Ancient Goddesses, Theatrical Collaboration and Intersectional Feminism Come to the Rescue the Summer of the Pandemic

Domnica Radulescu
14 min readAug 1, 2020
MAMA-WATA — Complex water spirit/goddess from parts of the African continent

In the midst of the long hot summer of the pandemic, in the small southern town where I have lived for the better part of three decades and where recent debates over shedding the heavy robes of the confederacy have made the news, both locally and nationally, I have just completed what may have been one of the most artistically riveting weeks in my recent memory: a writing retreat and feminist artistic collaboration with two dear women friends and theater artists. Yes, in person, with social distancing and masks while working mostly outdoors in my own back yard. We had been planning for this theatrical project for months and when the pandemic and lock-down hit, we did not get discouraged and decided to go ahead with our in person gathering while following all safety guidelines. One of the three collaborators arrived from New York, the other from the DC area and I couldn’t have been happier to be able to lodge them at one of our luscious and hospitable bed and breakfast inns in town.

We gathered most mornings on the shaded patio in my back yard even when the outside temperature was in the nineties. We resumed work in the afternoon, took our meals together, swam at the local pool, danced, and performed rituals for the new moon in the evening and created the entire scaffolding of a new play for the theater. After the months of zooming inside our respective homes, working in the company of dear friends and colleagues surrounded by trees, flowers and a vegetable garden, feeling the sun and breeze and hearing the songs of the many varieties of Virginia birds felt divine. And that is because indeed it was. Only a different kind of divinity.

Between Despair and Hope, Trauma and Healing — Choosing Artistic Expression as Resistance

Our project is titled “Moon Drops. A Play of Goddesses and Valiant Women.” An earlier and longer subtitle was “Channeling and Healing Trauma through Theater.” The project emerged from our own persistent and wrenching questions about trauma and about the state of the world: what are the most productive strategies for healing trauma, are deep traumas such as loss of loved ones, domestic and sexual abuse, displacement, even healable? How can we save the earth and slow down the devastation of climate change? And in the very center of the entire project the question of all questions: can human beings change for the greater good?

Among the three of us women artists of different backgrounds and origins, we are in the possession of a rich collection of traumas: past, recent and intergenerational, professional, political and personal, anything from surviving political oppression and immigration to loss of country, family members, to degrees of abuse, harassment and assault, to a panoply of microaggressions at all levels of personal and professional life. We might say that the sum of our experiences forms an intersectional quilt of sexism, racism, classism, xenophobia. All three of us have worked in both the theater arts and in education for a combined 70 years, across several countries, languages, and cultures. Throughout our lives and careers, we have consistently found glimmers of hope, strategies of survival, languages of resistance and as the feminist performance theorist Jill Dolan once put it, “intimations of a better world” (Utopia in Performance. Finding Hope at the Theater, 2005) in the creation, practice, and education through theater arts.

Throughout much of our work and practice of living we have greedily absorbed multilayered and intersectional forms of feminist thought. We have sought to weave multilayered connections with the oldest myths of humanity centered on the celebration of female power and energies, and that reveal societies engaged in complex matriarchal economies. Goddess and wiccan culture, ancient female-based mythologies and beliefs make some white feminist academics roll their eyes in derision as if such perspectives and areas of knowledge were not worthy of serious feminist theories and consideration. So be it, the aloofness often found among white feminist academics is not anything the three of us had not dealt with in the past and that we would be intimidated by. More importantly though and beyond any academic politics, we felt there could be no better moment to explore ancient as well and still existing female based mythologies and cultures than our present moment, plagued as it is by many forms of toxic masculinity and failed patriarchal systems of governance.

