Back Row Girls

A ten-minute play by Rich Espey

Characters:

Maddy White, 17
Kenya Hopewell, 17
An Offstage Voice, older

Setting:

A dorm room at a girls’ boarding school on a springtime Thursday evening. Unflattering fluorescent institutional lighting.

(KENYA, 17, African-American, is applying base to her scalp in preparation for relaxing her hair. She has a jar of petroleum jelly base, a jar of relaxer, a comb and a towel. MADDY, 17, white, is doing what looks like a folk dance step in front of an imagined mirror.)

MADDY

What comes after the step-hop-step-jump? Kenya? Kenya, what comes after the step-hop-step-jump?

KENYA

I’m doing my hair.

MADDY

Oh my God! I can’t remember! Is it the grapevine? Or the shift slide?

KENYA

Maddy, why are you doing this now?

MADDY

Just tell me!

KENYA

I need the mirror.

MADDY

Oh my God! I should know this!

KENYA

I’m gonna smear my relaxer on you if you don’t calm down.

MADDY

Just help me remember. Show me.

KENYA

I don’t know. Go ask Julia. Or Courtney.

MADDY

Of course you know.

KENYA

Or Miz Walker.

MADDY

Right. Just show me – it’ll only take a minute.

KENYA

What difference does it make?

MADDY

Gym drill is in two days!

KENYA

You’re in the back row.

MADDY

Oh, thanks.

KENYA

I just meant…

MADDY

Whatever.

KENYA

…that people aren’t looking as closely as you think.

MADDY

Then why are you relaxing your already relaxed hair?

KENYA

I do my touch up every six weeks.

MADDY

It hasn’t been six weeks. And they’re not going to see your scalp anyway, even if you did make front row.

KENYA

OK, you do not understand my hair, all right?

MADDY

I need it to be totally automatic so I won’t panic on Saturday, like now, and forget -–

KENYA

If you forget then just look at the girl in front of you!

MADDY

Please, just…just thirty seconds. Thirty seconds!! And then I’ll leave you alone. Please, I’m begging you.

KENYA

I need to use the mirror.

(MADDY throws KENYA’s relaxer on the floor.)

KENYA

What is your problem? You can do the stupid dance! You practice the thing two hours a night.

MADDY

Gym Drill has been going on for a hundred and forty five years! You don’t even care about it and you’re in the front row.

KENYA

But I got rhythm. And a big smile.

(KENYA flashes a big fake smile.)

MADDY

A hundred girls in precise, straight rows moving in perfect unison…like Miz Walker says, “One false step, and angry eyes all fall on you!”

KENYA

No one expects the back row girls to be perfect.

MADDY

Are your parents coming?

(KENYA is frozen for a long moment. SHE picks up the relaxer and moves into position at the mirror.)

MADDY

My grandmother was in the front row when she was a senior. My mother was in the front row when she was a junior.

(KENYA puts down the relaxer.)

KENYA

It’s the cross-hands grapevine.

(KENYA stands in front of MADDY and does the step. It’s a simple folk step, and we hear a simple tune with precise, structured rhythm. MADDY watches KENYA but does not do the step.)

Remember? Well don’t just stand there. Do it.

MADDY

It doesn’t matter.

KENYA

Do it!

MADDY

No, you’re right.

KENYA

Here.

(KENYA extends her hands and leads MADDY through the cross hands grapevine. They finish the simple step and stop, looking at each other with hands crossed.)

MADDY

What comes next?

KENYA

What comes next?

MADDY

What comes next?

KENYA

The bump.

(KENYA bumps her hips into MADDY’s hips, nearly knocking her down.)

And then the boogie.

(The music changes to a faster, syncopated dance rhythm. The lights become multicolored and flash, as in a dance club. KENYA dances energetically.)

Don’t you remember??

MADDY

What are you doing?

KENYA

Come on!!

(KENYA motions for MADDY to join her dance.)

MADDY

Be serious!

KENYA

You need to practice your moves!

(KENYA does a sort of shimmy-shake as the music continues to pulse and the lights continue to flash.)

Look at me, grandma! Back here in the back row! Miss Madison Buffington White, if you please!

(KENYA grabs MADDY.)

MADDY

Stop it!

KENYA

Look at me, Momma! I might not have a good enough step-hop-step-jump for the front row, but I got my own moves!

MADDY

I have to do my lab report!

KENYA

Boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom. Let me hear you now. Boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom.

MADDY

Please, no.

(KENYA holds MADDY’s hands and continues to dance.)

KENYA

Boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom. Do it with me now. Boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom.

(MADDY is practically in tears.)

KENYA

Boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom. Say it with me now. Boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom.

(KENYA holds MADDY more tightly and slowly reduces her voice to almost a whisper.)

KENYA

Boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom.
Boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom.

(MADDY finally joins in.)

KENYA and MADDY

Boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom.
Boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom.
(growing louder)
Boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom.
Boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom.

(KENYA and MADDY are in full throttle dance. It’s a high energy, full bodied, rhythm celebration. At one point they draw close to each other so their faces are only inches apart. Suddenly there’s a loud pounding. The music ends abruptly and the lights return to the look at the beginning of the scene.)

OFFSTAGE VOICE

It’s study hall, ladies. Twenty more minutes. Thank you.

