Tucked near the Golden Gate Ferry terminal at the Embarcadero, presiding over the weekend Farmer’s Market, strides a bronze statue of Gandhi. It clutches a staff in one hand, and raises the other in a peaceful gesture. “My Life is My Message,” reads the inscription on the base.
You might not have known the statue even existed before seeing local playwright Anne Galjour’s newest work #GetGandhi, which runs through Aug. 26 at Z Below. But afterward, you might feel the need to go see it for yourself—if only to check if it’s still there.
Directed with gusto by Nancy Carlin—who, with Galjour, plus actors Jeri Lynn Cohen and Patricia Silver, make up the newly formed Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits Theatre Collective—#GetGandhi views the mythology of the Mahatma through a #MeToo lens, and finds him disappointingly wanting. So much so, in fact, that aging yoga instructor Helen (played by Cohen) and her academic, first-wave feminist friend Miriam (played by Silver) hatch a plot to knock the statue from its pedestal, simultaneously knocking down the myth of Gandhi.
At the core of their censure is Gandhi’s controversial habit of practicing celibacy, or brahmacharya, by asking female followers, even his grand-niece Manu, to sleep naked by his side. While Miriam, Helen and their millennial counterpart Maya (Miranda Swain) may bicker about semantics (are these actions severe enough to label Gandhi a rapist, or merely a “bad man?”), they eventually come to a consensus around the necessity of removing the statue. The only obstacle being: how?
On the surface, #GetGandhi could be classified as a madcap, low-stakes crime caper. With Miriam as ringleader, and Helen’s baffled family members as foils—her laid-back, NorCal husband Bob (Howard Swain) and exasperated Republican daughter Rebecca (Lyndsy Kail)—Galjour frequently uses her characters to articulate the messaging and inevitable branching out of feminist theory. She underscores the rhetorical and generational divides between acerbic bra-burning Miriam and her feisty acolyte Maya—who loves her hero sincerely, but is not afraid to push back against what she considers outdated mores and attitudes.
In one scene, they dicker over whether or not they've reached a consensus fairly. In another, they squabble over the use of the word “bitch,” a word that Maya announces is being reclaimed, to Miriam’s dismay. Galjour also positions go-with-the-flow Bob, the sole male in the ensemble, as a self-proclaimed “feminist,” but also has him deliver the line “you’re overreacting” to both of the main women in his life, quietly undermining his ally-ship even as his past life as a Cockette and stay-at-home dad bolsters it. Feminism is complicated, Galjour suggests, and it requires real work to parse what could define it, just as real work is required to parse the Gandhi-attributed inscription, “My Life is My Message.” If Gandhi’s life is his message, the statue-nappers point out furiously, then his legacy is the patriarchy, and #TimesUp for him.
As a comedy, #GetGhandi delivers a good many San Francisco-centric chuckles. Site-specific commentary abounds: a giddy rehashing of their midnight drive through the hills; references to Golden Gate Park, Ocean Beach, and the Castro; even an original controversy and protest surrounding the Gandhi statue is mentioned as a driving factor behind Miriam’s plan. Sliding-scale yoga classes, capes vs. tutus for four-year-old “princesses,” a hippie matriarch accusing her status-climbing daughter of being a “late-stage capitalist piglet” are all tropes perfectly tailored to a comfortably liberal, artsy San Francisco demographic. I can't say how it might it play in Peoria, but for an evening out in the City, it does entertain.
And like those good-old consciousness-raising women’s liberation groups of yore, plus experience borne from time spent touring with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits Theatre Collective does attempt to raise awareness in the audience it has. With a brief but passionate primer of India’s own feminist warriors, the Gulabi Gang; a discourse against domestic violence; an acknowledgement of Miriam’s own privileged position as an academic with “a retirement plan with health benefits”; and egregious offenses committed by a figure long considered a paragon of virtue and nonviolence, #GetGhandi offers some timely food for thought while still affording us the opportunity to poke a little fun at our own stereotypes.
It may not actually inspire anyone to advocate for removal of the statue from its current pedestal. But it might just cause folks to view it, and our ingrained habit of accepting heroes at face value, with a little more rigor.
'#GetGandhi' runs through Aug. 26 at Z Below. Details here.