The Inferior Sex Proves Superior at Trinity Rep
We chatted with writer Jacqueline E. Lawton about her inspiration for the political comedy and what she hopes audiences take away after seeing it.
Just in time to close out Women’s History Month with a poignant bang, The Inferior Sex has taken over the stage at Trinity Rep. The wildly delightful political comedy, as written by Jacqueline E. Lawton and directed by Tatyana-Marie Carlo, transports audiences to the summer of 1972 — when the call to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment is in full swing — and follows an all-woman team at a feminist fashion magazine called Caposhi Rev. Fueled by the Vietnam War, Watergate and, most importantly, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s historic run for president, the charged political and social climate of the time challenges not only the women’s relationships with one another, but also the future of the magazine itself.
I had the very good fortune to see the play on opening night and while I had been expecting to leave feeling empowered (check) and even pensive (check), I was also pleasantly surprised to end the night with sore ab muscles from laughing. The Inferior Sex certainly doesn’t shy away from (still relevant) difficult conversations surrounding gender, race and class, but it also unflinchingly dives head first into the humor of it all. But never at the expense of turning its characters into caricatures – if anything their blunders make them all the more real. Another pleasant surprise? Both the costumes — which, fun fact, were literally taken straight from the seventies — and the set design are exquisite. Trinity Rep’s artistic director, Curt Columbus, puts it best, calling The Inferior Sex a “rare theatrical gem” that is “at turns funny, serious, and straight-up glamorous.”
The play’s writer, Jacqueline E. Lawton, graciously chatted with me last week to give more insight as to how The Inferior Sex came to be. Read on to learn how she managed to seamlessly blend the levity with the sincere, which characters were the most fun to write for and what she hopes audiences take away from the play.
Editor’s note: the Q&A has been split into two parts: part one contains a more general discussion while the second half on page two ventures into spoiler territory. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
First, I’d love to learn a little bit more about you. Where are you from and how did you get into the world of theatre?
I’m originally from a tiny town in East Texas called Tennessee Colony. I always loved theatre thanks to my mom’s love of musicals, and I also watched recordings of Broadway shows on PBS growing up. I didn’t see professional theater live until college, but I fell in love with the idea of telling stories live — this way of human beings acting out adventures and dramas and love stories. I would write little stories to entertain my sister and that’s how it all started.
Then, while an undergrad at University of Texas at Austin, I met the amazing Amparo Garcia Crow and she became one of my mentors. She’s an interdisciplinary artist — a beautiful playwright and musician. I fell in love with that idea of not just defining yourself as one part of an aspect of a career. Now, I am a playwright and a dramaturg, meaning someone who does research around the world of a play or helps playwrights with development. I’ve directed and acted on occasion, and I also teach theatre, which is really fun. And I’m a producer as well. I just love being a theatre artist.
But my first foray is through playwriting. I studied theatre and screenwriting during undergrad and then I went to grad school and got my MFA in playwriting at the University of Texas at Austin, as well. I eventually made my way to Washington DC, and I spent a long time there writing plays, being a dramaturg and being surrounded by theatre artists which was wonderful and fruitful. In 2015 I started working at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and continued to write and have plays produced.
How did your partnership with Trinity Rep come about?
When everything shut down in March 2020, theaters were of course impacted. I had met [The Inferior Sex director] Tatyana-Marie Carlo because she was supposed to direct a show at UNC in our theater department, but that got shut down and we ended up doing online readings instead. She read The Inferior Sex and fell in love with it. We did a reading of it and it was fantastic; the students were wonderful. And then my play, Behold, a Negress, had gotten a production at Everyman Theatre Company and we were looking for a director and I immediately thought of Tatyana because I love working with her. She was able to direct that production, and then in conversations she was having with Curt [Columbus] and other [Trinity Rep] members, she told them about The Inferior Sex. They all thought it would be a great play for their company and I was really excited about the idea.
Have you had a chance to see it in person at Trinity Rep?
I was able to see the design run and then we had two days of spacing to figure out the logistics of how everything would play out on the stage. That was great because the designers were there and we got to hear different sound ideas and see the set being completed. And then the costumes showed up and they were just incredible. Amanda [Downing Carney, the play’s Costume Shop Director] is an extraordinary designer. Projections also were able to do their thing and it was really fun to be able to see all of that in progress. And then I watched a couple of the run throughs on Zoom and I’ve also watched recordings of it. It’s been wonderful to see it come to life.
When and how did the inspiration for The Inferior Sex strike?
