Bilabials and Fricatives are collections of short plays by the poet, playwright, and speech language pathologist Cesi Davidson. They are also the final two works in Davidson’s trilogy of plays published by feminist SF press Aqueduct, the first of which is Articulation (2019). Each collection is able to stand on its own, as can the many plays inside, but I believe these two latter works are the strongest in the trilogy: together and apart, they display the evident vocal and poetic talent of the playwright, while also emphasizing the need for theatre in the modern world. After emerging from our pandemic isolation-cocoon, it’s a lesson that we should learn—and what better way to learn the joys of theatre than from a woman who has written about an army of peas fighting for life and liberation? From the serious to the comic, to the tragic and utterly bizarre, Davidson’s plays take her audience on a romp through several oscillating landscapes populated by heartwarming and strange characters, to ultimately make a final point about the need for human connection and community. How we move from one place to another is through the mechanism of language, the ins and outs of which Davidson knows quite well.
Let’s start with her titles: articulation, fricatives, and bilabials are all terms derived from a career in speech pathology (or linguistics, which is where I had heard of them). As she writes in the epigraph for Fricatives: “fricatives force change / through a narrow channel.” Similarly, in Bilabials, she writes: “Bilabials require two lips.” Before we reach the official page one, then, Davidson treats language as a character in her story. This character requires specific kinds of support and assistance in order to fully bloom on the page/stage. “Bilabials” and “fricatives” are also terms that require performance; they lack meaning until a person with lips and a voice can push air through a body in order to make something happen. This layered meaning of the titles alone becomes deeper as we dive into the content of these works.
Since producing bilabials requires a pair of lips, each one of these plays requires two of something (like lips, a couple, a bilingual identity, etc.) to make something interesting happen; or they have solo speakers who must go on and on in order to make their point; or they are referring to other lips in other fun ways. The interpretations are endless—and yet they are also quite specific. Davidson is not just throwing things at the wall to make them stick; she is delicate and deliberate with her narrative choices, along with her stage direction.
She also knows how and when to have fun. Language is about beauty and making wonderful words, but to Davidson it’s also gross and lewd, since we can spit and shout and tremble with the same lips we kiss and make meaning with. Davidson’s playful language choices can also be applied to her characters. It truly is quite lovely to both read and hear these people speak. For instance, take this rather simple set up for the play “Juicy” and then compare it to the true heart of the conversation:
Springtime. Park bench. New York City.
LEE (looking straight ahead): Lovely day.
KAREN (looking straight ahead): Yes it is … a lovely day.
(Lee and Karen look at each other. They penetrate each other with their eyes. Movement in unison. Lee takes two plums from a paper bag. He holds them with a single cupped hand with parted legs next to his genitals. Karen takes plums from her paper bag. She holds one in each hand next to the nipples of her breasts. Then in unison they place the fruit on the park table in front of them.)
LEE: I always wash my hands before I eat plums. A lot of men don’t do that you know. I think it’s respectful.
KAREN: Women appreciate when a man washes his hands first. I know I do.
Suddenly, a banal and boring park bench conversation (about the weather, no less, and starring a woman named Karen of all names) becomes sexy. Deliberately so, and quite ridiculously so. A little later on, Davidson writes:
LEE: (Indicates the other plum on the table) I would hold the plum gently for a few minutes until it felt warm and comfortable in my hands. Then I would softly and patiently caress the flesh from all directions. Being very sensitive. I would touch one part, watch for a response, then caress again depending on how the flesh reacted. You know…if the flesh sprang back or retracted in my fingers. It’s all about communication with your fruit. I think that’s where most men go wrong. They stop communicating with the fruit.
Then I would take my thumb and my index finger and insert them in the front and in the back at the same time. I would move my fingers in motion together like I was composing a song. I’d move my fingers fast, slow, faster, slower, faster, faster, faster.
KAREN: (Vocal expression)
LEE & KAREN: JUICY
Both Lee and Karen quickly descend into rapid fixation with these plums, sharing an orgasmic moment (which is actually written in the stage directions as “orgasmic") as they eat the fruit and cry out, “juicy.” Several times.
