Mommy, Give Me Pills | ★★★★
July 11 (11:30 a.m.) & July 19 (midnight), $10 suggested donation
yOU CaN TAke ouT a PArEnT pLUs lOaN | ★★★★
July 11 (5:45 p.m.), $10 suggested donation
“Mainly, I’m an alcoholic, but I say I’m a drug addict. It sounds scarier.”
Chicago monologist Eileen Tull’s surprisingly funny and disarmingly frank one-act memoir, Mommy, Give Me Pills, documents her early-20s plunge into alcoholism and substance abuse—and the steep road back.
It’s one of a pair of autobiographical solo shows that opens the Women’s Theatre Festival’s WTFringe, a compendium of 25 experimental productions from New York, California, and venues across the South. While the Raleigh-based festival’s workshops, seminars, and special programs run weekdays this month on its Twitch channel, its fringe productions run each Saturday through August 1.
The other new show is New York actor Camille Thomas’s yOU CaN TAke ouT a PArEnT pLUs lOaN. Both shows fearlessly lay claim to hard-won, uncomfortable personal truths, from Tull’s public reckoning with the consequences of her past to Thomas’s baring of the economic servitude imposed by student debt.
“Our world isn’t built for [sobriety],” Tull said in a post-performance talkback last week. That might be truer than ever during a pandemic when Tull has observed people bragging on social media about getting drunk during online business meetings.
“During tough times, society says, here’s your escape: Have a drink, do something to feel good, and a lot of that is geared toward substances.”
In the monologue, the gifted comedian and raconteur displays her chops in a couple of senses: At the beginning, she exposes her teeth and gums with her fingers.
“It really started with the pain in my back tooth,” she says, unspooling a warm, engaging memory of her first dentist. She grew up “middle-class poor” among the rich but was sheltered by her father’s position in an Ohio community where “being a high school teacher slash football coach … was a little bit like being in the mob.”
But after a comic recollection of a loser boyfriend’s one and only drug deal in downtown Chicago, a palpable chill intrudes when Tull closes her eyes and recalls her first feeling of inebriation, at age 20, after being a teetotaler teen. As her anxieties and self-consciousness drift away, her narcotic rhapsody concludes, “I never want to be without this feeling again. I always need to feel like this. So that’s what I tried to do, for a long time.”
If you’re heading into a dark place, it helps if you trust the tour guide. Thankfully, the darkness of Tull’s struggle back to sobriety is brightened by her finely honed sense of the absurd and unmistakable confidence as a storyteller. Narratives themselves imply survival: If a person’s telling a story, they’re outliving the events they’ve described. Still, Tull underlines the contingency of her reclaimed life rather than adding a happy ending.
“That’s not how addiction works,” she says. “Today, I’m sober; today, I did not take a drink.” In the post-performance chat, she insisted that this wasn’t “a story about how I beat addiction. That journey is every day.”
“Education has always been my family’s thing because it always had to be,” Camille Thomas says in yOU CaN TAke ouT a PArEnT pLUs lOaN. The scathing solo show, whose title typography echoes a Spongebob Squarepants meme, asserts that escalating prices have turned higher education into “debt disguised as degrees.”
In a candid moment with an academic advisor, Thomas confesses that the double major that she thought would be an economic lifejacket feels like an anchor. After maxing out her work schedule and her credit card, she concludes, “I’m drowning, and I don’t know what else to do about it.”
In lines penned in acid, Thomas exposes a system of financial aid that rewards the packaging and performance of ethnic socioeconomic disadvantage.
“If there’s anything institutions of higher education love more than a token Black student succeeding, it’s a token Black student who overcame struggle to succeed,” she says. “I honestly get tired of pimping my pain for money, putting everything on display so I can afford to go to school.”
We laugh at Thomas’s play-by-play commentary during her attempts to secure the money she needs to graduate from the advisor. After reeling off a list of dead white dramatists including “a little bit of Chekhov,” Thomas exults, “Oh yeah, she gonna write that check off,” in a gleeful victory dance.
But when that celebration proves premature, she’s left scrambling to fund one last semester. She braves a demeaning cavalcade of side hustles and dodgy backdoor moves at the campus cafeteria and a distant community food pantry, all the while wondering why a student should “be required to have financial perfection in order to afford school.”
Fed up with being the college’s “emotional piggy bank, stuffed with stories of sexual assault and increased tuition rates,” Thomas experiences both dread and relief in taking out a $7,000 loan to re-enroll in her final classes—and in writing a show disclosing that, despite all her efforts, her degree and transcript will not be released until she satisfies a debt to her university. When she says that she can hear George Washington having “another chuckle at my expense” from the face of a one-dollar bill, she makes us almost hear that bitter laugh.
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