This ‘POTUS’ Gets Our Vote
For as long as I can remember, I have disliked farces—right from my literature undergrad days—because it’s always been a little distasteful to uncover who a farce laughs at. As a woman of color, and an immigrant, I am also a bit weary of the “pantsuit”-ness and the “lean in”-ness of liberal rich women politics. Naturally, when I read about POTUS, written by Selina Fillinger and directed by Susan Stroman, about seven upper-class-ish women fighting patriarchy in the seat of global power—the White House—I kept my expectations low. I am elated to admit that sitting through the play and having my jaw hurt from laughing, made me eat my words before I could even say them.
Watching POTUS, I remembered the opening line of Gabrielle Moss’ 2013 essay, “A Brief History of “Women Aren’t Funny””: “As long as there have been jokes, there have been people saying that women can’t tell them.” Not that anyone needs to set an inconsequential record straight, but POTUS is a fantastic and hilarious example of a farce that doesn’t laugh at anyone in a way that dehumanizes them. On the contrary, its vision is solution-oriented—how do we fix a problem at hand—and then action-based—we should stop fixing people and run things ourselves.
In the play, there is a nameless, faceless inept American president who is surrounded by extremely accomplished women who clean up after all his messes—personal, political, diplomatic, and sexual. There is the Chief of Staff Harriet (Julie White), Press Secretary Jean (Suzy Nakamura), his secretary Stephanie (Rachel Dratch), sister Bernadette (Lea Delaria), wife Margaret (Vanessa Williams), his “dalliance” Dusty (Julianne Hough), and journalist Chris (Lilli Cooper).
The premise of the farce is not hard to imagine—a nincompoop trying to run a government and failing. When something is this tragic, real, and improbable at the same time, the jokes probably write themselves. Except, they don’t. Fillinger’s writing displays a very strong hold over the craft of comedy writing. Even within the larger framework of “women aren’t funny,” there exists a gendered understanding of what “feminine” humor looks like, and Fillinger and Stroman patiently and ruthlessly get to each page of that dated playbook, only to tear them down. There is puke, blood, sanitary pads, a peek into gartered stockings—and then there is very physical jumping, dancing, shouting, screaming, and kissing. POTUS is not a feminist adaptation of a farce, but a farce that is being taught equity by demanding an overturning of power structures. It isn’t a reclaiming but a rewriting.
The jokes are not fluke laughs but honed, well-thought-out commentary on contemporary politics, debates around feminism, and workspace safety for women. It is important to note that we see the women (most of them) at their workplace all ducking under a glass ceiling they’ve been taught to believe in. The only thing the straight Ivy Leaguer, the first Black First Lady Margaret (Vanessa Williams in all her glory)—in spite of all her accomplishments—is expected to be, is “earthy,” as if the color of her skin denies her a place in the brilliance of modernity and excellence. A woman like Chris, trying to balance an ebbing career, childcare, and the general misogyny of journalism is—once we look past the leaky breast pumps and the ensuing hilarity—someone we’ve all been or been friends with. We are all on double shifts of working our jobs and soothing the egos of powerful crybabies. POTUS is essentially a play about women being prevented by the power of hierarchy and misogyny to work in a way that does justice to their potential. It is about how patriarchy, even when a male representative is physically absent, gets under our skin. While all of us might not work for the White House, this idea of a threatening workplace is something a lot of us instantly identify with and the situation is so bleak, that all we can do is laugh!
I doff my hat to Costume Designer Linda Cho for finally giving the turtleneck its moment in the Broadway sun. When Jean says “Turtlenecks are universally flattering” over and over again in the play, she isn’t just saying her own truth (or Steve Jobs’) but of all us women who are just always too cold and not always in the mood for V necks. Beowulf Boritt’s revolving stage provides the perfect metaphor for the dizzy circles we all run in, till one day we decide to break out of it. It is a joy to see a Broadway stage full of women—older, younger, straight, gay, tall, short, ponytailed, blown out, buzz cut, and pregnant. Doubly so, when they’re all out there breaking down stereotypes and expectations with a shrill laugh.
The script’s dedication reads, “For every woman who’s ever found herself the secondary character in a male farce,” but it could’ve stopped after the first three words.
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