UT Theatre and Dance’s “In Sisters We Trust or My F*cked Up American Girl Doll Play,” by Justine Gelfman in collaboration with Susanna Wolk, presented in the B. Iden Payne Theatre, is an ambitious production, directed by Jenny Lavery.
The show opens with reality-TV style introductions for a lineup of real-life American Girl dolls, in costumes designed by Meagan Beattie that perfectly recreate each doll’s most recognizable outfit.
There’s Felicity (Ava Nielsen) from colonial New England, Josefina (Chantell Gonzalez) from 1820s Santa Fe, Frontierswoman Kirsten (Angela Mata), Addy (Mack Thornton) a Civil-War era doll who escaped from slavery, Victorian-era Samantha (Ashley Diaz), Depression-era Kit (Keeley Bryant), WWII-era Molly (Grace Featherston) and 1760s Kaya (Madison Palomo) of the Nez Perce tribe. These characters blend the historical fiction backstories of the dolls with the vapidness and performative friendship dynamics of “Real Housewives” stars or “Bachelor” contestants.
The American Girl dolls, now women, have assembled for a televised reunion/competition, the winner of which will control the company once fictionalized founder Harmony (Barbara Chisholm) steps down. Many of the would-be-contestants object to pitting women against each other, and ask hard hitting questions about the brand, but Harmony pushes for the show to go on.
Adding drama, Addy and Molly are dating but haven’t told the others, Kirsten is over-attached to her best friend Samantha, Kaya has written a book detailing the brand’s flaws, and the original three dolls of the American Girl product line (Samantha, Kirsten and Molly) form an entitled clique.
When the competition descends into chaotic violence, and Harmony is ripped limb-from-limb, exposing her own doll stuffing, she calls on show-runner Joaquin (Simon Salinas Jr.) to literally sweep the girls under the rug, transforming then into neutralized, productized, plastic versions of themselves. Harmony confesses she doesn’t love women; she loves controlling women’s narratives.
At the top of act two, a remodeling sequence transforms the hot pink, American Girl store inspired walls of the set into a pale pink feminist co-working space, styled after the now-defunct chain, “The Wing,” which was rife with problems during its six year existence.
The sets, designed by Inji Ha, change onstage in front of the audience, suggesting that there is little difference between one fraught attempt to commercialize feminism and the next — just updated aesthetics. After all, while the overpriced American Girl dolls now retail for $115, The Wing charged $250 a month for membership, making both brands accessible only to those with plenty of disposable income.
The staff, owners, and members of the coworking space are doubled versions of the dolls from act one and retain elements of their personalities and style. Maggie (Madison Palomo), the double of Kaya, tries to organize a meeting with management to discuss their failure to pay employees on time, but discovers that although top-investor Maude (Ashley Diaz), Samantha’s double, has a stated open-door policy, it is really dictated by what she wants and doesn’t want to hear.
The onstage version of The Wing is ridiculous — the company takes their “women’s only” rule so seriously that the men hired to fix plumbing issues are smuggled in by hiding behind a plant — but it is a vision inspired by Gelfman’s own experience working at The Wing. The employees run around putting out literal fires and doing minute tasks to keep management happy.
The play is and isn’t about American Girl the brand. The characters, their narratives, and their branding are a way into a critique of the kind of exclusionary #girlboss feminism that celebrates women for successfully climbing the corporate ladder, even when they try to pull the ladder up behind them, keeping their ‘sisters’ in underpaid roles.
The irony of this capitalistic brand of feminism is literalized within the play by a glass ceiling in the lobby of the coworking space, a signal that this commercialized vision of a female utopia is an illusion of progress.
When Jemma (Keeley Bryant) questions Maude about the glass ceiling, Maude tells her patronizingly that she’s going to give her an answer that seems like it’s addressing the question but really isn’t, before launching into a vague comparison to the history of men’s clubs.
By the end of the play, someone has accidentally shoved a broom handle through the glass ceiling, and conflicted cofounder Jordan finds the courage to leave, ending the play with the realist view that popular feminism needs to break up from capitalism, but the optimistic one that the will for change exists.
‘In Sisters We Trust’ is a ‘Top Girls’ for millennial women used to navigating empty allyship and disappointing commercialized versions of their values. Pulling from real-world corporations, it delves into questions of optics and engagement that if anyone can expose and productively complicate, it’s theatre artists.
“In Sisters We Trust or My F*cked Up American Girl Doll Play” continues through Oct. 29 at B. Iden Payne Theatre, UT campus. theatredance.utexas.edu/event/sisters-we-trust