The American Voice: Sisterhood of Delight

By Lizzie Stern, Literary Manager
July 2, 2019

Ingres, Jean-Auguste-Dominique. The Turkish Bath. 1852–1859, modified in 1862. Oil on canvas glued to wood. Musée du Louvre

The Nahargarh Fort rests on a ridge overlooking the city of Jaipur, India. It was erected in the 18th century with a dual purpose: a retreat for the maharaja and a defense structure with sweeping views. But when Jaclyn Backhaus visited, on a family trip in 2007, she was struck by the view from within. Inside the fort is a palace, and inside the palace is a harem, and in the harem’s wall is a hole through which the maharaja would watch his concubines bathe. And so Jaclyn started thinking about the male gaze.

“I felt a little unmoored,” Jaclyn told me, about that time in her life. She was an undergrad at the Playwrights Horizons Theater School, with an unrequited crush and a shaved head from a no-hair production of Hair. “I knew I liked creating worlds of plays. But I didn’t really have internal motivation as to what kind of work I wanted to be making. I look back on myself now and I can see the journey I’ve taken from feeling like a witness to my life to feeling like I am more in charge.”

“Women’s accounts are considered subjective and particular, while men’s are objective and universal. In other words, women’s opinions are opinions and men’s opinions are the truth.”

Women have written for centuries, of course, about the challenge of feeling in charge. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf engages with it in the context of women and fiction. In framing her argument for why women need money and a room of one’s own in order to write, she disclaims: “When a subject is highly controversial – and any question about sex is that – one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold.” So Woolf grips to fiction as her form, inventing places like “Oxbridge University” and inserting herself as a character. All the while, she is underlining a hallmark of sexism: women’s accounts are considered subjective and particular, while men’s are objective and universal. In other words, women’s opinions are opinions and men’s opinions are the truth.

Jaclyn’s breakout play Men On Boats was a roundhouse kick to that construction. Men On Boats premiered in 2016 at Clubbed Thumb to sold-out audiences and rhapsodic reviews, and Playwrights Horizons was quick to produce it in our Redux series and to offer Jaclyn a commission. The play, an athletic and adventurous comedy, chronicles John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers and the first government-sponsored passage through the Grand Canyon. It pulses with metatheatrical subversion: a diverse cast of non-cisgendered male actors plays Powell’s white, cis-male crew, while the plot slyly exposes omissions in his account. Jaclyn wrests a major manifest-destiny narrative from white, cis men while, with theatricality and humor, amplifying the absurdity that their account was ever considered factual.

In her next play, India Pale Ale, which premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2018, Jaclyn enmeshes her large-scale social questions in a more closely observed, character-driven drama. In her funny, humane, and moving portrait of a Punjabi-American family in Wisconsin, we focus on a young woman, Boz, who is searching for a sense of independence, inspired by the legacy of her great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather. She leaves her small hometown to open a beer bar in Madison, only to be pulled back home in the wake of a family tragedy. As we follow Boz on her journey, Jaclyn builds an artery from the present to the past through the personal, ancestral, and all we cannot know.

“The play is a burst of energy that hopscotches around history, ripping it open and compulsively cleansing itself of images made by men.”

Both of these plays are quintessential of Jaclyn’s voice: intelligent deconstructions of history that centralize women of color, irrepressible joy and goofball humor, and a contagious enchantment with the unknown. Wives is a natural next step in the evolution of her canon. The play is a burst of energy that hopscotches around history, ripping it open and compulsively cleansing itself of images made by men, and finally landing in an intimate portrait of one young woman searching for deeper self-knowledge.

Like A Room of One’s Own, the play is a blend of fiction and autobiography: two of its locations are meaningful landmarks for Jaclyn, including the Nahargarh Fort. When she takes us there, it’s the early 20th century and an ailing maharaja and his witchy mistress have secluded themselves in the harem. A British deputy, suspicious the mistress is poisoning the maharaja, tries to pit the queen against her. This is where Jaclyn’s version of the story takes a sharp left: the deputy's plan backfires and the women align against him rather than each other. Not only are they lifelong friends, they're strong leaders who've achieved universal love and equilibrium inside their harem. Now, that hole in the wall is starting to look a lot smaller — less like an aperture for the voyeuristic male gaze, and more like a shared laugh at that gaze’s obvious limitations.

“Jaclyn offers a testament to writing as a road to self-actualization.”

When we leave Jaipur, what do you know, we’re at Oxbridge University — where we meet Swarn, a student who’s feeling “a little unmoored.” With the encouragement of a girlfriend, Swarn reaches deep into her ancestral history and, repeating to herself the refrain “everything about you is right,” starts lurching toward self-revelation. Here, Jaclyn abandons the idea of an aperture entirely by placing herself in her own narrative. Swarn and Jaclyn become one character as Wives the play, and Jaclyn the writer, also fling themselves into uncharted territory – the text straining to empty itself of familiar words, filling itself with neologisms, inventing a vocabulary all its own. In this flash-flood of a theatrical gesture — surprising, dangerous, and cleansing — Jaclyn offers a testament to writing as a road to self-actualization.

As ecstatic as this ending is, it is not a wholly clean or cathartic transformation. It is freighted with uncertainty, confusion, and pain — as much a tribute to the self-realizing power of narrative as a reminder that the journey (of both writing and coming into yourself) is a constant struggle for many, impossible to do without support. I read this section of Wives as a handbook of sorts for writers who fall outside the patriarchy’s good graces. When we take creative risk, it can feel like we’re getting something fundamentally wrong, or falling short of prescribed ideals and greater truths. I feel that way often. I do now, writing this essay. And I’ve been turning to Jaclyn’s wisdom throughout.

“Deciding to write a play, you can feel like you’re an island alone,” she told me. “I know how impactful it can be to surround myself with positive encouraging energy. I try to get that in the room as soon as possible.”

“We need to create for each other what the patriarchy affords its heirs: a reflection of inherent rightness.”

Jaclyn actively fosters positive collaboration in all her work, most widely with her company, Fresh Ground Pepper, which she co-founded in 2009. Its mission, as Jaclyn describes in her Playwright’s Perspective a few pages back, is “nurtured by delighted exploration and collaborative communities…to find new voices and push them each toward surprising frontiers.” Jaclyn explained: “We do exercises in ‘delighted feedback,’ which is about actively listening for the kinds of things that delight you. This instills in me a values system of sharing. I hardly ever hate a play. I always continually find the things I love about it. I’ve just become a ball of delight.”

In order for women to claim our writing and claim ourselves, she seems to say, we need to create for each other what the patriarchy affords its heirs: a reflection of inherent rightness. Jaclyn’s positive collaboration is exactly this. She is building a scaffold of shared strength and affirmation, of both writing and self, and making it available to everyone who feels unmoored in her audiences, classrooms, and rehearsal rooms.

This mutual fortification is a radical kind of feminism. It is radical because it inspires a sense of limitless expansion that alleviates the fear and scarcity sexism breeds. Through her work, Jaclyn is building a sisterhood – an inclusive sisterhood, with hope for collective liberation.