Writer-performer Tonya Jones depicts 13 characters in her 55-minute-long one-woman portrayal of an abused child who struggles, as she matures, to reclaim a positive sense of physical self and a robust, affirming sexuality.
Her world premiere play, Tough Brown Leather, presented by Crabby Bone Productions, is featured in a number of modestly staged showcase performances at this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival. Michael Philip Edwards directs, incorporating video imagery to establish locale.
In language and thematic material, the play is highly graphic. My sense all the way through was that this work reflected the author’s autobiographical experience, but there’s nothing in the printed program that specifically says as much. The feel of the show is that it developed out of the movement of confessional storytelling meant to heal and overcome past trauma.
Sara is an eight-year-old tomboy who plays on her street’s football team. She embraces the roughhousing, the tackling, the forceful body implosions, taking pride in her bruises. As one equal with the boys, she feels alive and free. If it sounds kind of masochistic, she could dish it out, too, relishing the sadistic pleasure of payback against a boy who stole the ball from her in the course of the game, kicking him down and watching him bleed from a broken front tooth. No Barbie dolls for Sara!
In her hyper-sexualized, precocious community, Sara was vulnerable to abuse, starting at age seven, and began internalizing negative images of herself as a “slut” and “whore.”
In her hyper-sexualized, precocious community, Sara was vulnerable to abuse, starting at age seven, and began internalizing negative images of herself as a “slut” and “whore.” As she matured physically, football became less combative as her teammates started getting more protective of her womanhood. She actually missed the violence of the sport. But she transferred that compulsive need for body contact into an active sex life, once in a while actually feeling a romantic connection to her partners. Those relationships all quickly failed, however.
What seemed to be sadly missing were school and family counselors, age-specific sex educators and informed, empathic elders she could ask and learn from. In the era we find ourselves in now, with Planned Parenthood getting defunded federally and in state after state, there will be even less chance for young and sexually active people to acquire safe, reliable counseling and treatment for reproductive services.
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In time, after college, Sara herself becomes a social services provider for young people in her community, dealing with many of the same issues that afflicted her—trauma, abasement, anger, shame, loss, betrayal, poorly formed self-image. It’s not evident from the script that Sara ever received psychotherapy or counseling herself.
“Why can’t you stop being a slut?” she asks herself.
The play ends with fervent affirmation to take herself by the shoulders and become a better person. After all, “if something was wrong, maybe it could be fixed.”
The Hollywood Fringe Festival, like other similar festivals around the world, offers an opportunity for artists to be seen and heard, often in works that are in development, or in search of a director or producer who might commit to taking it to the next artistic or commercial level. Sometimes it’s not even so much about the work but the artist: This is who I am and what I can do, this is the range of acting and emotion that I can deploy.
That is the sense in which I thought Tough Brown Leather most successful. The play itself spools out like a highly condensed therapy session in which long-suppressed memories come out for professional examination. We catch the process in mid-stream, as the achievement of that integrated, whole, mutually satisfying sexual expression Sara longs for still appears over the horizon. The tough leather of the football she once caressed and loved and played with now must become her own skin to accept and value.
Tonya Jones certainly is capable of telling Sara’s frightful story in a first-person voice. Somewhat less effective was her assumption of the 12 other roles she evokes (abusers, sex partners, father, mother, grandmother, etc.), whose distinct voices we did not really hear.
Three performances of Tough Brown Leather remain: Weds., Jun 14 at 8 pm; Thurs., June 22 at 6 pm; and Sat., June 24 at 6 pm. The Lounge Theatre is located at 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038. For reservations call (323) 863-3643 or go to http://hff17.com/4588.
Eric A. Gordon