Filling Basins: Revolutionary Act of Storytelling

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

The Washerwoman’s War

Last Thursday, I walked into the Yale Repertory Theater expecting to see a play and came out having witnessed a testament to female empowerment instead. Filling Basins, an original play written by A. K. Payne, BK ’19, directed by Anita Norman, MY ’19, and produced by Payne and Alexus Coney, BF ’20, tells a story of six black women in their quest for R-E-S-P-E-C-T, for their work but also for their bodies, during the Washerwoman Strike that occurred in 1881 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Poor working conditions, extremely low wages, and sexual harassment of washerwomen incite Louise (Rayo Oyeyemi, BK ’20), Annette (Saphia Suarez, JE ’21), Loretta (Cleopatra Mavhunga, TD ’22), Mary (Vimbai Ushe, BR ’19), Leanne (Zyria Rodgers, TC ’21), and Patty (Mia Weathers-Fowler, ’20) to create “The Washing Society,” an organization that aims to unionize washerwomen — black and white — in Atlanta and demand the improvement of their working conditions. The society formed in the play is based on the real-life organization referred to as the “Washing Amazons” by opposing groups of the movement. It was created by laundresses in Atlanta, who demanded higher pay at a rate of $1 for every dozen pound wash. Through the different personalities and narratives of each of the six protagonists, we experience a tale of self-love, loss, humor, movement, black pride, and the reclamation of the female body. The use of song, in particular, gives the play a musical-like quality as the characters sometimes communicate and express themselves through music.

Early on in the play, we learn that Ms. Reeves, a fellow washerwoman, has been found dead at the bottom of a well. The cause? No one seems to know. The only thing they know for sure is that Ms. Reeve’s status as a black washerwoman is no coincidence. And here begins the revolution: at the site of a dried up well. The play develops each character through glimpses into her life and her motivations for participating in the washerwoman revolution. We learn that Annetta and Loretta, two sisters who lost their mother at a young age, grew up under the care of Ms. Louise, the strong, independent woman whose leadership of the washerwomen translates to the leadership role she takes on within the Washing Society. Leanne and Mary (mother of 12!) are the funniest washerwomen in the bunch: Their dialogue always produces laughs and chuckles from the audience. Patty, last but not least, is young and determined. Her immediate action to participate in the Washing Society is reflective of the hopes that her, Annette, Loretta, as women in the “freed” generation, have about giving themselves both a better present and a better future. Louise, Mary, and Leanne, on the other hand, belong to the slave women generation–having endured years of back-breaking, underpaid, excruciating work, they are fed up with a system that has no respect for the work of black women.

Among the actors, Oyeyemi and Suarez stand out for their powerful monologues. Suarez’s character Annette, the youngest washerwoman, often finds herself lost in her thoughts about mortality. Her words sound like poetry. Oyeyemi’s character Louise, on the contrary, is the oldest, and her stage presence and words of wisdom never fail to capture the essence of the kind of leader the revolution needs. A truly remarkable moment, however, was the use of shadow play while Louise tells the story of the lynching she witnessed as a child. The shadow play, executed by the other five women, featured cardboard cutouts of the lynched crowd, making a powerful statement about the atrocities embedded in the experience of slavery. The audience could tell that the older black women, like Louise, would forever have to carry this trauma with them. This artistic choice exemplifies the diversity of elements within the play and its creative modes of storytelling, the use of movement, song, and sometimes even shadow play never failing to keep the audience on their toes.

Filling Basins is a play about women, for women, and by women. In a time (both on campus and in the greater political sphere) where female voices are challenged, rejected, and silenced, this play serves not only as a refreshing contrast, but also an empowering one. Seeing a stage full of beautiful black women representing beautiful black history was exhilarating. In its celebration of black womanhood, we can find the play as relatable to all womanhood. Along with the sexualization of female bodies and exploitation of women’s labor, the play speaks to ideas of female solidarity, the strength of women, and the mountains women can move when they unite against an oppressive system. The themes present in the play show the trials and tribulations women experience but also amplifies the ways in which they tackle these challenges and literally incite revolutions.

Suarez, as an Afro-Latina, portraying Annette, stated that trying to find herself in a play that doesn’t directly describe her experiences and family history wasn’t difficult to do because of the universality the play offers. She says that for her, “one of the most liberating experiences in the show was just being on stage with five other black women telling a universal story about black womanhood” and how this felt like “a revolutionary act of storytelling.” In honor of Filling Basins, let’s show that here at Yale, students DO celebrate womanhood — the pain, joy, love, laughs, intellect and, most of all, revolutionary narratives that come with being a woman.

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