We planned to co-create a multidimensional and shape shifting play that would ask all the questions mentioned above into one drama with goddesses, humans, and natural elements as characters. And we found motivation for our project in our own collective experiential knowledge that the telling of stories, the channeling of trauma and the resistance to violence through the creative imagination can have profound transformative and healing effects while also inspiring to action for social justice. As the British award-winning playwright and director Julia Pascal has noted: “The theatre is a serious, international political platform. It is a parliament of the arts, a form of soft power and a cultural territory as important as any physical land mass” (In the April 29th, 2019 issue of The Guardian). Her statement is part of a larger article on the lack of gender equity and scarcity of plays written by women on British stages, scarcity which is representative of most American and Western theaters as well.

We were also motivated in the collaborative creation of this project by our own frustrations at the exclusion of women’s voices from American stages and the relentless slew of rejections that our own works have received from theaters, publishers, producers over the years. Various statistics have shown that most plays on American stages are still authored by white men (approx. 80% based on most studies). Some theaters and women playwrights’ organizations are setting new gender parity rules, with some visible results but hardly enough (such as the International Center for Women Playwrights, The League of Professional Theater Women). The scarcity and exclusion of women and people of color on American stages reflect only too well the exclusion and scarcity of women and people of color in government, and leadership positions everywhere in our society. Julia Pascal’s article continues in the following vein: “With this abnegation of female flair audiences are robbed of the full human story. These audiences are 65% female. […] When women’s human rights are acknowledged on the English stage, and when theatres are equally shared among expert professionals of both genders, only then can we say that our theatre is truly national and democratic.” Indeed, when the theater stages and the stage that is the world exclude the voices and representation of more than half of its population, everybody is “robbed of the full human story.” The result is … well the state of the world as we have it, more specifically, the state of the United States as a dystopian country run by a dictator whose malignant energies and actions exceed even those of the dictator of my native country that I ran away from more than three decades ago. And inversely, when theater/world governments “are shared equally” among both genders across all racial, ethnic and sexual identity divides, “only then can we say that our theater”/world “is truly democratic.”

A model for intersectional feminist leadership and being in the world

The structure of our play is multilayered and framed as an ancient drama or epic literary work with the human and divine lives and stories interwoven with one another. But it is also quite different from any dramatic models known to us, as it simultaneously tries to create an aesthetic that mirrors a new way of being in the world and that just might offer a possibility of turning things around through female leadership, collaboration and power. At one level we have the characters of the goddesses who gather in a council to discuss the state of the world and decide whether to continue to help humanity or let it perish. At the other level we have a group of women who meet in a treatment center situated in a small southern town, to heal deep traumas of violence against their bodies and souls, discrimination based on their race, class, nationality or sexual identity. The goddesses decide to base their decision on examples drawn from this group of women- from among the most downtrodden and marginalized. They realize the solutions for achieving social equity and saving humanity must come from the oppressed and not from the privileged imposing their views of what they think oppressed people might need. The goddesses listen in to the women’s stories and look for signs of goodness, selflessness, for small and large gestures of change and self-sacrifice, for examples of understanding and self-awareness, and for models of a different kind of leadership. They find them in both every day small actions and in larger heroic gestures.

When I say goddesses, you might of course be thinking Aphrodite, Demeter, Athena, the Greco-Roman pantheon. But you would be wrong because those are not our main goddess protagonists. This is also where the Eurocentric person that I tend to be expanded my universe towards an intersectional understanding of cultures and mythologies thanks to the knowledge and creativity of my two collaborators. Our goddesses are African (Tiamat, Mama-Wata, Yemaya), Asian (Quan-Yin), South American (Pachamama), Hindu (Kali), and one Western representative (Selene, the moon goddess with ancient non-Western roots in most world mythologies). Most of them are deities of water, rain, of peoples who travel on water, or govern the sea tides. We considered the importance of the preservation of the world’s water resources and the planetary devastation as one of the main themes of the play. One is also a goddess of compassion; one can change genders and expands to a third gender. They are lesser known figures from the pantheon of world female divinities. Lesser known in the Western world that is. Some are much older than the well-known western goddesses. Some represent disappearing, endangered, or oppressed populations across the globe.

