In Dialogue: A Hooker with a…22 Caliber

Carson Kreitzer’s SELF DEFENSE or death of some salesmen.

Who doesn’t love a prostitute? Schoolgirls (young and old) fetishize her—donning fishnets and stilettos any chance they get, slipping into the role of sexual outlaw and temporarily out of the repressive patterns of everyday life. Lefties glorify her as the icon of nature-perverting capitalism: a free agent who sells her own wares. Movies reform her, Pretty Woman-style, snatching her from the fringes and giving her the bourgeois happy ending every hooker with a heart of gold deserves.
In Rebecca Gilman’s recent play Blue Surge, which just ended a run at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, two cops bust a massage parlor, only to (surprise!) both fall in love with the hookers they meet there. One hooker gets pregnant and domestic; the other turns down her conventional “happy ending,” instead starting her own prostitution business, herself the C.E.O. in a world she doesn’t have the education or tools to advance in otherwise. (This Pretty Woman finds happiness in autonomy, with a nod to the Left.)

In Six Feet Under, the popular HBO series (and a heavily playwright-friendly venue), the straight white engaged bourgeois chick, Brenda, befriends an unassuming prostitute and becomes titillated by her friend’s trade, ultimately unleashing her own sexual “independence.” (The school-girl fantasy grows up and moves to a morgue.)

In drama and out, the lure of the prostitute for both sexes is usually a tangled web of traditional schemas. For women, she is the escape, an idealized projection of a freer hidden identity, unfettered by emotional attachments and the complexities of life. She can put out or not; she names her price, and it is never an emotional one. For men, if I may surmise, she is the cold and sexily hardened woman whom only he could melt, if she really got to know him (see last year’s male-fantasy-friendly film The Center of the World). Or she is a victim—the object of male power fetishes, and a lesson to women who dare dream about letting down their own sexual guard.

In any case, “the prostitute” is usually: heterosexual, pliable, troubled, and wanting, in some desperately hidden place, to be saved or tamed. By you. (Yes, you, gentle male reader, you.) She is, almost always, based on fantasy rather than fact.

But what happens if your prostitute is, in fact, the unrepentant murderer of seven johns, an (unrepentant) lesbian, and has been dubbed the “first female serial killer…ever”?

SELF DEFENSE or death of some salesmen, a new play by Carson Kreitzer, starts with a bang. Or, to be more precise, seven bangs. One for each of the johns killed by protagonist Jolene Palmer, in seven separate, self-declared acts of “self-defense.”

“Based on some shit that really happened,” as New Georges/Reverie Productions, the co-producers, irreverently proclaim, the play is indeed a fictional reflection on the life and trial of Aileen Wuornos, the hitch-hiker prostitute who received six charges of first-degree murder in 1992 and has spent the past decade on Florida’s death row.

Wuornos has been an intriguing public figure since she was first “discovered” in 1991, as multiple corpses of middle-aged white men, found decaying in the Florida roadside swamps, began suddenly to trace their paths back to her.

In 1992, two films were released, Overkill: The Aileen Wuornos Story, a standard made-for-TV movie, and Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, a savvy exploration by British documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield of Wuornos’s exploitation and the media’s role in the profitable creation of a monster.

Foul-mouthed, brash, belligerent, and unapologetic, Wuornos (who more than once told her courtroom lawyers to shut up) was far from the darling of the jury. There was never a question as to her guilt: She killed the guys alright, this she confessed right off—or, rather, as soon as the cops started pressuring Wuornos’s girlfriend to lure her into a taped phone confession. The question was solely over Wuornos’s intent. She, famously, claimed self-defense. Most inquisitors have had similar responses to Wuornos’s plea: one act of self-defense, maybe. But seven?

“The first female serial killer” has a ring to it that makes it a hard title to turn down—“The first serial self-defender” just isn’t as sexy. Nick Broomfield explains the term as a sensational creation of a tabloid system selling the story in installments (Dickens-style) to voracious consumers.

In SELF DEFENSE, Aileen Wuornoss becomes the fictitious Jolene Palmer, and Kreitzer’s sharp female Coroner (an effective Chorus) explains the term in another light:

                        CORONER:

It is in fact a misnomer to label Jolene Palmer the first female serial killer.

There have been others. Some place the number at thirty-five or so. But Jolene Palmer differed from these cases because she was closer to male patterns of serial killing. She used a gun. She killed strangers.

Most women killed members of their families, with poison.

(She smiles.

Blackout…)


The mix of dark humor and cold faces sets the tone for Kreitzer’s piece as a whole.

Kreitzer brings her world to life with a provocative blend of theatrical shape-shifters: the sharp-as-a-tack female coroner(s) strip down to become pole-dancing prostitutes, a beloved-but-faithless female lover doubles as an usurious Hollywood producer, a police chief sidelines as a judge. Intrigue and Outrage (no, they’re not characters, but Mercy and Goodness are) rest hand in hand.

Her take on the Wuornos story flirts with lines of perspective: the allure of violence, and its actual horror; idealized prostitution and its gritty reality; the erotic appeal of danger, and the consequences; the role-play of perversion, and uncontrolled abuse; consensual paid sex, and non-consensual rape (paid or unpaid); murder, and self-defense.

