A Betty for all seasons

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In an incisive new comedy, playwright Jen Silverman explores identity and transformation via five women with the same name


  • Playwright Jen Silverman. Photo courtesy of MCC Theater

  • Photo courtesy of MCC Theater


Jen Silverman doesn’t expect you to remember the full 47-word title of her latest play. A recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts grant and the Helen Merrill Playwriting Award, among other honors, Silverman sees titles as an entry point: think of them as the first line of an invitation sent to the audience, she says. “Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties” is the shorthand title, and it captures the provocative, playful nature of the show. Boasting an all-star cast (Dana Delany, Lea DeLaria, Adina Verson, Ana Villafañe and Chaunté Wayans), “Collective Rage” premiered at the MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre earlier this month.

(For the record, the full title is “Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties; In Essence, a Queer and Occasionally Hazardous Exploration; Do You Remember When You Were In Middle School and You Read About Shackleton and How He Explored the Antarctic? Imagine the Antarctic as a P____ and It’s Sort of Like That.”)

We sat down with Silverman to discuss her globe-trotting childhood, New York City’s brimming creative energy, and what Betty Boop reveals about the performance of gender.

How did you come up with the idea for a show with five leads all named Betty?

The play in a nutshell is about five women named Betty, and each is very different from one another. They come from different backgrounds, they have different gender presentations, different experiences of class and race in the world. They all meet, and essentially in the form of a provocative comedy, they challenge each other to step outside of the boxes that they have been put in by the world, and also the boxes that they put each other in. The play for me is sort of an invitation to those characters, but also to us, to reimagine what we are capable of, and also what the people around us are capable of ... In my work in general, I’m really interested in cutting beneath the surface and seeing what’s underneath.

Looking at your past work, it seems like you’re really interested in questions of what’s socially constructed, and what’s instinctual. Can you tell me a little more about that?

I was born in the U.S., in New England, and then at 15-months-old, my folks moved to Tokyo and I grew up in a bunch of different countries. I was in and out of the States, but I was also living in Europe and Asia and Scandinavia. And I think for me, that question of instinct versus what is instilled in you by society, I think that comes from — I mean, my guess — is it comes from being an outsider all the time, in so many places, including the country I was born in and came back to. If you are never really of a place, you’re always watching to see what people are doing, and why they’re doing it, and what are the rules here versus what they were in that last place, and also how much of it is instinct, and how much is people responding to the dictates of a particular culture — which of course in my case, that culture was constantly shifting.

Even now that I’ve been in the States for a long time, I really find myself questioning how much of our cultural and national ideas of ourselves — the prizing of independence, manifest destiny, entitlement — like those things, are they instinctual, or were we raised [with] that cultural milieu from the earliest stages?

Speaking of culture, do feel like a bona fide New Yorker, and a New York artist? It certainly looks that way from the outside.

In the past few years, I’ve been able to say I wasn’t born in New York, but I’m from New York. And part of that, to me, is that this is a city where there’s an energy here for artists that there isn’t anywhere else, or that I have not found elsewhere, let me say that. Everyone here is trying to make something, or do something, or be something or find something, and I include people who aren’t artists in this. It’s a city, to me, that feels like a tireless striving towards something — for artist and writers, it’s particularly fueling. Yes, it can be exhausting and overwhelming as we all know, especially when the subway is broken, but there’s constant low level hum of energy that I imagine feeds me ... there’s a way in which, when I’m in New York, I can really plug into an artistic community that has really been formative for me.

You live way up in Washington Heights. Do you hang out with Lin-Manuel Miranda?

[Laughs] I wish! I love it here. When I first moved to New York I lived in Astoria, and then I moved to Wash Heights, and I’ve been really happy here. I’m at the upper end of it. My stop is 181, so I’m a little closer to Fort Tryron. I love going to the park, I love that there’s a lot of little restaurants on 181 — I love going to Cafe Buunni. There’s trees up here!

I have to ask: Is Betty slang for something, in the way that a “Becky” is shorthand for a clueless white girl?

That’s a great question ... to my knowledge it’s not. When I was writing the first draft of the play, I was thinking about the character of Betty Boop. Not because the play is in any way tied to the cartoon, or even a commentary on the cartoon, but simply because Betty Boop is such iconic Americana in a way, and she’s a performance of a certain kind of femininity. That was something, when I was thinking about what it is to trouble an archetype, or to break through the surface of an image to what’s underneath it, Betty Boop was on my mind. But then of course the characters became Betties.

It’s interesting because we’re in this moment where the construction and fluidity of gender is being called into question, even for those of us may have considered it fixed. Did you intend for this play to be provocative?

I don’t know that with this particular play that’s the main thrust of it. For me, what’s being questioned is, if we see each other on the street, and we read each other’s race, class, gender presentation, that trio of things combines to give us an image of that person, [and] actually, so many of those images are false images. That’s not the whole story. Or we decide that we could never actually be friends with that person — but we could. So the play, on that front, is questioning those images ... to me, the question that’s really important is how much of gender is a performance, and how much power does that give us over ourselves when we know that.

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