For the first two decades of the 20th century, they looked out
alluringly from the pages of magazines, eyes dark, lips curved and hair
luxuriantly piled into chignons. The feminine, slender-waisted women
captured in pen-and-ink drawings by Roxbury native Charles Gibson
became known as the “Gibson Girls,” and their iconic faces soon adorned
books, linens and wallpaper sold across the nation.
But these images bore about as much resemblance to the actual lives of American women in the early 1900s as contemporary magazine photo spreads resemble the everyday lives of women now.
Seven years ago, while watching a television documentary about the Gibson Girls, Boston-based playwright Kirsten Greenidge became interested in the gap between appearance and reality, and started to work on a play about a pair of teenage African American twins whose differences in appearance lead them to ask questions about their past.
“I was inspired by the idea of the Gibson girl, of images in society and in our culture that tell you a person or group of people is one way, and yet the reality is very, very different,” Greenidge said in a recent interview.
Produced by local theater group Company One, “The Gibson Girl” — premiering tomorrow at The Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts — tackles complicated subjects, from race and class to sex and family. But Greenidge says she didn’t necessarily set out with those themes in mind.
“Even though a lot of my plays deal with race and class, I never sit down and say, ‘This play’s going to be about race and class.’ It’s only the byproduct,” she said, adding that much of her work on this play stemmed from her love of language and a sudden obsession with unsolved mysteries shows on television.
“Usually what happens is that I write tons and tons of dialogue and then sculpt the play out of that,” she said. The plays often take on lives of their own as she works.
“The Gibson Girl” opens as the twin sisters begin to seek reasons for their visibly different skin colors, Greenidge explained. Confronted with their questions, their mother visits a psychic to see what she can do to get her family back together. Meanwhile, the audience is also introduced to a handful of other characters whose connections to the larger story are revealed as the play progresses.
“It’s kind of built like a huge mystery with these different pieces interlocked and intertwined,” she added.
The play premiered in San Diego in 2006 but has gone through a number of rewrites and changes for its Boston debut. The current production includes a character that Greenidge had initially written as white, but whose race was changed to black in the San Diego production, in part because of his overt lust for a black woman living in his apartment building.
“I had gotten a little gun-shy and thought, ‘Oh, this is going to make everybody uncomfortable, and maybe the actor playing him uncomfortable, so I’ll change it,’” Greenidge said, adding that even she is sometimes unsettled by how the character comes across in the play. “He’s watching her through the walls and projects this sexual identity onto her … it’s titillating, and people tend to get really giggly when it happens in the play because it happens over and over again.”
Nevertheless, watching the production in San Diego, Greenidge says she realized that “this character was drawn to be a white character.” And so, in Boston, he is.
“That was something we changed back and didn’t try to run from in this production,” she said.
As the play has made its way to the stage, the subjects of skin color and appearance have had surprising resonance off the stage as well.
The San Diego production featured adult women playing the roles of the teenage twins, and “the woman playing the lighter twin was really happy that she finally had a role that was meant for her,” Greenidge recalled.
“She was often not cast in black plays because she was too light or too ‘white-looking,’ and then the roles she was playing in plays often never addressed having lighter skin, so she was happy to finally play something that fit her experience,” the playwright added.
In addition, Greenidge had a daughter 10 months ago, and she finds that her experience of motherhood has also had some eerie parallels with her work.
“My baby is biracial, so she is very light and I keep thinking, ‘OK, now everyone is going to think I wrote this play because of my daughter,’” she said with a laugh. “But I started writing it when she was not even a gleam in my eye.”
In the context of parenthood, several of the play’s central questions — of what makes a family, how we identify families, and how people identify us — have also taken on a new dimension.
“When we go out, me, my husband and my daughter, we’re always reaffirming that we’re a family unit because we all have different skin tones — despite the fact that we’ve got baby food in our hair,” she said.
Pausing, Greenidge added, “Perhaps there is a greater truth in what I’ve written because I do feel that when I walk down the street with my daughter, people are enamored with her … but there is a tenor of our history of race and color in this country.”
“The Gibson Girl” premieres tomorrow and runs through April 5 at the Plaza Theatre at Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston.
Tickets range from $15-$30. For show times and tickets, call 617-933-8600, visit www.bostontheatrescene.com, or purchase them in person at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, or the Boston University Theatre Box Office, 264 Huntington Avenue.
For more information, visit Company One’s Web site at www.companyone.org.