“You want a revolution?” asks Jeannette Marks.
“I am a revolution,” replies Mary Woolley.
And she was, too. A peace activist, suffrage supporter, political organizer and long-serving president of Mount Holyoke College, Woolley helped to transform university education for women in the United States.
In “Bull in a China Shop,” playwright Bryna Turner brings an irreverent, sharp-witted sensibility to Woolley’s groundbreaking career and her decades-long romance with Marks, chair of Mount Holyoke’s English department.
“This is a very contemporary play that is rooted in historical fact,” said Annamaria Pileggi, professor of practice in drama in the Performing Arts Department (PAD) in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, who will direct the show April 14-17 in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre.
“These were courageous women who, at a time when lesbian relationships were largely hidden, behaved for all intents and purposes as a married couple,” Pileggi added. “What they were able to achieve, in both their public and private lives, is simply extraordinary.”
Correcting the narrative
Turner, a 2012 Mount Holyoke graduate, learned about Woolley and Marks thanks to a digital exhibition promoted on the college’s Instagram account. She describes “Bull in a China Shop,” which debuted at Lincoln Center in New York in 2017, as both “an excavation of queer history” and “a queering of history.”
“As a queer person, I’ve been left out of a lot of narratives,” Turner explained to the Mount Holyoke alumni magazine. “That’s something I was trying to correct.”
Woolley, born in 1863, was a minister’s daughter and the first female student to attend Brown University. After earning her master’s degree, in 1895, she joined the faculty at Wellesley College, teaching literature and biblical history. There she met Marks, 10 years her junior. When Woolley left for Mount Holyoke in 1901, Marks — who had earned her bachelor’s degree the year before — followed as an English instructor.
Inspired by Woolley and Marks’ actual correspondence, “Bull in a China Shop” begins in 1899, when Woolley first was offered the Mount Holyoke position, and follows the couple until Woolley’s retirement in 1937. Yet the decades unfold quickly, through 24 short scenes packed into a brisk 90 minutes.
“It’s very cinematic,” Pileggi said, “which is a challenge, but also incredibly satisfying. To create a compelling live experience, you have to engage all the elements of theatrical design, from sets and costumes to lighting and sound. Our team has done really beautiful work.”
During her long tenure, Woolley modernized Mount Holyoke’s curriculum, instituting honors classes, expanding graduate programs and hiring more faculty with advanced degrees. She also grew the endowment tenfold and oversaw construction of 16 new buildings. Marks, meanwhile, rose from English instructor to department chair; welcomed contemporary authors and fostered discussions of modern literature; and founded what would become the theater department.
But as the play details, these accomplishments were not without controversy. Some faculty complained of Marks’ ascent. Some trustees sought to replace Woolley with a man.
“They definitely created waves,” Pileggi said. “I hope this play leaves people with a sense of how radical these women really were. A hundred and twenty years on, I wonder if Woolley and Marks would be heartened by our progress or discouraged by how much work we still have to do.”
Cast and crew
The cast of five stars Sarah Wilkinson as Woolley and Samantha Campisi as Marks. Natasha Cole is the tight-lipped, tradition-minded Dean Welsh. Ella Sherlock is Felicity, a professor of philosophy and Marks’ nominal roommate in off-campus housing. Sofia McGrath is Pearl, an obsessively devoted student.
Costumes are by Dominique Rhea Green, with scenic design by Robert Mark Morgan. Props are by Emily Frei. Lighting design is by Seth Kleinberg, with sound design by Benjamin Lewis. Payne Banister is assistant director. Minjoo Kim is dramaturg. The stage manager is Simran Wadhwa.
Performances of “Bull in a China Shop” will begin at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, April 14, 15 and 16; and at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, April 16 and 17. The A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre is located in the Mallinckrodt Student Center, 6465 Forsyth Blvd.
Tickets are $20, or $15 for seniors, students and WashU faculty and staff, and free for WashU students. Tickets are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office. For more information, call 314-935-6543 or visit pad.wustl.edu.
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