Review: ‘Mama’s Girls’ is an important show well worth seeing, despite some missteps

The play “Mama’s Girls” by Marilynn Barnes Anselmi opens with two siblings in fraught play with Barbie dolls. Though symbols for conventional gender norms, the dolls’ are smooth between their legs, a revelation to Sammy, the emerging trans girl who both catalyzes and suffers from her family’s toxic dynamic.

This kind of poignant, relevant theater can be painful to watch — largely because of a visceral reaction to crucial yet difficult material on stage. This is exactly what happens in Queer Theatre Kalamazoo’s ambitious production of this heart-wrenching tale; and it is also painful to watch because it’s not yet fully realized artistically.

And yet, thanks to some very strong performances, there are touching moments of genuine connection that bring to life the emotionality of this story well worth telling.

Queer Theatre Kalamazoo describes its work as “Equality Entertainment” with a positive connection to the queer community that uses performance as a catalyst for social change. As a newly formed nonprofit, they’re committed to doing new, important work, even if on a shoestring budget. “Mama’s Girls” — QTK’s first production in their newly renovated space that seats about 50 in the basement of Kalamazoo’s First Baptist Church downtown — certainly fits the bill.

In this timely piece, the full-length directorial debut of Jen Hebben, who also plays Sammy, the action unfolds largely within the walls of the family home of Amelia, an archetypal “tom boy” and daddy’s girl, and her trans sibling, Sammy, who’s becoming a mama’s girl. Every scene contains a major confrontation of expectations and assumptions and builds to a highly emotional crescendo. Interspersed between scenes, horrifying statistics, such as 42 percent of trans people attempt suicide before the age 25, as well as other images elucidating trans experience are projected onto the wall, raising awareness as well as providing context for the experiences unfolding on stage.

Part public service announcement, part aspiring art, “Mama’s Girls” has potential. Jen Hebben beautifully expresses the suffering and confusion of a young trans person in a family split by her identity and evokes genuine empathy. Her scenes with Jordan Beebe as sister Amelia evolve with wonderfully complex emotion that create the backbone of this show. Lynn Amari plays their mother, a wonderfully sympathetic and real Delia, and offers some of the most natural line delivery in the show. However, in scenes with Matthew Morris McCormick as Samuel, the narcissistic father who can only see his children as extensions of himself, problems remembering lines and needing to read them off props dragged down pacing and inhibited their truly embodying the characters and the scenes, which utterly broke the fourth wall.

Set design as well as lights and sound, though rudimentary, effectively create the sense of a self-contained working-class American home collapsing in on itself. With no proscenium, no elevation to the stage, and the actors using the central entrance area as well as the more formally set stage on which to play practically removes the distance between audience and performers, creating a sense of urgency and intimacy.

With so many deliberate choices with the highest intentions for creating meaningful theater for social change, this production clearly has heart. Queer Theatre Kalamazoo’s commitment and mission are admirable, and with a little more rehearsal and heavier-handed direction, this production could have real impact.

Mama’s Girls
Queer Theatre Kalamazoo
301 E. Main St., Kalamazoo