Theater note: “Babe” hits the pin

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It was nothing less than a stroke of genius for lesbian playwright Carolyn Gage to write a musical telling the story of Mildred “Babe” Didrikson. Beginning with her sweep of the 1932 Olympics, Didrikson became a sports legend who lit the torch for women and girls to participate in sports. Yet Didrikson’s life has never been fully (or truthfully) explored onstage—until now.

Babe: An Olympic Musical, presented by Theatre Unbound from September 11-13 at Jeanne d’Arc Auditorium, College of St. Catherine, 2004 Randolph Ave., St. Paul. Tickets $8-$20. For more information, call (612) 721-1186. Hear the music at myspace.com/babe. Visit Ellis’s Web site at ellis-music.com.


Full disclosure: I’ve never been much of a musicals fan, feeling there was something artificial about them—but the “larger than life” quality of musicals is perfect for this amazing athlete and self-invented woman. Watching the dress rehearsal for this three-day run, I experienced a range of emotions: exhilaration, grief, awe and tenderness. Gage has
created in-depth relationships and boldly put forth a character rarely seen in any artistic medium: the butch lesbian woman.

Twin Cities singer-songwriter Ellis, with a strong following in rock and folk music, debuts as an actor playing Babe. She takes on musical theater with real authority, from brash songs like “Whole Damn Team” and “Winnin'” to the longing of “I Wanted To Give You Norway.” Ellis also proves she can act! From communicating Babe’s confidence to an awkward need for intimacy and acceptance (only revealed around her mother and, later, her lover), Ellis intimates the complexity of emotions butch women are forced to conceal in order to survive.

Women are front and center in Babe, with men in small, supporting roles as sports reporters. Gage exposes the misogyny and homophobia of the male-dominated sports world.
Babe’s most solid male ally is Grantland Rice (Frank Matejcek), the same sports writer who lauded Muhammed Ali, who’s also the play’s narrator.

Gage also addresses how heterosexual women sometimes collude in trivializing other women and demonize lesbian athletes. With sharp dialogue and great songs like “Raise the Bar,” “You Have to Have a Club” and “No Next Time,” Gage communicates this divisive dynamic as well as the sexist obstacles all women face. We see the hidden history of girls and women’s sports: rules that enforced false limitations to “protect fragile female organs,” the emphasis on conforming to feminine beauty standards above excellence and how marriage trumped any accomplishment.

Ellis is backed up by a quartet of seasoned musical artists: Angela Walberg (Suzy), Sophia Bera (Wanda), Jennifer Eckes (Sandy), and Corey DeDannan (Anita). These four women play multiple roles, from high school popular girls sniping at Babe to the adult female golfers who try to exclude her from the sport.

Babe is a real she-re in her pursuit of being “the best woman athlete in the world.” You root for her triumph from the start, but her road to glory is far rockier than her male counterparts’. Unlike male athletes, Babe’s athletic talent, her no-holds-barred ambition and competitiveness, physical strength and “tomboy” demeanor are all taboo for women. Her adolescent rejection of the requirements of dresses and simpering obsession with boys cost her the approval of her peers and her mother. She’s hounded for her butch identity well into adulthood, eventually resulting in a marriage to a wrestler (which the play doesn’t address, since that marriage was used in Hollywood films to hide Didrikson’s love for women).

The emotional heart of the play is Didrikson’s focus on striving for success at the price of intimacy and love with other women. Gage shows Didrikson’s emotional foundation with her mother (Amy Lithander) and sister Lilly (Valerie Rigsbee). The actresses playing those roles convey the contradictions of supporting Babe’s ambitions while still pushing her to take on the same traditional female roles they have. Gage powerfully reveals the impact of mother-daughter relationships on a woman’s identity. Too often, mother-daughter relationships are made one-dimensional: if supportive, there’s a flat, self-sacrificial nurture or the stage mother viper; if not supportive, the mother is a psychological monster. Gage’s sense of the delicate balance of Mama’s connection to her rebel-daughter, Babe, is far more subtle and packs a big emotional surprise near the play’s end.

When, at last, Babe and her lover Betty Dodd—a much younger woman golfer, sweetly played by Jamie Hultgren—recognize their love for each other, it’s one of the most moving moments of the play. Their duet “I Never Knew” is a touching and beautiful love song that sounds like a song Ella Fitzgerald would have made her own.

Jill Higgins’s music, with Gage’s lyrics, fulfills musical theater’s aim of driving the plot while having real substance. This very entertaining play has humor, drama, and a wonderful lesbian love story built around the larger-than-life (and very American) character of Babe Didrikson. Girls who love sports and women of all ages who aspire to greatness will be inspired. Taking the risk to focus on a butch lesbian woman, Carolyn Gage has given us all a gift of female courage and tenacity in the face of a patriarchal order that continues in the 21st century to attempt to destroy women who define themselves outside its dictates. Babe: An Olympic Musical fully deserves the complete production that I hope Theatre Unbound will eventually be able to give it. In the meantime, don’t miss your chance to experience a play that breaks as much ground in theater as its amazing lead character did in sports.

Lydia Howell, a winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism, is a Minneapolis independent journalist writing for various newspapers and online journals. She produces and hosts Catalyst: politics & culture on KFAI Radio on Fridays at 11 a.m.

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