Saints or Sinners

Juliet’s dark brown eyes glanced slowly down toward the fuzzy edges of her scarf and then quickly met mine. “Yes, I would say I’m a feminist,” she said, initially rattled by the question.

Juliet Kapanjie is a 21-year-old senior studying acting at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. As a young female artist, about to face the harsh realities of life after college, Kapanjie has begun to express her voice as not only an actor, but also playwright. “I feel that I absolutely have a duty as a young female entering into this business to write material that represents women in all different ways,” Kapanjie said. “Especially now.”

Sitting pretzel style with her hair loosely fixed in a ponytail, she easily talked about the first politically charged musical she has ever written. With an all-woman cast, and prostitutes playing her protagonists, Kapanjie is challenging the stereotypical idea that women are more responsible than men and how in her mind, expected to be more on top of their game. “I’m trying to show in the writing that it’s okay for women to make mistakes and recover,” Kapanjie said.

Kapanjie remembered herself before college, as everything she thought a good girl should be. She dressed conservatively, played an active role in her school, was a member of her student government and single. “Once I really kind of figured myself out in college, I started to accept that I didn’t have to live up to being the cutesy, happy-go-lucky person that I had been my whole life,” Kapanjie said. “I didn’t have to be what was expected of me and I gave myself permission to have a more complex presentation to the world.”

Kapanjie’s inspiration to explore new playwriting territory, was to some degree unleashed by the #metoo women’s movement, which spread virally this past October. #metoo provided women with a platform to speak up against sexual harassment and abuse. By bringing to light the dozens of cases dealing with sexual assault and harassment towards women in Hollywood, the movement gave young artists like Kapanjie the courage to push the boundaries of how they envisioned women in a theatrical setting.

The New York theatre scene, equally impacted by the revelations was put on high alert regarding issues of sexual harassment and assault. In November, Actors’ Equity Association’s executive director Mary McColl said in an email to Variety Magazine that they would be requesting each theatre employing Equity Actors to forward a copy of their harassment policies for Equity to review. This email was sent to over 1,500 theatres who employed Equity actors.

Our artistic and political cultures continue to reveal their hostile relationship towards women. However, since women began speaking up against male sexual predators in positions of political and artistic power, young theatre artists such as Kapanjie viewed these recent shifts in our system as opportunity for change.

Kapanjie’s musical “Saints or Sinners,” is a provocative response to the #metoo women’s movement and challenges the conversation surrounding the future of women’s roles in the theatre. Inspired by the victims of eighteenth century serial killer ‘Jack the Ripper,’ Kapanjie’s musical speaks to the timeless nature of the choice a woman makes when turning to prostitution as her last resort. “I think there’s something interesting in women who take pride in using their bodies for a gain and if they feel powerful and confident I think that’s cool. For them, to be seen as proud of what they do and who they are on stage I think is really important,” Kapanjie said.

According to the New York Times article by Michael Paulson, “Two Female Playwrights Arrive on Broadway. What Took So Long?” published March, 22, 2017, last year’s Broadway season welcomed eight new plays written by male playwrights and only two written by female playwrights, “Indecent” by Paula Vogel and “Sweat” by Lynn Nottage. In the season prior, Broadway produced no new plays written by women. “I feel like a lot of my male actor friends are the ones that are writers. Not a lot of my female friends who are actors are also writers. So, I find myself needing to be more involved in writing for that reason,” said Kapanjie. She writes to try and fill the void of women voices in the current theatre scene. “We need to show people what we as women have to say matters too.”

Kapanjie spent thirty days writing and re-writing drafts of the musical, reading articles and listening to podcasts with retired prostitutes. Back at her New Jersey home, alone in her room, she sipped on English Breakfast Tea and tried to uncover the motive behind women who rely on prostitution as their primary form of income. “I am constantly asking myself, is there pride? Do they feel shame?”

Kapanjie works 32 hours a week at a gelato counter in SoHo’s Eataly making $13.00 an hour, so she understands the appeal these women see with earning fast hard cash. “There really is a quick financial turn-around without having to do as much effort.  I mean, you can make a couple thousand in two hours,” Kapanjie said.

While Kapanjie controls the show’s literary contents, her partner Andrew Baumer, a recent Tisch grad, is responsible for composing all of its music. “I’m lifted up by the work of these women,” Baumer said. “Since I am not a female and I am trying to write with a female perspective there’s a lot of research involved and then imagination but writers are built on imagination or else everything would be non-fiction.” Baumer believes it is more important to tell a human story rather than a gendered one.

“He writes very powerful music,” Kapanjie said. “It’s a lot of big brassy sounds and we wanted to give that type of sound for women to sing, to show their strength and to show literal power in their voice.” This strength and literal power living within the music allowed for Kapanjie to write unapologetically bold characters.

She sat up a little straighter as she began describing her two favorite characters. Annie and Cat, dichotomous prostitutes. Annie is older and exudes a warmth and mature confidence in her sexuality, while Cat is much younger and is seen making people laugh through fierce and aggressive qualities. While the ending is still unpolished, Kapanjie sees Annie ascending out of the darkness of this world she has created, while Cat ends up digging herself in deeper. “I sometimes feel uncomfortable telling people what the show’s about,” Kapanjie said. “Because I know that no one would expect me to be writing a show about prostitution, but I am.”