In her essay, A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf imagines a gifted sister for Shakespeare and speculates on her fate. Unschooled, married as a teenager against her will, the young woman yearns to write plays so runs away to London only to find herself barred from work in the theatre. She winds up pregnant, and commits suicide.
A century later in Mexico, the life of the remarkable Juana Ramirez de Asbaje seemed to reverse this doomed trajectory. Though born illegitimate in modest circumstances, Juana’s literary genius raised her to prominence and praise. To avoid the oppression of marriage, she entered San Jeronimo convent, which encouraged her poetic and dramatic work and hosted public audiences. But after twenty-four fertile years, the forces of sexism and religious absolutism lashed back. A powerful bishop turned against her. Her creativity was pronounced heretical by the Inquisition. To save her fellow nuns and lay supporters, she renounced writing altogether. Only a fraction of her work survives.
Tanya Saracho’s rousing play The Tenth Muse opens twenty years after Sor Juana’s death. San Jeronimo has become a closed convent, and Juana’s creative vitality has been supplanted by bureaucratic bickering and fear. The action depicts a sequel collision between the female artist and the deadly brick wall of patriarchy, as the tangled challenges that Sor Juana temporarily surmounted—economic dependency, gender discrimination, religious repression—now threaten three young women newly admitted to the convent.
Directed with flair by Laurie Woolery, this world premiere running through November 2 in the OSF’s Bowmer Theatre bears a distinctly female stamp. It’s not just the splendid, all-woman ensemble, or their endearing habit of talking over each other. It’s what happens to the classic heroic quest when translated into feminine terms. Instead of heading out at the start of the play to make their way in the world, these young women retreat from its dangers, seeking safety away from men.
Jesusa, (the buoyant Vivia Font) the heroine of humble origins, is the bastard child of an unknown Spanish father; her Indian mother, a dim memory, deposited her in a convent because it offered the girl child her only chance of survival. Mathematically and musically gifted, Jesusa has now been summoned to the convent of San Jeronimo to provide companionship for an invalid sister. In the Abbess, she encounters a ruthless adjutant for the Inquisition (the chilling Judith Marie Bergen), but she also begins to forge a bond with a kindred soul, the dying Sor Isabel (the searing Sofia Jean Gomez), who still grieves for her mentor Sor Juana and her own failed quest for artistic expression. She aches to pass the creative torch to a spirited young woman like Jesusa.
Along with the mestiza Jesusa, a Nahua Indian, Tomasita (the guarded Sabina Zuniga Varela), is taken in to work in the convent kitchen after her mother conjures the “bad use” men will make of the fatherless girl. The same day, Manuela (the volatile Alejandra Escalante) has been consigned to the cloister by her aristocratic father to wait out the shame of a pregnancy. Sor Rufina (the dour Vilma Silva) has good reason to throw up her hands and declare, “Enough of men!”
The three young women are consigned to a storage room to live. There they discover their grail—the liberating archive of Sor Juana’s work, hidden from the Inquisition by Isabel. As they prepare to act out a scene from one of her lost plays, the rigid stratifications of their world begin to break down. The realization glimmers: “We bleed the same red blood.” For Sor Isabel who comes upon their play-acting, the moment isn’t about social equality. It’s about restoring the channel to the transcendent freedom of the imagination.
Isabel drives the action in the second half, as she defies convent rules, refuses the sedative potion that “keeps Juana away from” her. She encourages Jesusa to play music and don men’s clothing and does so herself. The three younger women follow her lead with different degrees of reluctance. Forward propulsion seems to stall, as the energy onstage circles the same pattern: the women let themselves engage in drama or music and are caught at it. But this is after all the heroine’s journey: seek and be punished.
And the punishments do escalate. The first time the “merry band of sisters” is caught, the Mother Superior severely burns Jesusa’s hand. The second time, there is no immediate punishment, but the Mother Superior’s informer Sor Filomena recalls an earlier sister who was burned to death simply for reading. The third time, Mother Superior discovers the “merry band,” expanded to include Sor Rufina, lashed to a fury of “sword-fighting” by the manic Isabel.
Chaos is where it all begins for the artist. For the Abbess, “Chaos and disorder is the devil’s way.” She orders Sor Juana’s resurrected pages burned then leaves, swearing to punish the girls “accordingly.” That’s when the responsibility for action firmly shifts to Jesusa: Isabel importunes her to leave the convent, saving the few works the Mother Superior missed, and also her talented self. Jesusa pleads to be let off the hook, claiming a female nobody like her cannot survive outside the convent walls. What doesn’t she get about the Mother Superior’s promise of punishment?
Tomasita, well-versed in slavery, gets it. She offers to go with Jesusa and the pair resign themselves to the perilous world of men. Then Jesusa’s acting experience flashes her a stratagem—they dress themselves in male costumes and slip outside the convent’s portals. With the flames of burning books raging behind them, and forced by the realization that safety is nowhere, they embark on their quest.
Molly Tinsley taught literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy for twenty years. Her latest book is the memoir Entering the Blue Stone (www.fuzepublishing.com)