PICTURED: Tamara Varney, board chair for NAMBA (left), with Teruko Nakajima (holding Titi), Robyn Migel and Jenna Wadsworth McCarty at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, June 2022. Photo by David Haverty

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

A few standout productions from the 2022 Hollywood Fringe Festival have traveled north to bring original and inspiring tales to local theater lovers. The Women’s Voices Festival returns to NAMBA Performing Arts Space July 9-10, debuting for Ventura audiences three solo shows that delve into anger, pain, survival, healing and the creative process.

Jenna Wadsworth McCarty in Emergence: First Flight. Photo submitted

“These women, all three have mighty toolboxes,” says Robyn Migel, festival organizer.

On stage this weekend will be Queen of Fishtown, written and performed by Katierose Donohue Enriquez; Teruko Nakajima’s Made in America; and Emergence: First Flight, Jenna Wadsworth McCarty’s blend of art, song, poetry and theater. All three works have been nominated for the 2022 Solo Splash Award, sponsored by NAMBA and bestowed by its board of directors.

“That line between laughter and tears”

On Saturday, July 9, at 6:30 p.m., Enriquez will take the stage to share her dark comedy about change, authenticity and anger in a gentrifying neighborhood in Philadelphia. It’s a space with which she is intimately familiar.

“Both of my parents grew up in row homes in Philadelphia surrounding the neighborhood of Fishtown,” she explains. “So I spent all my weekends there as a kid.”

According to Enriquez, Fishtown was for a long time one of the most undesirable neighborhoods in the city, a place “no one would step foot in for a hundred years . . . they all spent their lives trying to get out of there.” Then yuppies began moving in, renovating and turning the area into Philly’s version of Bushwick.

“Forbes Magazine listed it as the No. 1 hottest-growing neighborhood in America in 2017,” Enriquez recalls. “It is a bougie, bougie, high-rent, high-ticket neighborhood now. And so my show is about a woman whose life is changing. Her kids are growing up, she’s changing, her health is changing, she’s turning 40 — and the neighborhood is a mirror to her.”

Enriquez is a veteran of both the dramatic and comedic arts. A graduate of Harvard’s American Repertory Theater, she had been performing with the Moscow Art Theatre prior to coming to Los Angeles 15 years ago.

“I immediately went to the Groundlings, because I was like, ‘I need comedy!!!’ I was doing Chekov in Russia.”

The Queen of Fishtown has its roots in a comedy sketch Enriquez wrote as a member of the Groundlings’ Sunday Company. During the pandemic shutdown, she developed it into a television pilot that she started shopping around — without success. The feedback she got, again and again: “This isn’t viable because your main character is unlikable; she’s too angry.”

“Women are not allowed to express their anger,” Enriquez notes.

She found an advocate in her director, Corey Podell, who she’d met in 2006 through the Groundlings. Podell read the script, loved it and told Enriquez, “We never get to see a woman deal with her anger issues. Let’s just do it.”

“Had she not said that, I don’t know that the show would exist,” Enriquez admits.

So, yes, Queen of Fishtown has anger. But the writer/star says there’s plenty of laughter, too. “It is a funny show. But it’s also dramatic as well. That’s definitely my sweet spot — that line between laughter and tears . . . in Philly we’re either laughing or we’re screaming, because the alternative is just too soft.”

 “America never let me die”

With her beaming smile, sweet voice, heart-shaped glasses and endearing dog Titi, Tokyo native Teruko Nakajima cuts a sunny, playful figure that is the very embodiment of Japanese kawaii (cute or adorable). But there’s so much more to this internationally trained dancer, artist and actress than meets the eye.

Teruko Nakajima wrote and stars in Made in America. Photo submitted

“I am not a character!” Nakajima exclaims. “Whenever I do some stuff, they say, ‘oh, she’s imitating Japanese accent. She must be American.’ No, I’m the real person — that’s the original reason I wanted to do the one-person show.”

Made in America, taking place Saturday, July 9, at 8:30 p.m., details her journey from tortured soul trying to survive a childhood marked by domestic violence and sexual abuse to her “escape” to the United States, where she discovers herself and an unquenchable lust for life.

“Six years ago, I was in a suicide ward,” she explains. “I wanted to end everything. And America never let me die.”

She credits her team of psychiatric and medical professionals as well as friends and social workers for giving her “a chance to live again.” After being discharged, on the suggestion of her doctor, who felt she needed art in her life, she joined the comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB).

“I felt so accepted and alive!” she exclaims. “And after six years, I am completely out of medication. I’ve got my dog. I really, really wanted to create something.”