While the humor may waver, the darkness is never very far away. Indeed, as the tabloid tales would have it, Wuornos is a dark spot on a light landscape of wholesome American goodness. In this tabloid world, Wuornos’s plea is ridiculous. But Kreitzer reinvents this landscape, in turn making a plea of self-defense eminently believable.

This new landscape is a treacherous one, comprised as it is of layers of abuse, male domination, perversion, police brutality, economic hardship, and, primarily, bodies: those of the thousands of murdered female prostitutes, their cases unsolved, buried unceremoniously and forgotten in dusty manila folders in the deep recesses of steps onto every morning: the gravelly shoulder off I-75, waiting for unidentified clients to pull over—her “regulars” having been snatched up by Desert Storm and the sex-drive-reducing illnesses they returned home with.

Again, the Coroner paints the scene for us:

“I’ve seen a lot of dead prostitues, in my line of work. A lot…The ideas about justice—started springing up at me. After the bodies had been piling up. For a while. Girls, women, who should not have been on my table. Sure, I get some OD’s, suicides, but it’s the others. The ones who shouldn’t have been on my table for another forty years. Who should have never have gone through what they went through to get on my table. And they’re whispering to me—Unsolved. unsolved. unsolved. unsolved.”

Jo Palmer refuses to be a victim: This is what makes her so compelling. And set against the right background, her plea of self-defense suddenly seems…well, not so far from possible. She’s been raped before, she’s been abused—she gives us some devastatingly brutal descriptions to make us believe this is so. And now she has the instincts, she claims, to predict who is going to try to kill her. And who she needs to kill first. That six of her predators fell within one rainy season in 1990 is just coincidence. A run of bad luck.

Kreitzer finds some beautiful images in her quest to give Jo a voice, using her sharp edgy style to deftly fold metaphor into the grittier, more barren language of realism. For instance, in the event that precipitates Jo’s capture, she and her lover are out riding in the car of one of her victims. Her lover, driving, hits an animal and they spin out and crash, fleeing the scene and leaving the car behind, complete with fingerprints and witnesses. As Jo recounts the scene, from the perspective of her solitary cell, she spins with dizzying beauty from the specific moment of the crash to the soaring nature of her retaliation.

                        JO

cuz you just hit the one piece a

Roadkill wouldn’t fucking lie down,

didn’tcha. Didn’tcha.

Thought you could just let cher foot

press heavy on the accelerator. Do

what you want. Listen to a woman

scream in the woods off Highway 101.

Thought you’d be left with nothing but

a splash of guts and hair. Instead your

truck comes dead-lock stop, you’re

headed for your own windshield 65

fucking miles per hour.

(low)

I lay down and I lay down and I lay

down

but no more.

I stood up.

And your world comes crashing to the ground.

(BLACKOUT.

Lights up on Jo and her lawyer. Jo is hand-cuffed.)

Whether or not Aileen Wuornos really acted in self-defense is debatable. Several years after her conviction, she began declaring that all were “flat murders to rob.” She killed during the rainy season (one of her “serial” traits) because, she said, the weather made her “nasty looking,” and she couldn’t bring in enough money to support herself and her lover on prostitution alone. They were having trouble making rent. Occasionally, they’d slept in a barn.

So, is the story of SELF DEFENSE “The” truth? “Of course not,” says Kreitzer. “Fiction allows me to tell this story the way I see it … and my job as an artist is to bring you the truth I see.”

Fact or fiction, however, in Jolene Palmer Kreitzer has found a wonderful character. She is a strong model of a woman who happens to be a prostitute, fights back against oppression, cuts through the bullshit of bureaucracy, and takes action. Again and again, she refuses to accept being forged into a victim. That she rests in jail despite her frankness, and potential innocence, could easily render her a tragic heroine. But instead of pushing the pathos, Kreitzer chooses to let the play rest as a study, a moving “what if” exploration of her subject’s plea of self-defense.

As the Coroner explains of her own craft: “I didn’t come to this job with fancy ideas about justice. The … orderliness appealed to me. The ability to find truths. Add detail upon detail, layering to conclusion.” The same might be said of Kreitzer’s approach to her material.

SELF DEFENSE completes Kreitzer’s “Women Who Kill” triptych. The first of these plays, Valerie Shoots Andy, delves into Valerie Solanas’s attempted assassination of Andy Warhol. The second, Heroin/e (Keep Us Quiet), features Ellie Nesler, the California woman who put five bullets into her son’s molester—as the man was testifying in court.

Says Kreitzer of her penchant for murderous women: “…now that I’ve gotten the body count up to seven, I think this is really the end, at least for a while. I think in the final analysis these women attract me because violence is so far from my personal experience, is somehow unthinkable to me. And because in telling the stories of women, we don’t just need heroes, we also need outlaws.”

SELF DEFENSE or death of some salesmen

Written by Carson Kreitzer, directed by Randy White. With Carolyn Baeumler, Stephen Bradbury, Carolyn DeMerice, Dan Illian, Lynne McCollough, Dee Pelletier, Melle Powers, Mark Zeisler. At HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue (between Spring and Broome) May 25 to June 15, 8:30 pm. $15 weeknights, $18 Fridays & Saturdays. Mondays and that Tuesday matinee: pay what you will (at the door only). Tickets: 212-647-0202 or www.here.org

Contributor

Emily DeVoti

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