MADDY

I’m sorry about what I said.

KENYA

About?

MADDY

When I said are your parents coming. Mine always take me out to dinner afterwards. You should come with us.

KENYA

I’ll be fine.

MADDY

My mother will insist. You’re a front row girl, after all.

KENYA

So that makes me dinner-worthy?

MADDY

That’s not what I meant.

(MADDY returns to her place in front of the “mirror” and practices the grapevine step alone.)

Isn’t it awesome to think that a hundred and forty-five years ago Thwaite girls were doing these exact same steps?

KENYA

Awesome.

MADDY

Step-hop-step. Step-hop-step. Cross-cross-curtsey, hop and step. Up and back, up and back…check your row, keep it straight, check your line, keep it straight…step-hop-step…

(MADDY continues to practice some steps that are unbelievably bland and boring, the antithesis of their earlier dance. KENYA watches, shakes her head and snorts a little.)

MADDY

I’m sorry. I should let you do your hair. It is really beautiful right after you straighten it.

(KENYA moves in front of the mirror and opens the relaxer. She dips the comb in and parts her hair.)

I bet they take your picture at Gym Drill and put it on the website. They love showing off the beautiful girls. Especially you.

(KENYA puts down the comb and the relaxer.)

KENYA

You should take my place on Saturday.

MADDY

What?

KENYA

We could switch.

MADDY

Right.

KENYA

I’m serious. You can be in the front row. I’ll go to the back.

MADDY

Whatever.

KENYA

Who would care?

MADDY

Miz Walker, for one.

KENYA

What’s she gonna do? Get out there on the field and drag you off once the music starts?

MADDY

And Julia and Courtney, and all the other girls who worked their butts off to get in the front row.

KENYA

So?

MADDY

They’d be so pissed! They’d hate me!

KENYA

They hate you already. No offense. But the back row girls will love you.

MADDY

Will they?

KENYA

And you’ll make your Momma so happy.

MADDY

We’d get in so much trouble.

KENYA

Why?

MADDY

Well, because…it’s not right!

KENYA

Why not?

MADDY

It’s against the rules!

KENYA

What do they care most about at Gym Drill?

MADDY

That it looks good.

KENYA

That it looks perfect. Just how it always looks. Just how it has always looked for a hundred and whatever years. Straight rows, straight lines and perfect unison. So a couple of people who know better will be pissed for two minutes, but they ain’t gonna stop it in the middle and as long as you do everything right…everything…and afterwards no one will dare say a thing. Will they?

MADDY

No. No, they won’t. As long as it looks perfect.

KENYA

I’ll spend an hour after lights out with you tonight, going over it, if you want. All the moves.

(KENYA takes MADDY’s hand and leads her through a simple move.)

But you already know it. You know it all, better than anyone.

MADDY

I don’t know.

KENYA

We can practice as long as you want.

MADDY

What about your hair?

KENYA

I’m not gonna do my hair. (beat) You belong in that front row, Madison Buffington White, third generation at Thwaite Academy. Just like Momma and Grandma, who’ll be so, so proud. You want to make them proud, don’t you?

MADDY

But what about you?

KENYA

I’ll be really proud of you, too.

MADDY

No, I meant…what about you in Gym Drill? You won’t get your picture on the website.

KENYA

They’ve put enough pictures of me on their website. I’ll be just fine in the back row.

(MADDY starts practicing the dance’s simple steps in front of the mirror. KENYA practices the steps as well, behind MADDY, and their positions are reversed from before.)

With the rest of the back row girls.

(They dance the same simple steps for a while, but then KENYA deviates and starts her own steps, vibrant and soulful and clearly very different from the drill. MADDY continues to dance the simple steps, oblivious, even though she should see KENYA in the “mirror”.)

With nobody looking at me.

(MADDY finishes the routine and smiles joyfully.)

Nobody seeing what I’m gonna do. Boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom-chakka-boom.

(KENYA finishes her dance and flashes a big fake smile. Both girls are “smiling”. Blackout)

END OF PLAY


 

BackRowGirls_Espey_Photo1Rich Espey is a playwright and teacher living in Baltimore. Rich’s plays have been produced throughout the United States, including an Equity Showcase production of Hope’s Arbor in New York City by Gallery Players/Engine 37. Rich is a two time winner of the Carol Weinberg Award for best play at the Baltimore Playwrights Festival and was honored with an Individual Artist Award in Playwriting by the Maryland State Arts Council in 2007. He has studied extensively with playwright Jeffrey Sweet and is an alumnus of the Kennedy Center Summer Playwriting Intensive whose teachers include Gary Garrison, Marsha Norman, Lee Blessing, David Ives and Heather McDonald. He has served as a Playwright Mentor for Center Stage’s Young Playwrights Festival and teaches playwriting there as well. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild, Playwrights Group of Baltimore, Lizard Claw Playwrights, and has served as Chair of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival. He currently serves as Board President for Single Carrot Theatre and proudly teaches science at The Park School of Baltimore.

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One thought on “Back Row Girls

  1. Ginger says:

    Really sweet relationship between the roommates. Wonderful dynamic. Being the black girl in the white dorm I appreciate the acceptance of the cultural differences. Well done.

    Like

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