Theater production explores women battling glass ceiling

Cast members from "What We're Up Against."
Cast members from "What We're Up Against."
Image Credit: Sarah Anderson

A play by the Grand Valley theater program set in the 1990s has themes about the challenges of women in the workplace that may resonate in today's world, said one of the student cast members.

Justin Helou is one of the performers in "What We're Up Against," a dark comedy from acclaimed playwright Theresa Rebeck that shows audiences the systemized challenges faced by women in that era, particularly in male-dominated professions.

Helou, who is a marketing major with a minor in theater, said his first impression when reading the play was how strongly it addressed power distribution and respect in the workplace. Then, it started to hit him more deeply.

"I didn't realize how much it would resonate with my major," Helou said. "In my business ethics class the themes we talk about are very present in the show."

The play explores the largely subtle ways that have led to women being undermined, said Karen Libman, professor of theater and director of the performance.

"It's not about the sexual harassment in the news a lot right now, which is more overt," Libman said. "This is about the kind of generalized obstacles that people who have not generally been included in the workplace find when they get into an environment they haven't been in."

The show runs from November 15-24 at the Haas Center for Performing Arts, Keller Black Box Theatre. For more information click here.

Set in an architecture firm, the conversational, lively play explores issues such as women struggling to find a voice, dealing with diverging gender standards on acceptable communication styles and having misgivings as women at the firm find different paths navigating the environment, Libman said.

The play resonates with all age groups and has been especially enlightening for Helou and the other four actors who have heard from those who were part of underrepresented groups during that era, she said. 

In fact, Helou is excited about a plan for the cast to perform scenes in some business classes, with a discussion afterward. He said he is intrigued by issues such as how an employee who takes an ethical stand may also put status, a bonus or even a job in jeopardy.