Glass Ceiling Beneath the Stars

Bric à Brac Theatre, Grace Dickson Productions, Pleasance
Pleasance Dome

Glass Ceiling Beneath the Stars

Oscar Wilde famously penned the line, “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars," and it’s equally true that, while many of us gaze at those stars, even fewer will ever walk among them. Even fewer still when taking into account the systemic oppressions that faced potential astronauts who didn’t fit the traditionally accepted mould.

As the title suggests, Glass Ceiling Beneath the Stars is a play about two such women, contrasting their different but similar struggles to climb to the top of a parapet beset with condescension and scorn of a closed-minded society. Jan Davis and Mae Jemison are the two astronauts whose stories are being told, each ascending the same mountain at a different time, with different lives, before both eventually boarding the STS-47 space launch, only to find the sexism doesn’t end when your feet return to terra firma.

One of the outstanding aspects of this play is the use of multimedia throughout with the use of a projected background screen showing footage or captions. Simultaneously, the cast take turns swapping around a pair of handheld cameras; so that at any given moment, there is a TV screen onstage giving a newsreel-style broadcast of what’s occurring. It’s a brilliant concept, as it encapsulated the media-driven way we imagine NASA and the entire space launch programme.

It’s also a remarkably intricate piece of theatre, leaping around in time, often telling their contrasting stories simultaneously but years apart. Jemison’s tale is largely focused on the problems of being young, gifted and black, and finding the road to excellence being often barred despite her abilities and prowess. Davis, on the other hand, by virtue of being white, has different challenges, particularly those related to the media’s obsession with her marriage to another astronaut shortly before launch. But each of them is shown to persevere through it.

It can be occasionally disorientating, but never to the point of confusion, although the decision to also include a play-within-a-play dramaturgical device, where someone yells “cut” and the actors discuss a line or action, feels misplaced and unnecessary, particularly as several of these moments feel like bludgeoning the already overwhelmingly clear message that sexism exists in the space programme.

That said, the sobering message that bookends the performance tells us that, while what we are seeing may not be true, it is nonetheless real. It’s one that does bring with it hope that hard work and perseverance can overcome any challenge, no matter who you are.

Reviewer: Graeme Strachan

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