The play Emilia is a great example of intersectional feminism – the story follows a black woman countering the stereotypes that are projected onto her by entitled white men. The actresses truly represent an intersectional cast countering racism, ableism, ageism and body shaming, alongside sexism. As such, we believe that inspiring performances like these can challenge prejudices and harmful accounts that provide leeway to different oppressions. Emilia is such a powerful play because of how it redefines storytelling. Through gendering storytelling, it becomes a historical play that challenges the structure of the literary narrative (or how we traditionally view storytelling) and the content itself. Rather than our normalized understanding of a ‘traditional’ historical play, Emilia features only women (that also play the male roles) but also multiple main characters. This counters the presentation of the one spectacular but dominating and exaggerated male protagonist that we are used to. Also, the non-linear structure deviates from the Aristotelian narrative, which as a friend put it, is a climax clearly replicating a man’s orgasm. The play makes us question: which stories are we choosing to tell and through which lens do we see them?
Historically, the unnatural gender binary has been created as a disparity between the male and the female, the masculine and the feminine. Attached to the gender binary has also been the polarity between soul and body, which was later phrased as high vs. low culture relating to male vs. female respectively. Therefore, seeing women, women who embody intersectionality particularly, on the stage has historically been rare. The stage which is supposed to embody cultivation, thought and prestige was not a space that women could inhibit. Yet, Emilia precisely challenges this socialized understanding of an inherently under-cultivated woman who is never good enough to reach the male standard of art and culture. The women in the play are instead presented as multi-faceted: in a realistic representation of reality. They are witty, funny (challenging the stereotype that women are stuck up), intelligent and ambitious. The women of Emilia have dreams, hopes and aspirations. They strive to enter a space denied to them, not by men per se, but by the system of patriarchy. Yet, when they are denied this space they choose to use carve out their own paths, to be heard and to support each other as a true act of solidarity. We hear the stories of many, not of the few.
Emilia, who is based on a real person, was clearly the victim of double standards that exist between men and women and thus has been termed a prostitute by those who have written about her in history. However, the creators of the play were cautious in choosing which historical accounts they would consider: they portray Emilia as a talented, creative mind. Like many of her time, her name has been blotched and removed from the records. Reviving this figure allows for a reclamation of history to widen representation and shed light on what we consider as literary legacy.
The play also raises questions of privilege, asking for privilege to be seen relatively and how we must always question our privilege in relation to those around us. Emilia as a black woman is doubly oppressed by white supremacy and the patriarchy. Yet, her wealth gives her a position of privilege in relation to the women of lower classes whom she teaches as well as giving them freedom to create their own work. In conversations, these women remind Emilia that her struggle is valid and should not be overlooked just because they are financially oppressed and she is not (although being financially dependent on a man does also render her financially oppressed; the difference being that she theoretically has more money to spend). These women recognize Emilia’s individual struggles even though they do not necessarily share them and vice versa. The play thus teaches us that we must listen; true solidarity and sisterhood can only occur if those that are more structurally privileged create space for others to be heard.
The play also displays the complex identity of Emilia with its musical means and aesthetics. Emilia is a woman of African and also Italian descent, living inside the English nobility of the early 17th century. Therefore, the creative team used renaissance music that is being played by musicians on stage, but mixes these traditional elements with modern beats reflecting what is going on in the characters’ minds. Also, chanting, dancing and singing are vivid elements of expression that bring to life a powerful spirit, but also a deep and moving sensitivity. Featuring various styles in music and dance is yet another way of welcoming the diverse possibilities of storytelling. Complementing the intellectual content, those means of cultural crossover allow us to understand Emilia’s world and who she is in an intuitive way. Instead of feeling torn, the play unites and celebrates different cultures and creates a contemporary and beautiful space for identification.
While encouraging women to stand up for their rights, to show their strength and to use their voice, Emilia also transports an important message to the male audience: Feminism is not about hating men. It seems like many men, when being confronted with gender-related issues, take offense. In Emilia’s final monologue she once and for all makes it clear that feminism really is about empowering women, and those with varying intersections where gender becomes a mode of oppression. It is important to remember that not only people identifying as womxn, but in fact everyone experiences and suffers from the patriarchal systems we live in. Therefore, feminism is not to be reduced to a perspective that blames and fights against men.
Emilia breaks the fourth wall and directly turns to the audience, asking why her historical persona has been accused of hating men. In a powerful and moving speech she asks: Do we silence men? Do we beat men? Do we rape men?
Not by forcing opinions, but by raising core questions of timeless relevance, Emilia leaves a shaken audience in the end.
“I AM EMILIA.
Writer. Wife. Lover. Mother. Muse.
WE ARE EMILIA.”
Words by Madina Frey and Valia Katsis
Pictures by Helen Murray