I didn’t have any preconceived notions going into Ducklings. I just knew I wanted to see Amina Henry’s work because I heard she was amazing. And by God, Ducklings delivered.
Ducklings follows four women in a competing in a YouTube reality show to become Dancehall Queen of Pittsburgh. I have a weakness for reality competitions a la America’s Next Top Model, not just for the ridiculous drama, but also the raw emotion that shines thorough, the bare-faced humanity heightened to a fever pitch. As articulated by the host Spider, “It’s a fuckin’ jungle out there. We’re hungry. Thirsty. We’re lonely. We need shit. Life is about filling needs.”
Like many reality show contestants, the women at the center of Henry’s play don’t have a lot of power in their lives, politically, financially, romantically—but the televised forum allows them the promise of escaping what they have been dealt. When they manipulate their bodies to the pulsating rhythm, they are transformed and transported, regaining a measure of autonomy s often denied them.
What distinguishes all of the women is a sense of resilience in the face of impossible odds. Henry’s script sketches their lives in hilariously tragic detail, but they soldier on with rugged bravado and refuse to be pitied, trading throwing shade and trading Instagram posts like sniper fire. There’s Rihanna P (Khalia Davis), who dreams of buying an industrial copy machine so she and her backwater boyfriend Lester can overturn the corporate hegemony from rural Michigan. Bunny (Katchana Agama), the “good girl” works at a Walmart to support her son with cancer and previously appeared on Maury. Rihanna T (Victoria Wallace) doesn’t give a shit about anything but launching her lip gloss line. Donna (Cristina Pitter) is an assistant librarian whose family kicked her out and shows up for her interview not with a picture of her boyfriend, but the house she wants to buy with the prize money.
Director Christopher Burris has a ton of fun with the circumstances Henry has provided, and the actors fully commit to the wacky ride. There is a frenetic, giddy, energy to the staging, and choreographer Joya Powell manages to make every woman’s movement incredibly distinct and revealing. Davis’s revolutionary Rihanna P punctuates her final routine with finger guns that would make Pam Grier proud, while Wallace’s Rihanna T completes hilariously unspeakable acts with a tablet computer.
One of the quirks of visiting Jack is the foil-covered walls, and Jason Folk’s lighting design of magentas and blues reflects against the silver to bathe everything in a funkadelic flair. Set designer Christiana Teng and Andy Evan Cohen design pepper the production with whimsical touches—like Spider’s ringtone being the “Greed is good” mantra from the movie Wall St. Sabrina Bianca Guillaume costumes precisely reveal each character and her worldview, from Donna’s regal turban to Bunny’s feminine bob to Rihanna P’s bright gold body suit and voluminous curls and Rihanna T’s frosty pixie and stringy neon leotard.
On a personal level, it’s also a thrill to see a story that is not my story and to enter into a world that is not mine but fully alive and accessible. It’s important as theatre makers to continue to diversify the stories that we see and put ourselves into unfamiliar situations. For a rare occasion as a theatre-goer, I was very much in the minority as a white person, which was an educational and important experience not just as a critic, but as a theatre maker and educator.
I don’t know whether Henry began this play before this political moment, or how much of it was rewritten afterward, but there is a familiar sense of desperation, bewilderment, and seething rage that undercuts every interaction. They’re all in survival mode, but with wildly different strategies. For some it’s political anger, for some it’s spiteful apathy, for others it is a Pollyanna-ish cheeriness. This desperation is embodied most soulfully in Pitter’s Donna, a returning competitor from the previous year, who becomes dismayed as she learns the contest orchestrated by Cole Taylor’s oily host Spider may be less than fair: “All of my dreams, everything I want out of life, is wrapped up in this competition,” she cries. “And now – my whole life is based on – what now?!” I remember feeling similar sentiments in the months following the most recent election. When your life is upended by forces outside of your control, what is the appropriate, most ethical response? And what if there isn’t one and you have to accept the darker underbelly of the world, of your own nature? Do you rage against the machine or do you resign yourself and strive to get as much as you can? “Whatever, America,” Rihanna T shrugs, “What fucking ever.”
By Amina Henry
Director: Christopher Burris
FEATURING: Katchana Agama, Quilan Arnold, Khalia Davis, Cristina Pitter, Cole Taylor, Victoria Wallace
Choreographer: Joya Powell
Set Design: Christina Tang
Lighting Design: Jason Fok
Sound Design: Andy Evan Cohen
Costume Design: Sabrina Bianca Guillaume
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