A DOLL’S HOUSE, REMODELED
Through Sunday, Oct. 28
Umstead Park UCC, Raleigh
Black Ops Theatre Company director JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell’s modern update of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 drama, A Doll’s House, began with a clip from a 2012 episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. In it, Kanye West was going through Kim Kardashian’s closet, urging her to “really clean out everything.” She plaintively asks, “Is it so bad to keep things,” and, “Shouldn’t I keep these for my daughter one day?”
“He was making her throw out things that were really special to her because they weren’t hip anymore,” Holloway-Burrell says. “That’s when it clicked for me: Kimye were 2018’s Torvald and Nora,” the central couple in the Ibsen play, in which Torvald is similarly controlling and dismissive of Nora’s wishes.
Through the lens of a culture steeped in technology, fame, and constant social media, Holloway-Burrell began thinking of A Doll’s House as a reality TV show whose characters were permeable to praise and attack via Instagram and Twitter. To work with her on the script, she turned to Aurelia Belfield, a noted regional actor who has worked for eight years in reality TV at Raleigh’s Trailblazer Studios as a music supervisor and voiceover casting director on shows including Kate Plus 8, Sister Wives, and the Emmy-winning PBS medical documentary Twice Born.
“I needed someone to help me turn this idea into dialogue, and Aurelia really knows how these shows come together,” Holloway-Burrell says. “She took the lead with the script, and really just gave me a playground to work in.”
The result is A Doll’s House, Remodeled, a multimedia theater piece that opened Justice Theater Project’s 2018-19 season Friday. It transplants Ibsen’s troubled couple to present-day Silicon Valley. Torvald’s a software developer who’s been building his idea of a feminist app: Artemis, a real-time job-recruitment site for women. The application is about to go live with an IPO valued at $1 billion.
Meanwhile, Nora’s been busy fashioning a lifestyle brand from her Instagram account, with a half-million viewers following her live feed just before the big broadcast. She encourages them—and the audience in the theater—to post their reactions on Twitter, which will be incorporated into the performance.
As those familiar with the Ibsen text might guess, things don’t go according to plan. As the evening unfolds, Nora and Torvald are confronted with the possibility of social and economic ruin, a direct outcome of their choices. Their reactions to the revelations and reversals all play out before an audience of millions empowered to render snap judgments. We also watch and judge as Nora struggles to convince her disbelieving peers that her lifestyle brand is work, as valid and tangible as theirs. Then we look on as the feminist veneer concealing Torvald’s sexist management miscalculations is suddenly stripped away.
“We really wanted to play with the idea of a cis-man who thinks he is so woke that he cannot be questioned,” Belfield says. “He has this patronizing nature: ‘I run this company, I’m supporting women, and they need that; they need me to help.’ But Torvald doesn’t see the patriarchy he’s perpetuating around him.”
Reframing Krogstad, the play’s craven villain, as a bisexual woman who’s a genius in public relations and social-media marketing, strengthens her standing as a foil while reinforcing Torvald’s sexism. It also runs counter to theater’s tendency to place men and men’s stories on stage. Casting Nora as an African-American woman (notable Lakeisha Coffey) challenges conventions in feminism as well.
“When we talk about feminism in the historical sense, we’re mainly talking about middle-class white women,” Belfield says. “We’re subverting that here, forcing the voices of women of color forward. We have to put things in place to make equity happen, because things were put in place to impede it. It takes work to oppress somebody, so undoing that oppression is also work.”
Our culture is still grappling with issues of women’s autonomy 140 years after Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House, and Holloway-Burrell doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.
“I want to live inside a viable norm that doesn’t tell a woman she has to show up in a certain way to please her husband, mate, or business,” she says. “I plan to rethink this story for decades, until we live in a world in which we can’t imagine A Doll’s House anymore.”