Review: Single Wet Female (2002)

Completed as a reviewing assignment while studying away at the Trinity/La MaMa Performing Arts Program in New York City in 2002

Single Wet Female, the two-woman show created and performed by Marga Gomez and Carmelita Tropicana, was presented at P.S.122 on Thursday October 10th. Essentially a nonsensical farce and satire, it uses the movie Single White Female as a springboard to bounce off of various other issues, ranging from racism, stereotyping, same-sex desire, Freudian construction of gender, identity, psychiatric disturbances, and sexuality, referencing any number of academic (like Disidentiication author, Jose Munoz) and popular culture sources along the way.

From the opening moment of the performance, we are confronted with the issue of identity, racial and gender identity most tangibly. There are three TV screens above the pink-painted stage, on which we are shown two “experiments”, one of which has Gomez and Tropicana, dressed as little babies, select which doll they would prefer to play with: a white Barbie, or a more Hispanic-looking Barbie. When Tropicana chooses the latter, the experimenter slowly and deliberately squeezes off its head. The execution and presentation of the experiments are farcical and funny, but at the same time make the point that minority children are taught from the earliest age that white, skinny and “femme” is the ideal of beauty.

This established, Gomez enters the stage in a blonde wig, with a tan skirt suit, and wearing light pink lipstick and blue eye shadow. We realise that she is supposed to read to us as a legitimately white woman, though her exaggerated performance of this white female stereotype – despite its very realistic references – clearly articulates to us that this is a satire. Gomez’s character, Margaret, goes to a video store (owned by Tropicana’s character, Camy) to buy a video camera with which to surprise her fiancé, Murray Bertram, on their honeymoon. Camy immediately develops a crush on the seemingly perfect white Margaret, and offers to personally deliver the video camera to her home.

One week later, she delivers the camera to a distraught Margaret, whose fiancé has left her. Margaret is desperate and lonely, having never been without a boyfriend, and insecure about the idea of getting a room-mate because she is not sure that she will find another white woman – or rather a woman with “similar interests” – to room with. The plot throws light on the stereotypical white American female angst around status being dependent on having a man – an idea further explored later when Margaret seems to sexually reject Camy because she needs a man. It also begins to further develop the idea of white racism, which is often packaged inside of vague euphemisms. Gomez and Tropicana hilariously present the “hispano-phobia” as white people’s fear of the Spanish language, spicy Hispanic food, and pigmented skin.

This opens the way for the more direct taking off of Single White Female. Camy insinuates herself into Margaret’s life, pretending to be a mild-mannered white woman – rather than a murdering, jealous, butch Latina lesbian. She tends to Margaret’s every need and whim like her slave. The relationship is interesting for a number of reasons, as her motivations for subjugating herself are complex. Some of it seems to come from her being in awe of Margaret and feeling ugly and imperfect next to her (as demonstrated when she tells Margaret, “I will never be like you”), and her wanting to feel worthy through earning Margaret’s trust and affection. It is also a more twisted obsession with Margaret, and wanting to somehow feel in control of Margaret, like she owns her, through making herself such a large part of her life. Much like Freudian theory about the development of homosexuality, Camy seems unsure about the line between wanting to be Margaret, and wanting to have her.

All of this is glossed over by campy comedy and lightning-sharp one-liners which forever keep the audience on the edge of laughter. Much like the SLANT production, Wazu, the performance’s comedic nature left the audience off-guard and open enough to be receptive to the more serious under- and (over-) tones of what their piece conveyed. This seems to be a definite trend among minority performance groups, who simultaneously are invested in wanting to be entertainers, but also very committed to ideas of awareness and equality. A much larger burden seems to be placed on the minority performer to “represent” their group, and both SLANT and Tropicana & Gomez seem to have opted for comedy as a vehicle for their social commentary, rather than a much more serious tone like that of Dael Olandersmith’s in Yellow Man.

The comedy also seems to work as a tool in Single Wet Female by making sure that the audience cannot ever get too bogged down in the serious connotations of what they are presenting, by keeping the plot wholly unrealistic. The pizza place Camy orders from puts garlic in the pizza, sending Margaret into an anti-spicy tantrum, and Camy then unleashes on the pizza store’s manager and kills the next delivery man who bring them pizza. The reference to “Single White Female” is direct, but without this context it simply serves as something to shake the audience into not taking anything too seriously.

