The Haunting Ventriloquism of ‘Dana H.’ Asks Us to Listen Differently

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

White woman with looks though crack in curtains
Jordan Baker (Dana H.) in the West Coast premiere of Berkeley Rep’s production of 'Dana H.,' directed by Les Waters. (Calvin Ngu/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

In the last scene of A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen’s classic 1879 play, the protagonist, Nora, famously walks out on her family. There’s no point in continuing, she tells her husband, unless the “most wonderful thing of all were to happen,” which means “both you and I would transform ourselves.”

In A Doll’s House: Part 2—Lucas Hnath’s 2017 humorous and inventive sequel—Nora explains how she survived after walking out all those years ago. She took a vow of silence and lived in an abandoned shack “until I no longer heard a voice in my head other than my voice ... It’s really hard to hear your own voice.”

In making self-transformation a matter of finding one’s own voice, Hnath solved Nora’s problem of living within patriarchy by relying on another one: the false faith that we are all self-reliant, independent beings. Like Ibsen’s critique of bourgeois capitalism before him, Hnath diagnoses this neoliberal fantasy but offers us little vision of what a world beyond these conditions look like.

In his latest play, Dana H. (now playing at Berkeley Rep through July 10) Hnath’s societal critique moves outside the mahogany of the drawing room, just shy of the Thoreauvian woods, and into the storied motel rooms that haunt working class, white America. Though we are given no vision of a utopian future, this tour de force of a play pushes us beyond the clichés of “finding” your own voice and teaches us how to listen to others—especially the most vulnerable—anew.

Woman in red sweater sits on a motel-like set
Jordan Baker in 'Dana H.' (Calvin Ngu/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

Any review you read of this play is light on details, and understandably so. Dana H. is a solo monologue that tells the story of Hnath’s mother—Dana Higginbotham, here played by the captivating Jordan Baker—who served as a chaplain in Florida hospitals in the late ’90s. After going through an abrupt divorce and the loss of her job because of that divorce, Higginbotham was kidnapped in 1997 by a former patient. Despite suffering five months of horrifying abuse and deliberate police neglect, she eventually escaped. But it wasn’t until 2013 that she began to face–and voice–the past, speaking her story into a manuscript and then a recorded interview, from which Hnath wrote the play.


There’s always great risk in aestheticizing trauma, but Dana H. treads skillfully. The play is “verbatim theater,” meaning the words are taken directly from Higginbotham’s interview. But Hnath takes it a step further: Higginbotham’s recorded voice is played over the loudspeakers, while Baker, wearing headphones, masterfully lip-syncs every word, every cough, every shake of the wrist we hear on the tape recording.

In one moment, Baker slaps the chair to a resonating bass boom—or did she? I almost fell out of my seat. In another, director Les Waters fills taped silence with Baker slowly stretching her leg—a simple movement that powerfully channels the score Higginbotham’s body has long kept. This is one way we’re taught to listen differently: what we might usually dismiss as noise or silence suddenly becomes meaningful sound and gesture.

But the play doesn’t solely rely on this haunting ventriloquism. Scenic designer Andrew Boyce places us in the shadowy, cold interior of a generic motel upstage, and simultaneously within the intimate space of a couched interview downstage. The effect is that we are not just witnessing her harrowing tale as a passive audience: we are inside a traumatic memory, exposed to the non-linear and sudden eruption of a violent past.

Woman in red sweater sits with hands on knee, headphones in
Jordan Baker in 'Dana H.' (Calvin Ngu/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

The staging also powerfully merges theme and form. Dana describes how the patients she counsels transition from this world to the next: “They’re in between two worlds ... I put a voice to what I believe their concerns are. I give you a voice.” Who is the “you” here? We are the eavesdropping audience, but we are also the interviewer, the patient, even the perpetrator. We must constantly shift our positions of listening. We must become agile listeners.

Much of Dana H. was difficult to witness. I was reminded of Patty Jenkins’ 2003 film Monster, which similarly reveals what’s under the wallpaper of Florida motel life. Yet while the aesthetics of that film turned on making Charlize Theron’s face unrecognizable, Dana H. turns on making Baker’s voice inaudible. The effect created is what Bertholt Brecht famously called “estrangement”: a constant shuttling in and out of the illusion that this play is both very “true” and also highly mediated. Done well, Brecht believed this inside-outside experience would help develop a critical consciousness, urging the audience to change the social conditions of their own world.

Alone, the lip-sync of Dana H. could code as gimmick, but combined with its inventive staging, the play shook me in that Brechtian way. Dana H. is not the story of a woman who, like Ibsen’s Nora, refuses to choose between suicide and the social death of a loveless marriage and instead leaves her family. Nor is it the story of a woman who, like Hnath’s Nora, seeks self-transformation on the outskirts of society. No. Dana H. is about a woman for whom every societal institution—marriage, family, religion, psychotherapy, the police state—has failed.

Many may not need the testimony of this particular survivor on stage to remind them that this kind of abuse and neglect is all too common in our society. But I heard the call. Let us bear witness. Let us listen. But let us not wait for another testimonial to abolish the oppressive conditions that make this story even possible.

‘Dana H.’ is at Berkeley Rep through July 10. Details and tickets here.