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Theater review: Leanne Grabel’s “badgirls” in good hands

By Barry Johnson
November 5, 2011
Featured, Theater

Robin Rasmussen, Leanne Grabel and Gina Grabel Sander in "badgirls"/Julie Keefe

When it comes down to it, we just don’t know, do we? How to help people? Sometimes we think we know, and if we ourselves were particularly pure spirits, we could put our knowledge into practice. But day-to-day, dealing with real human beings, some of them profoundly damaged, we’re neither sure of what to do nor confident of our own ability to heal even if we did. At least when we are being honest with ourselves.

So, when Leanne Grabel says she’s not sure if she has any affect on the teenage girls she teaches, as she suggest in her play “badgirls,” which opened Friday at Pacific Crest School, I believe her, even though I’m glad that someone with her spirit is making the attempt to help heal lives that are off to a terrible start. And if she said it to me in conversation, I’d reassure her.

Grabel has been one of the central agitators for poetry in Portland for many, many years. When I first encountered her in the early 1980s, her passion for words, for rhythm, for life was immediately apparent. I loved the way she applied Beat Poet techniques to the life around her, the spill of language applied to our familiar parts. Perhaps, we only claim a place when we describe it with intensity and in detail, in which case Grabel has been doing her level to claim this ground for us for decades.

For the past eight years, she has been teaching at a lock-down treatment center in Southeast Portland, instructing her charges in language arts, especially poetry, and “badgirls” is an account of that rich experience, from her point of view, mixed with poems that Grabel has collected from the students.  In the play, Grabel plays herself, and Robin Delaire Rasmussen and Gina Grabel Sander (Grabel’s daughter) play an amalgam of the students, each with a poem to read and a story to tell that breaks your heart.
The girls — we’ll call them girls because Grabel does and to emphasize their vulnerability — are in lock-down for lots of reasons, though drug and alcohol abuse often figure prominently, along with a raft of diagnoses for acute psychological problems. And if you dig down just a little, you see that their home life has often been awful, not in the way that all adolescence can be a struggle for everyone concerned, but seriously tragic, either because they’ve been abandoned or even worse, abused, by their parents.

So, here they all are, thrown together, under lock and key with strict rules to follow, and teachers like Grabel to help them during the year they have in the treatment center (which is the maximum stay). In “badgirls” Grabel describes them carefully and beautifully. Here’s her sketch of Kristi, who compulsively cuts herself, “slices on every inch of her lilywhite skin”:

“She had skin like fine bone china, milk in moonlight. Her hair was naturally woven with blonder shades of gold. She had a small, sculpted nose like Barbie’s. Yes, God used his finest-gauge jeweler’s file on Kristi… the Grace Kelly of the treatment center.”

Usually, the descriptions lead to a poem by one of the girls, sometimes delivered with a provocative dance (Rasmussen) or as a sort of declaration of being (Sander). Those poems are a catalog of pain and accusation, an attempt to manage crushing experiences, to fight back or simply acknowledge. They are beautiful and they make your throat contract. Those poems are often part of poetry exercises, like “write a poem that is all lies.” And despite the schematics of the exercise, true stuff pours out.

This might be a good time to say that I visited Grabel’s journalism class in the center last year and submitted to their questions, which they had prepared in advance, mostly about how I’d gotten into the business in the first place. Since in my case, it had been pretty much luck, we moved on to other topics, and I remember talking about how to evaluate evidence, what and who to believe and maybe even the importance of examining our own biases as we proceed through the process of doing journalism.

What I noticed about the students? Nothing in particular, really. This one engaged the class with a lively mind, that one kept her head down on the desk. In short, business as usual among teenagers in my experience. Occasionally a detail about a life emerged, always troubling, but honestly, it was like all of my encounters with classes. The girls were… teens. Figuring themselves and their world out. Projecting and contemplating and trying things on. I’m tempted to use the word “normal,” but it seems inappropriate given what I know about them. They aren’t “normal” — they’re in lock-down, they’ve been subjected to things that humans shouldn’t be subjected to, and their behavior at times has been self-destructive to an uncommon degree.

But still, that day they were completely within my experience of teens, and that’s how Rasmussen and Sander played them onstage. Peculiar and particular, sure, but nothing we don’t recognize, even when they are raging or sunk so deeply into themselves that you’re not sure they’ll come out. Here’s a bit from Grabel’s book, “badgirls,” from which the text for the play has been selected. It’s about Sasha, whose only friend at the center has just left:

“She walked back into the time-out room. And put a blanket over her head She stayed that way for a week. Like a pale blue dune, When Sasha finally came up for air, her face was clear and glowing.”

So, yes, we don’t know what’s going to work, what will help, how people change, whether what we’re doing makes any difference to them at all. I certainly hoped that my little time with Grabel’s class was beneficial; I tried my best. But honestly, as I drove home, I just hoped that it fit somehow into her overall idea of treatment.

Leanne Grabel and Gina Grabel Sander in "badgirls"/Photo by Julie Keefe

In the question and answer period after the show, Grabel said two important things. The first, what we’ve already said: It’s hard to know exactly what effect anything she does might have — if any at all. And the second, surprising, that she doesn’t leave her class with sadness, no matter how desperate the stories or devastated her girls are at any given moment. Why? Because she and the students have so much fun with the great poems and stories they read together and the poems and stories they write and share with each other. And they learn about the proper use of apostrophes! This is not a reason to be sad.

Grabel enlisted Susan Banyas to help her bring  “badgirls” to the stage. Banyas has worked with biographical material for at least a couple of decades in various performance settings and media, sometimes her own stories (I am a fan of her memory play “The Hillsboro Story,” which premiered at Artists Repertory Theatre) and sometimes those of other people. Banyas and her son Quincy Davis helped trim Grabel’s original 65 page manuscript to 18, which amounts to about 65 minutes onstage without intermission. And they helped animate the script with movement and multi-media.

That script was (and is) in flux, and here we should point out that Rasmussen and Sander, who weren’t originally going to be in the play and aren’t experienced actors, played it beautifully, through all the changes. On opening night, you could see them getting better in front of your eyes, growing more confident, reaching deeper into their characters. It’s too bad the show only has two more performances (8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday), because they’ll miss out on more time with those characters and more of Portland won’t get to see them.


Here’s Marty Hughley’s informative preview of the show, written for OregonLive,

Do you know about Oregon Poetic Voices, which captures poems and recordings by the state’s poets? Here’s a link to Grabel’s page, so you can hear her recite her own work.

Tickets to “badgirls” are available on a sliding scale, $10-$20. Reserve by calling 503-231-8482.

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