By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Sharai Bohannon is an activist playwright who doesn’t shy away from tackling issues that some might feel uncomfortable discussing. When a group attempted to mount a production of her play Craigslisted without authorization, she fought back, even when they threatened her with legal action.
For her efforts, which were ultimately successful, the Dramatists Guild Legal Defense Fund awarded her with the Defender of the Year Award in 2021.
Craigslisted contains quite a bit of thought provoking material, which made it a prime selection for the Rough Draughts series of readings sponsored by The NOLA Project in 2019. The reading was so well received the company elected to mount a full production of it in an upcoming season.
That time has now arrived and with it a trip back to 2015 when the play is set. Founded in 1995, Craigslist was the internet address for millions to connect, rent, sell or buy items and oftentimes to meet. Bohannon might have gone for the low hanging fruit in this case, especially with the knowledge that Craigslist was allegedly used in the promotion of sex workers and the sex trafficking trade.
But Bohannon goes for the comedy jugular instead. She introduces us to Maggie (Aria Jackson), a down-on-her-luck college student on scholarship who is trying to get by as best she can while devoting time to her classes. When we first meet her in her darkened apartment, her electric service has been turned off and the food in her refrigerator is starting to spoil. Despite the efforts of her best friends Robin (Mariola Chalas) and Haley (Emily Bagwill), she is unable to support herself.
She is reluctant to borrow money any more from either or them (or their parents), so she takes a deep breath and enters into the strange world of Craigslist with its myriad subscribers, who are all looking to connect in some way. She needs cash and there are a huge number of people willing to come to her place to deliver said money, provided she be willing to fulfill their needs.
Again, it is important to reiterate there are no sexual favors being granted. She even calls herself “Chastity” so as to reinforce that fact. The requests are as innocent as someone wanting to share a dinner with her or a woman wishing to have a foot fetish satisfied. In no time at all, Maggie goes from a financial wreck to a high-heeled Craigslist player, scheduling time slots for her “customers” while trying to adhere to her class schedule.
Over the course of the two-act play we meet several of her customers including Dave (Robert A. Mitchell), an older man looking for simple companionship following his failed marriage; Ned (Ross Brill), a furry who is looking for a place to hold a gathering of his fellow furries; and a sadistic yoga instructor Ned (Keith Claverie), who forces her to obey his every command and assume poses for him without speaking.
At first, she capitalizes on the ability to have “a pedicure and get paid for it” or to give away her old bras to a customer. “It’s like I’m getting paid to clean up my apartment,” she tells Haley and Robin. But soon the sideline becomes an obsession. Maggie finds being financially independent as addicting as any drug and she is loathe to suspend her services.
A talented journalism student, Maggie decides to tap her creative side and begins to document her experiences in a blog, creating humorous fake names for each of them; she calls the foot fetist Dr. Scholls, for example. Haley is very supportive, while Robin warns that such seemingly good ideas can backfire. She begs Maggie to back off.
As Maggie, Aria Jackson turns in another notable performance in a critical and demanding role, just as she did in School Girls, or The African Mean Girls Play. In a very real sense Maggie is the focus of Craigslisted and all the other characters serve to tell her story more fully. Bohannon crafts her story in a way meant to give consideration of why a co-ed on scholarship might have to turn to Craigslist as a source of income and support.
While most of the customers are harmless, there are several that have more than a sense of menace within them. Keith Claverie’s performance as Gary, the sadistic yoga instructor, is chilling at times, while Megan Whittle’s Bobbi – also known as Dr. Scholls – has moments where she is not only controlling, but borderline dangerous. Maggie continually states to Haley and Robin that she won’t go to another customer’s apartment or home because she would lose control and might be harmed, but she fails to see that bringing them into her home could be just as dangerous.
Robert A. Mitchell’s role as Dave is also touching and it seems that of all her customers, he is the one to whom she feels most connected. However, Dave imagines the connection as being more than that. While Maggie looks to their connection as mostly transactional, the accident-prone much-older man begins to have inappropriate feelings for her.
“I want to get back out there,” he assures her, but it is obvious lip service he is using in order to continue this Craigslist fantasy.
The funniest of the customers is furry Ned (Ross Brill), who might be thought of as an adult cosplayer. When Maggie is dismissive of his wanting to put on a party for his fellow furries, he hilariously scratches at the air and screeches “You are mocking my culture!”
As Robin, Mariola Chalas clashes with Maggie over her choices. While Haley is supportive of Maggie, it’s Robin who dares to confront her and their relationship is much more complicated. At first, we’re not sure if it’s because of jealousy or that she regrets losing control over Maggie through her financial support. Eventually, we find that her intentions are truly benevolent.
Emily Bagwill’s role of Haley is more simplistic. Her steadfast support of Maggie may seem to mark her as a good friend, but her reluctance to take a stand against Maggie’s foolish pursuit of money has consequences. She enjoys reading Miss Chastity’s blog, but fails to consider what ramifications there might be should the Craigslist community learn of Maggie’s true identity.
Donyae Asante rounds out the cast. He portrays Jay, a young professional who just wants to use Maggie as a means of making his ex-girlfriend jealous. He plans a dinner getaway at the same restaurant and at the same time he knows his ex will be there. A projection of Maggie’s blog entry for the next day dishes on the outcome.
Bohannon’s comic scenes underscore the harsh reality that students on scholarship at major universities are in a precarious situation. While the scholarships pay for some of the cost of an academic degree, many students find the extra costs of living space, transportation, food and other essentials are not covered adequately. Expensive student loans could take a lifetime to pay back and any available part-time work rarely pays expenses. Using Craigslist as an alternative source of income is a slippery slope; it puts Maggie in more than one dangerous situation and puts her scholarship and academic career at risk.
Craigslisted is marvelously directed by Leslie Claverie. Her creative team includes designers Bridget Ann Doyle (costumes), Duncan Becker (scenic), Roger Bouche (lighting) and Amara Elizabeth Skinner (sound). Grant Ingram’s projections are an integral part of the play, providing insight into the internet of 2015.
Craigslisted continues its run at Marquette Theater on the Loyola University campus now through December 17. For tickets, click here.