The sexual tension (if one could use such a serious term to describe the antics of the two onstage) culminates in the two characters taking a bath together. Apparently, as revealed in the post-performance talkback, this was because the two performers came out of watching Single White Female with the distinct impression that there was an abnormal amount of bathing that happened between the two characters in the film. While in the bath, the Freudian references become much more explicit. The scene melts into the past, with Camy transforming into herself as a young child and Margaret becoming her twin sister. They agree on playing house, and Marga’s character says she will play mommy. Suddenly, Camy’s voice becomes deep and rumbling as she declares that she wants to be the daddy. The moment is sudden and hilarious as Camy climbs awkwardly out of the bathtub, suddenly extremely masculine, or stereotypically so. One might assume as a result that Gomez and Tropicana do not look too kindly on Freud’s antiquated views about human sexuality. His theory posits that women become lesbians, particularly butch lesbians, because they identify too strongly with their fathers and want to be them, hence desiring their mothers and other females. Many contemporary scholars and activists have found this framing to be far-fetched and ridiculous. After seeing Gomez and Tropicana’s presentation, one could easily agree.

The end of the scene climaxes with young Camy possibly deliberately electrocuting her twin sister out of jealousy. As Camy’s flashback concludes, they return to the present, where Margaret eventually leaves the bathtub, leaving Camy to fantasise alone in the bathtub. What follows is an odd interlude while the performers change costume. The audience are invited to observe an “authentic” Latina grandmother’s ear from behind. The audience is also invited to try to learn some elementary Spanish as the performers satirically try to help audience members identify what they are seeing: ab-ue-li-ta. The reference is so real and accurate, as with many of the other references that built the two women’s caricatures, that the audience seems to laugh in spite of itself.

What is interesting is the contrast between the caricatures in Wazu and Single Wet Female, and those in Hairspray. What perhaps is the most distinct is that there is a sense that the caricatures in Hairspray are perhaps much more problematic because it is a white author, producer and director, trying to present caricatures of black Americans, while the two other productions were scripts written entirely by the performers themselves. It is a controversial and delicate issue, about whether historically privileged groups like whites can or should be satirising historically oppressed groups like blacks, Asians and Hispanics. Perhaps this is why Single Wet Female seemed much more effective and less problematic than Hairspray. Its niche audience, like that of Wazu, coming to watch a piece of performance art rather than to consume a very lavish product (Hairspray). Hairsrpay’s intentions were no doubt good, and for that it deserves due credit. At the same time, it seems irresponsible in its handling of a very charged civil rights issues, particularly given how removed the majority of the Broadway-going audience is from the harsh reality of the day-to-day struggles against racism.

Nevertheless, Single White Female approached a conclusion as the two performers finally returned to the stage in pink tops and denim skirts, performing a strange dance which, Tropicana mentions, briefly references the Bergman classic, Persona (another film debatably dealing with the same-sex desire, both desire to be and desire to have). In Single Wet Female, whether Camy desires to have or to be becomes less clear as she suddenly begins spending a lot of time with Margaret’s fiancé, Murray (he and Margaret have reconciled). In a rage, Margaret finds Camy’s diary and reads Camy’s stream-of-consciousness Span-English entries. Eventually, Camy sleeps with Murray and kills him, something she later shows Margaret on video after she has tied her up. The performance spins to a frenzied conclusion, as we realise Camy and Margaret are one person, that Margaret is really Hispanic, killed her twin sister, dated white girls in an effort to become more like them, and disconnected herself from all things Hispanic, including her family, in an attempt to become a legitimate white woman.

And so the story ends. I am ambivalent about the ending, for it seemed a little too convoluted and abrupt for a conclusion. But perhaps that was in keeping with the intentions of the show. Nevertheless, the performance was tremendously witty and entertaining, while at the same time serving as a fitting reminder about the kinds of gender and racial politics we perhaps take for granted on a daily basis.

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