Entertainment » Theatre

Truth Values: One Girl's Romp Through M.I.T.'s Male Math Maze

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Sep 17, 2018
Gioia De Cari in 'Truth Values: One Girl's Romp Through M.I.T.'s Male Math Maze,' continuing through Sept. 23
Gioia De Cari in 'Truth Values: One Girl's Romp Through M.I.T.'s Male Math Maze,' continuing through Sept. 23  

The first time monologuist Gioia De Cari presented her one-woman show "Truth Values: One Girl's Romp Through M.I.T.'s Male Math Maze" at Central Square Theater, back in September of 2009, her voice felt revelatory, fresh, urgent. We'd heard the words from Larry Summers, uttered while he was president of Harvard university, questioning whether woman might not be biologically less capable than men of certain numerical and spatial forms of reasoning; those feckless words rang loudly in our ears. We'd also seen the resultant uproar that culminated with Summers being replaced by a woman, Drew Faust. It seemed unbelievable at the time that a well-respected intellectual heading up what might be the world's most prestigious institute of higher learning would say what Summers had said. Clearly, sexist stereotypes lingered on. Someone needed to take that particular bull by the horns and skewer it, and De Cari did just that.

Jump forward nine years and... not much has changed, sadly. That same male assumption about women's abilities surfaced just last year in a now-infamous memo written by a male Google employee who posited that "Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don't have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership" - in short, that women are not, by nature, as good as men at certain jobs. (The engineer who wrote that memo saw his job at Google go the way as Summers' at Harvard; he then launched a lawsuit, claiming bias at the company against "conservative white men.") What better time for De Cari to return to the Central Square Theater for a reprise of her show?

The "Male Math Maze" in question is not entirely without women; it's just that the women who ventured into that bro-tastic realm chose, De Cari tells us, to underplay their femininity, adopting nondescript wardrobes or echoing the guys' taste in plaid shirts. Any woman who stood out as a woman - by wearing, a De Cari did, anything at all flattering to the female figure - drew the contempt of fellow female students along with a toxic mixture of sexual fascination coupled with intellectual dismissal from the men. (This extended to the professors, one of whom assigned De Cari the task of fetching cookies in to class.)

For De Cari, all this was an extra layer of gender consciousness and the resentments that it occasioned. Seething underneath it all was the feeling that her father would rather have had a son - a feeling that De Cari tells us played a part in her deciding to pursue a higher education in math. After all, isn't that what a good son would have done? (I know how she feels, though in my case a good son... or a straight son, anyway... would have become a construction worker or a mechanic, and would have gloried in hunting deer.)

De Cari depicts all the characters here, including an A-bomb obsessed fellow named Jim and a couple of hostile fellow female students, as well as various faculty members. Her impressions are hilarious, but they also make one more conscious of a sense that De Cari is now doing another impression, as well: That of herself as a fresh-faced, intimidated grad student, the "girl" of the title. De Cari simply seems so very self-possessed now, holding the stage with ease and authority; One sees not a girl telling the tale, but a woman. De Cari, in a sense, is now the teacher.

All of which makes certain choices in the telling of the tale feel incongruous. When she drops to all fours to a crawl while describing her progress through dark, tunnel-like passageways leading into the bowels of a building, it's hard to tell whether De Cari is indicating a feeling akin to early childhood - a state of knowing nothing, of being dominated, in a sense, by those charged with her instruction - or whether she's signaling a gingerness of approach, as though she feels a need to enter this phase of her academic career as unobtrusively as possible.

But here's what's really changed since 2009: Our perspective on De Cari's story. #MeToo has brought a new level of awareness to the harassment and marginalization of women, at least for the time being. When, in the 1980s, Anita Hill spoke out about sexual harassment at the hands of then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, Hill suffered the slings and arrows of outrage from all sides. She had her supporters, yes; but that support was all but drowned out by a tidal swell of accusations to the fact that she was vindictive and, more to the point, lying. The current nominee under consideration for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the nation now faces similar, if not worse, allegations, and while his accuser might not quite get a fair hearing in either the court of public opinion or the ranks of Congress - the latter of which seems dead set on elevating Mr. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court bench, where he can sit at Thomas' side - neither does she face a widespread and automatic assumption that she's making up an outrageous story and trying to drag a good man down for some petty reason. The slurs of sexist software engineers notwithstanding, that's got to be progress of a sort.

Still, De Cari's entertaining testimonial remains urgent all these years later - as much now, if not more so, than it was in 2009. All controversies around gender, from sordid "he said / she said" scandals to pseudo-scientific skepticism about the abilities of the female mind, will doubtless rage on; #MeToo is powerful, but it has yet to knock Earth off its axis, and Mars and Venus both persist in their accustomed orbits. Moreover, the show's very title indicates the difficulty in parsing fact from fancy when it comes to what men assume women can and cannot do; a "truth value" refers to the logical tenet that truth is not necessarily a binary, on/off, white-or-black quality. Shades of gray are often part of the picture.

We need this story, and others like it, on our stages to help us keep refining the calibration on our on gender-related truth meters. It's just a shame that "Truth Values" is slated for such a short return, running only until September 23. Better go see it while you can.

"Truth Values: One Girl's Romp Through M.I.T.'s Male Math Maze" continues through Sept. 23 at Central Square Theater in Cambridge. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/shows/truth-values-2019/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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