I received a grant in 2018 to write three plays and I decided that I was going to focus on all women’s stories. Women had always been at the center of my plays — women of color and Black women, specifically, are always at the center of my plays — but I hadn’t just said, ‘Okay, all women, let’s see what that world is like.’ The Inferior Sex was one of those plays. At that time, I was thinking about what had happened in 2016 with the election and the response to it. Middle class women were taking to the streets with the Women’s March in a way that we hadn’t seen happen in decades. But a very fascinating thing happened, which is that it wasn’t as intersectional as it should have been. As white women came together, women of color came together, incarcerated women came together, there was inner conflict. That’s just so challenging to me because we’re not going to advance forward by silencing our differences. We’re going to advance forward by acknowledging our differences and making sure we all have what we need equitably to move forward. And that just wasn’t happening.
And then I was thinking about what was happening at Teen Vogue. They had a new editor come on board who just revolutionized the magazine. Understanding the youth vote is the most powerful vote, they decided they were going to inform their audience and take advantage of the fact that this generation is so engaged civically. They said, ‘Let’s engage the conversations that they’re wanting to have right now.’ And I was imaging like, ‘What would that have been like behind the scenes?’ Some people might have been waiting for this their whole career, whereas others might have been nervous and anxious, and others probably said, ‘Nope, we should just stick to fashion, makeup and dating advice.’
So, I wanted to write about those things: the lack of intersectionality in the women’s movement, and what can happen behind the scenes of a magazine if they change their point of view. I could have made a contemporary, but I thought, ‘Let’s look at another moment in time when intersectionality could have happened but didn’t, and why we are where we are right now.’ And 1972 was that perfect moment in time.
That’s interesting because I had been wondering what came first in your writing process, the magazine aspect, or the Shirley Chisholm angle. Were you already familiar with the Congresswoman prior to this?
Oh yes, of course. I know a lot of people are meeting her for the first time…
I am one of them, unfortunately!
It’s okay! That’s part of the excitement, that plays can introduce audiences to new ideas and topics and people and experiences. She was someone who inspired me just through her existence; her uncompromised way of being in the world and her sheer determination and commitment to her ideals. 1972 was when she announced her run for the candidacy — something [society] hadn’t seen before. And we hadn’t seen before someone who was not going to be compromised by money. Despite everyone saying ‘no,’ she knew she had a message she wanted to advance forward. It didn’t matter that people weren’t supporting her in the way she thought that they should, she just knew she had to get this work done. I thought about where would we be now had intersectionality been a factor in this key moment in time where women were advancing? Meaning that middle-class white women understood that Black women, Latinx folks and AAPI folks are just as valuable and important to this fight and you have to move forward with them. When you look at women’s suffrage, you see conversations where white women did not want Black women in the movement because they thought they were going to lose support. That happened in the 1920s, and you see it again in 1972. Shirely Chisholm was a Black woman talking out loud all the time about what it is to be both Black and a woman and the challenges that come with that. And she also talked about class, too. And so she wanted to expand on intersectionality, the idea that circumstances as they relates to an individual’s social identity — specifically race, gender, class — determine certain outcomes. Me being a Black woman in a certain class, what are the opportunities available to me? What are the opportunities denied to me? What are the opportunities that I just don’t even know about because people don’t look at me as someone who could potentially be successful? I just don’t think you can talk about 1972 without talking about Shirley Chisholm because there’s no way that she wouldn’t be a part of this play.
As someone who works for a lifestyle magazine, I have to say some of the discussions surrounding sales and content decisions were totally spot on.
I did a lot of research. It’s not just about the voices behind the writing or the trend predictions; I learned a lot about the pull that advertisers have. Advertising money is so critical to the bottom line of a magazine and if you upset an advertiser, that could be someone’s job. So those conversations are very important even as you’re trying to advance forward. If you don’t have the money, then you don’t have a magazine. I did a lot of research to understand the world of journalism and very specifically lifestyle and fashion magazines. They’re a little different: a magazine that’s already political, the line is pretty far back. But if you are a purely fashion magazine and you’re trying to be political, you’re going to open all sorts of challenging issues.
For those who have yet to see the play, what would you like them to know going in?
Know that while the topics are serious topics that we’re still debating today, you’re about to meet some extraordinary women and you’re going to have a really great time. It’s a comedy — it’s in your face and the actors are working so hard to tell the story and bring it to life. It’s a delightful, thoroughly enjoyable experience.
You can catch a performance of The Inferior Sex at Trinity Rep now through April 16 (see website for show times). Tickets start at $27 each and are available for purchase online at trinityrep.com/inferiorsex or by calling the ticket office at 401-351-4242. Masks are not required (but still encouraged) during nightly showings, while matinee shows do have a mask requirement.
Already had a chance to see the play? Head to page two for a more spoilery discussion of The Inferior Sex.