With All Due Respect

I’m feeling disappointed. Yes. Quite.

Jessica Joseph-McDermott
Jessica Joseph-McDermott

Now this isn’t the type of disappointment that sits on your shoulders, chuckling and chortling as you carry it around. It’s also not the type that you half-expect, or dread to meet. It’s the type that builds. Over time. Minutes, then hours, and days, until finally…You recognise it for what it is. Taste it. See it. Nod your head at it. It’s the sneaky kind. That tricky niggle. That spot you can’t quite itch. It’s that frown you can’t shake because that tap keeps on dripping and it seems alright, because you’re used to that sound, but you know that something’s building and stretching and pushing and pulling and something, yes something, just isn’t quite right.

It’s the type of disappointment that grows. That one that’s unexpected. And in the end, it’s the surprise that gets you.

Why am I disappointed? Well, where the hell should I begin! Why not – purgatory (or more accurately, downtown purgatory, in a place called ‘Hope’). Now ‘Hope’ is a place that has been penned by the brilliant Stephen Adly Guirgis. And this is where my disappointment begins.

This term at school, we are working on our second full play production for the course. The play we will be performing is called: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, and yes, this is the play taking place in ‘Hope’.

I have been cast as ‘Fabiana Aziza Cunningham’ – a Lawyer defending Judas Iscariot against the charge of “eternal damnation”, as a result of having “sold out the son of God”. Guirgis includes an assortment of historical figures in the play, although the character I’ve been cast as is completely fictitious…Or is she?

She lives in Purgatory, and is described as an “Irish Gypsy Lawyer bitch” who has “great legs” and “dubious cleavage”. At the end of the play, Satan succinctly (yet cruelly) summarises her shortcomings: “…all those excuses…your mother, the bulimia, the herpes, the booze, the abortions, the rape, the bipolar pharmaceutical adventures, the twin suicide attempts and the abject failures at every relationship you ever attempted…” Cunningham is a woman who has lived a life – that’s for sure. And she sure knows how to fight for a case in court.

So here’s where my disappointment began. I’ve found it interesting working on this character, not only because she is such a complex creation, but also because of the rehearsal room I’ve been working in. There’s a peculiar pattern that emerged once we started working this piece, and I have to say I don’t really care for it.

It’s a pattern unique to some of my male cast mates, and it began on the sly (almost imperceptible). Did I hear what I thought I heard? Probably not. Because that makes no sense. But then things are said to me directly, and there’s no room for mistaking what I’m hearing. The words “bitch”, and “hate” were being thrown around, as describing words for this character. Regarding Cunningham – “she’s such a bitch. I hate her. She’s everything in a character that I hate”. And then there’s her latest nick-name, so ingenious in its creation – “CUNT-ingham”. Yes. Cunt. There’s that word. And how clever, when used in this way, don’t you think?

So this is where my disappointment began, and reared its ugly head. Guirgis is such an astute writer, that he’s created a female character worth fighting for. She is a woman worth playing, because she is every woman.

Why do I say this? Well this is what Guirgis has done. Amidst the countless pieces of commentary that he weaves within this play, the role of gender is something that he hits on the head. I mean it. He’s got this oh so right (sadly).

Cunningham is a female defence attorney who holds her own in the courtroom, whilst being sexualised, belittled and shamed by the men around her. For example, Judge Littlefield comments on her living in Purgatory: “Well you shoulda kept your legs closed!” Prosecution (El-Fayoumy) yo-yos between flirting with her: “You have great legs, Fabiana. Free for dinner, perhaps?” and chastising: “…when you were nothing more than a cheap shot of whiskey on your great-great-grandfather’s first unpaid bar tab!”

Pontius Pilate even hits on her right in the middle of his scolding: “Shit! I’ll tell you what, though: When you get your head straightened out, gimme a call some time if you want to – I’ll take you down to the Aqueduct for a Pizza and a Tussle. Show you my tattoos…”

Cunningham is ferocious in her manner and tact in the courtroom – but is this really any wonder?

As I’ve said before, it’s counter-intuitive to judge your own character. And maybe this is just my bias as I am the one working on her, and stepping into her skin. But I’ll be frank in saying, I haven’t found myself judging Cunningham at any point during this process.

She is a damaged woman albeit strong, and vocal, and well versed in her views. She is a fighter, and I love her for that. This is a character that I can sink my teeth into. This is a woman with strength, and presence, and a moral compass. She is a woman to be reckoned with. Do these qualities make you a ‘bitch?’ This is where my disappointment really begins.

Because this isn’t just for the stage, is it? Women are objectified on a daily basis. I experience this most days, walking on the street, or sitting in a café, or working out at the gym. And here’s the crux of it – how is this objectification not common knowledge? And why is this the way the world works?

My disappointment stems from my new knowing, that some of my cast mates don’t even see this character. They don’t see that she is every woman – she is me, and she is your sister, and she is your mother, and she is your girlfriend. Because misogyny can begin with a single word. Or a single gesture. But more often than not, it begins with simple (yet contagious) ignorance.

And here we have Guirgis, who has so perfectly captured our world. This Western society. Gender. Man and Woman together, and apart. His commentary is profound, and relevant, and…so very sad. Because this is life – it plays out every day.

But isn’t that part of the reason why we act? To affect life off-stage? To challenge, and provoke, and prod, and dig. To trigger, and sting, and incite! To cause havoc and conflict on-stage, and off. To ask the question, and then refute the answer.

I’d like to think that I live in a world where gender is irrelevant. But it’s really not. I know it’s been said before, but really, isn’t it time that we move forward? In the words of Cunningham herself: “I can live with my questions…But if you can live with those answers, then, will all due respect, I’d say your place is not in Heaven with the Saints, but with the rest of the dinosaurs living in the Stone Age.”

Personally, I think it’s time… But don’t mind me. I’m just a woman, wearing a dress in a courtroom (and the boys just can’t deal).

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Author

Jessica Joseph-McDermott is an Australian writer and actor living in Los Angeles. She holds a Bachelor of Communications (Writing and Cultural Studies), University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and was a Sydney Morning Herald Regional Finalist for Young Writer of the Year (2005). Follow her on Instagram at @jjosephmcdermott, visit her imdb page, or her website Jessicajosephmcdermott.com.

Jessica has written 3 articles on AussieTheatre | Read more articles by

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With All Due Respect
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