Even so, the raw honesty of the piece was painful for her.

“This is my whole life, so it is definitely tough to be revealed. I felt naked. I felt completely vulnerable,” Nakajima says. “I never told anything about my history, because it’s so depressing. But then, every time, when I share, people understand. People actually came back to me and said, ‘It happened to me, too. And it helped me that you shared.’ So that’s the reason I started writing. It’s not easy, but it’s almost like a thank you letter to America.”

She found a great source of support in her director, John Flynn, also of UCB, whom she describes as “the finest gentlemen.”

“He understands my voice with great empathy and compassion . . . I almost felt like he is another therapist.”

Despite the dark subject matter, Made in America ultimately is a tale of survival, hope and optimism, told by a woman who is happy to be alive and considers herself “your biggest cheerleader on Earth.”

“So it’s not too sad, I hope not,” Nakajima says. “Because I am actually a cheeky person. Don’t assume it’s going to be all sad and teary.”

 “Mythic-poetic telling of a life”

Like the other two plays, Sunday’s Emergence: First Flight (Sunday, July 10, 5 p.m.) has autobiographical elements. But Jenna Wadsworth McCarty’s piece stands out for its mix of media: theater, poetry, spoken word, music and visual art. She creates an original work of art, on stage, during every hour-long performance. Pretty impressive for someone new to the performing arts.

Jenna Wadsworth McCarty stars in her one-woman show Emergence: First Flight. Photo submitted

“The day before quarantine was my first day on stage,” she explains. “It took me until I was 45 to learn to love to be on stage, and here I am!”

Her circuitous resume has included stints in social and environmental work, international development and healing (she’s the founder of Juvenation, which focuses on restorative muscle therapy). Her journey toward becoming an artist is the subject of her solo show, and all elements in it are completely original.

Emergence emerged (ahem) from a 2019 art exhibit. A mutual friend connected her with Craig Tyrl, a professor of theater and acting at California State University, Fullerton, who came to the show and heard McCarty telling her story. The two met for coffee, and Emergence started to take flight. 

“He said, ‘I think you’ve got a one-woman show.’ And so we started collaborating,” recalls McCarty. “He had such a vision for the show . . . he listened to every story, he looked at every piece of art, he read every poem, he heard every song and helped me find the thread between them all and pare it down into this one hour.”

With Tyrl as director, McCarty was able to create a “mythic-poetic telling of a life.” Her artistic awakening includes struggles with depression and anxiety, her family’s inability to understand her fierce creativity and her own grasp and understanding of her story. She found Tyrl’s support invaluable.

“He just really saw and believed in me in a way that no one ever had before,” McCarty says. “That was life changing for me. I absolutely needed that support.”

With a background in the healing arts, she sees her work in theater as an extension of her own wellness journey.

“Any healer, to be a healer . . . you have to be on your own healing journey. I think it’s all a continuation/extension of that healing work.”

“Learn from what they’ve learned”

Migel and the playwrights hope that the audience will take away much more than a fun night at the theater from these productions.

“It’s about empowering women. Empowered women empower women, you know?” posits Migel. “It’s about lifting up sisters . . . We deliberately chose inspiring women because we wanted people, no matter how they identify, to come in and have something to take away.”

Enriquez hopes audiences will learn something about “the City of Brotherly Love” from Queen of Fishtown, and “leave knowing that it’s OK to feel however you’re feeling.”

McCarty sees the cyclical nature of hard times and good as one of the take-home messages from Emergence: First Flight

“The hard times come, and then we move through them and we learn. And then oftentimes we expect it to be, that’s it,” she says. “We’ve made it through and now we’re better. But it tends to cycle around and around. But it’s important to remember that, yes, the hard times cycle, but the good times cycle, too, so keep going. Keep a going.”

“I want not only women, but everyone, to know that I really hope they are being kind to themselves,” says Nakajima of Made in America. “I hope they have compassion for themselves, too, that I learned in America.”

“The tools you learn there, you leave with,” Migel says of anyone who comes to NAMBA this weekend. “To learn how to express creativity, to learn how to express anger, to learn how to process people that harmed you when you were vulnerable — all of these things are so useful that we feel like we are bringing something so inspiring to the people of Ventura. … If you’re wise, you learn from what they’ve learned, and you take that with you forever.”

The Women’s Voices Festival takes place July 9-10 at NAMBA Performing Arts Space, 47 S. Oak St., Ventura, 805-628-9250, http://www.nambaarts.com

More information on the playwrights at queenoffishtown.com, www.terukonakajima.com and www.jennawm.com.