African Goddess Yemoja, also Yemaya, Nigerian goddess of the oceans. Came to the Americas via slave ships.

In parallel with our goddess choices, we brought to life human female characters among the groups somewhat comparable to the goddesses: women of color from different nationalities and ethnicities from a Roma (“Gypsy”) woman with powers of divination and survivor of sex trafficking, to North African and African American women with wrenching stories of abuse, displacement and loss, to an impoverished white lesbian, to a white woman of means with her own set of traumas, from a trans woman of color with visionary abilities, to a physically disabled woman with a luminous personality.

Our collaborative play does not have a Hollywood happy ending but neither does it have a hopeless ending. Rather it has several endings that illustrate various transformations at both the personal and the group levels. And will the goddesses be convinced to save the world based on our protagonists’ behavior and actions? You will just have to see the play whenever that will be, on Zoom, but preferably in person in a near future. More than the ending(s) though it is the process of developing the play that has been the most enlightening and has offered me most glimpses into the possibility of different kinds of leadership, functioning, and being in the world. We explored in theory and practice the soft power of leading by collaboration and consensus, the insights and practices of intersectional feminism that invites everybody to the table. Once established, it was our characters that started taking us in the directions of their unique choices and destinies. And we let them.

As we crafted our scenes and developed our characters and plot, we struggled with key questions such as: “what distinguishes women’s leadership from men’s? What are the characteristics of effective leadership by women? How can we define a specifically female type of leadership and functioning without falling into essentialist stereotypes of the type that women are “care takers” and self-sacrifice for the greater good more than men do? What exactly is soft power? Humanity has seen, lived and witnessed the resounding failure of patriarchal forms of leadership throughout the millennia. It is those types of leadership that have brought Mother earth to her wounded knees and the world’s population to an ominous division between the one percenters, and the struggling rest. Hoping to obtain radically different outcomes by using different versions of the same methods is an exercise in absurdity. What works then? It is one of the questions this theatrical project keeps posing to its audiences.

We looked at the most recent world crisis — the Covid 19 pandemic. Seven countries in the world have the least number of cases, the least deaths and have controlled the spread of the virus. They are all lead by women: Germany (Angela Merkel), Iceland (Katrín Jakobsdóttir), Taiwan (Tsai Ing-wen), Finland (Sanna Marin), Norway (Erna Solberg), Denmark (Mette Frederiksen), New Zealand (Jacinda Ardern) (see The April 13 issue of Forbes, and the May 18th issue of the New York Times). The secret of these female leaders? Telling the scientific truth about the virus, taking immediate measures and being decisive, engaging in clear and unequivocal communication with the people, using technology in the service of the people, and yes, a strategy often considered “feminine,” or “maternal,” or even “corny:” love and empathy for the people under their leadership. It also so happens these are among the countries with some of the strictest environmental policies, as well as effective social services. Love of Mother Earth and love of the people inhabiting her are organically connected.

Even though women are far from forming a critical mass among the world’s leaders and for that reason, statistics and statements about women’s superior leadership can be seen as skewed (see the article by Hilda Bastian in the July 1st issue of Wired) the fact of the matter does remain that these women leaders use new and even unprecedented forms of leadership that do work for the common good of the people. And the fact that there are also ineffective women leaders out there as well as excellent male leaders who make use of soft power, does not in the least contradict or dismiss the value of these examples. For instance, Barack Obama often used soft power and chose diplomacy and negotiation rather than the use of force” while Margaret Thatcher led more with the notorious “iron fist.” They were each damned by critics and opponents, one for being weak, the other for trying to be “like a man.” Inversely, the countries with the worst outcomes during the corona virus pandemic are undeniably the ones led by strongmen indulging in dictatorial and fascist discourses, actions, and policies. One of them occupies the White House, another the Kremlin, another is conducting a silent genocide of indigenous people in Brazil, the list goes on and on. They are also all at war with environmental regulations, they have no qualms about allowing corporations to rape the earth with sinister deforestation, opening indigenous protected areas to industrial development and mining. It is all interconnected: the care for one’s people and for the earth that the people inhabit.

