It’s difficult to imagine a more disquieting concept than Walter A. Davis’s drama An Evening with JonBenét Ramsey. The premise: envisioning the beaten and strangled six-year-old’s life as it might’ve evolved had she lived to become a rather embittered woman trying to cope with her memories. Adding an eerie dimension is Davis’s stark hand with theater of the absurd and his command of existential dialogue. It isn’t for the easily disturbed and certainly not a production to which anyone will want to take a youngster.
The little girl’s death threw a great deal of cold water on America’s obsession with trotting prepubescent females out in spotlight of glamour, dolled up, complete with makeup, lipstick and styled hair, looking like cute, tiny women: miniature sex objects over which pedophiles drooled while stage moms relentlessly shoved their daughters before beauty show judges, vicariously luxuriating in the attention the kids could barely understand, much less handle with any appropriate notion of self-esteem. It was no longer possible to simply think how precious they looked imitating grown women. One was forced to see them more as flesh and blood human beings and less as walking, talking porcelain. Then, the media finally turned to other things and things in the world of child pageants returned to multi-million dollar business as usual. An Evening with JonBenét Ramsey, if nothing else, stirs the conscience, moving the audience to confront the ugly reality behind the glitzy illusion.
Why bring such a grisly experience to the stage? Accomplished playwright Davis (The Holocaust Memorial: A Play About Hiroshima, Trim: The Tyger Woods Story) explains, “I knew nothing of child beauty [contests] the day I first saw the murdered JonBenét in a video pageant performance on a TV news show. I found myself crying, wracked with tears. How could anyone do that to a child, I asked myself? So I began studying child beauty pageants as a form of child sexual abuse. But how to write a play that will reveal the lifelong trauma of sexual abuse of a child? What if she doesn’t die? And at age 35, reflects on her life and the trauma that has defined it?”
Portraying the imagined JonBenét Ramsey is theatre and film veteran Bethany Ford (Rock ‘n’ Roll at Park Square Theatre, Women’s Minyan at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company). Strong impressed by Davis’s script, she states, “The most impressive aspect […] is the prose. [Davis] manages to balance psychological realism with poetry. This woman thinks in a strange, naturalistic [way] that is perfectly unique.” Ford adds, “Most artists want to do meaningful work, whereas Mac just does it.”
It should prove, to say the least, an interesting night of theater.
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