explained, “I never understood my own poetry, what it meant logically, until I read Audre Lorde.” Wilkinson was so transformed by Lorde’s essay, ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury,’ she carried the text in her purse for the next ten years. By contrast, Herron-Coward was enrolled in Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where her last residence was in the Audre Lorde Cooperative. “I literally looked at her mural every day,” she said. They both wanted, above all else, a room full of women, in a creative capacity – the more women onstage, the better. Indeed, the 50 person cast has been scaled back to 25, due to the confines of the New Ohio Theatre down in the Village.
Their process is collaborative, using feedback from discussions about Audre Lorde to form “a structure that allows Audre Lorde to have more agency and accessibility.” Herron-Coward said that she took some of Lorde’s essays and “transformed action into power.” She also wanted to add real people from Lorde’s life, such as Adrienne Rich. Wilkinson takes Herron-Coward’s text, and “stages the thing that is underneath the text,” like the gorgeous visual of 25 distinctive, diverse women in a sensual sea of red costumes, swaying and dancing to Lorde’s thoughts of Gloria. The musical composition underscoring the dance, by Aviva Jaye, is terrific. Wilkinson said that women kept Lorde alive. “I think Audre Lorde would approve of this mass of women onstage.” That is, from a feminist viewpoint, “what our futures could look like.”
“Lordes” has a lot going for it. Giselle Gant’s Audre Lorde is a commanding, charismatic presence. The dialogue of Herron-Coward and Wilkinson is terrific – so terrific, I longed for a full-length play. The dazzling visuals, choreography, music, and vocals create moments of pure joy. But somehow, all of these disparate parts do not yet add up to a cohesive whole. As I said, there is a lot of ground to cover in 70 minutes. Too much ground. There is a lot of bio and not enough poetry, not enough of Lorde herself. Audre Lorde, “black, lesbian, feminist, warrior, mother,” lived a big life. She deserves a big play.