In our explorations and collaborative creation, we journeyed back in time to the beginnings of humanity, all the way to the Neolithic era and to the civilizations based on goddess and mother cults. As discoveries of Maria Gimbutas have demonstrated, there were such goddess and woman centered civilizations that functioned on a matriarchal model of economical and political leadership. The artifacts of these civilizations show no signs of war and violence, a harmonious division of labor between men and women and a prosperous economy (The Language of the Goddess 1989, The Civilization of the Goddess, 1991). Because yes, guess what? Both men and women are better served under such forms of leadership. Similarly, the paintings and sculptures in the prehistoric caves of South Western France such as the ones in Les Eyzies depict no violent scenes. The sight of such a painting many years ago has left a lasting impression on my psyche and imagination forever: it is a painting of two animals that could be the ancestors of today’s deer; they are touching their tongues as if in the prehistoric animal version of a French kiss. I still try to imagine the humans who some thirty thousand years ago, at the light of the flickering flames inside their cave habitations were painting the animals of their time with such devastating beauty and tenderness.

Transformative connections and the dream of a feminine/feminist future

On the penultimate day of our retreat we gave a front porch staged reading/performance of our first draft of the play. One of the three audience members we invited was a brilliant young environmentalist who has recently moved to our “cute little” southern town for a job with the department of drinking water. She had stories to tell from her research in the field, about how precious drinking water is and how many people live with limited or no access to clean drinking water in this rich country of ours, even amidst the beautiful rolling hills of the Virginia Appalachians. It also so happened that while one of the actresses was reading the story of our Black Trans woman character who, in a moment of utter despair, finds comfort in the encounter with the water goddess Yemaya emerging from the river, a furious torrential rain started outside. We continued the reading through the storm unflinchingly for a while until we had to move inside for the remaining of the reading.

Many connections between our work, our emotional state, our artistic visions and the nature and elements around us were created throughout our week long collaboration. Could it be that having opened ourselves to the energies of the nature surrounding us and to each other we might have intuited and connected with those energies more profoundly than ever before? Could it be that being in tune with the moon cycles, with the nature that surrounds us, with our own bodies and minds in a holistic manner, one is bound to experience the power of one’s humanity, naturalness, femaleness in an intense and transformative way? Why would that be unbelievable? After all a considerable part of the world has bowed for a couple of thousand years to a religion that believes in talking snakes and bushes, the creation of the human female through the parthenogenesis of the male, virgin births and strolling on the surface of water. All while engaging in unspeakable massacres, wars, genocides in the names of those very beliefs.

Our play project is far from perfect, and still very much work in progress. But in its making I have acquired glimpses into new possibilities of being in the world, new strategies of leadership, a thrilling re acquaintance with nature and respect for the forces that govern it and a new understanding of what works in creating well-functioning communities and what doesn’t. Not to mention that I was strengthened in my belief that the “future is feminine.” The memory of a feminine past is too faraway to make a difference to most people and the patriarchal past offers for the most part a poor example of harmony and well being. But as one of our characters says: “we can’t undo the past, all we have is now.” Indeed, we have “now” to try the recipe of success of those seven countries led by women and make it more the norm rather than the exception. And in the process of this venture, I never forget the power of the arts and of the creative imagination to bring us to a deeper understanding of the complexities and intersections of the stage that is our world.

Council of the Goddesses — Pre-Cucuteni civilization, 4900–4750 BC. Museum of History and Archaeology, Piatra Neamt, Romania.

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Domnica Radulescu

Domnica Radulescu is Professor of Comparative Literature and Gender Studies. She is the author of three critically acclaimed novels and award winning plays.