That’s basically the play: two ordinary people have an extraordinary encounter (in fact, a couple of them). It’s the premise of every single hero’s quest, more or less. To place this archetypal narrative in New York City makes sense. To have erotic romance as the subtext makes sense. But starting it off with a conversation about the weather? That’s Bad Writing 101, right? If you start anything with a description of the weather, you should begin again.
Cesi Davidson does not begin again. In fact, she puts the weather conversation in the first play in her collection. Why? Because she knows deep down that language is deceptive. It’s ornate and wonderful and useful, yet it only gets that way if you use it, and use it correctly. You only know the eroticism of the plum when you eat it. And then if you actually speak about that experience of juiciness rather than letting it all dry up. She puts this revelation in Karen’s last piece of dialogue as she states:
KAREN: Yes I know. Forget it. Forget about me. I’m going to start eating dried fruit. Juicy fruit is over rated. Maybe I’ll start eating prunes. It’ll keep me from getting constipated, like some people. When you’re constipated you have a whole lot stuck up your… (Begins to exit, then looks back at Lee) I wish your Mom all the best.
(Karen exits. Lee watches her leave. He picks up one of the plums he bought for Karen and eats the juicy plum.)
End of Play
Karen may get the last word here, but Lee gets the last plum. Which is also the final “word” as well.
Part of me wants to use this entire short play as a way to explain denotation and connotation to my students, in addition to subtext and context. All of this from a few pages! I write at length of this play in particular (though there are many in both works I’m reviewing here, as well as in the other work Articulation) because I think it truly does what Davidson’s plays do best: they play. She plays—with language and objects and identities and meanings. In doing so, she creates interesting and well-rounded characters in banal and strange situations.
The rest of the plays in Bilabials are not quite as racy as this one, but they are definitely playful, even a little flirty. I can easily point to the plays “Recreational Panties” and “Below the Waist” as examples; I also quite like the work “Con Cuidado,” since this play plays with the idea of having two native tongues (and all the double entendres it can produce). In many ways, I think it’s Bilabials that’s my favourite out of the trilogy; the word is obscure and oblique (I actually thought it was Biblioasis when I first obtained a copy, and was in for a rude awakening from what I thought it was going to be about), but Davidson’s coyness won me over. I liked these plays and, even more, I wanted to see them performed. Since the stage direction is so limited and quite clear when it is on the longer side, and the language is already quite interesting, it’s perfect for acting out. And it’s short enough for students and kids. Just be careful about the double entendres you hand to them.
Fricatives, however, is not without its charm. It’s probably best for use as an actual “teaching tool” since Fricatives, while still remaining playful, has the more politically aware and deliberately outspoken moments and monologues. Since fricatives “force change / through a narrow passage,” that thesis statement should be quite obvious. Rather than toying with our desire, Davidson toys with our morality and sense of justice, along with the barriers and boundaries of speech and who we must speak with. For example, the audience in this collection is far more prominent than it was in Bilabial. While all plays are inherently about their audience—why else would there be several different endings to some of Shakespeare’s plays?—each question or quandary that these characters go through now feel like a direct fourth-wall break, even in the silliest of plays, “Pasta Mob,” which starts this collection.
"Pasta Mob” is almost exactly what it sounds like: each character is a type of pasta, and it’s the mob vs. the “NYPDLMOP” as they try to solve a crime. Almost nothing in this play seems remotely serious. The characters’ names are silly and dumb; the lead is literally eating breadsticks from her pockets like they’re cigarettes and this is a noir flick. And since every play comes with a cast of characters and directions, there is no way to not think this play is an absurdist version of a carb-happy Law and Order writer. As Davidson writes:
Detective Escarola Bean Manicotti: Female officer of the law
Checky Ravioli: Sexy female thug/mobster, Cheeky’s cousin
Cheeky Ravioli: Sexy female thug/mobster, Checky’s cousin
New York City
Circa today, tomorrow, yesterday
(The curtains on the stage are drawn closed. Downstage, Detective Escarola Bean Manicotti stands under a streetlight. She wears a trench coat and hat. Her pockets are filled with garlic knots and bread sticks. In front of the curtain, there are two chairs. Checky and Cheeky Ravioli sit on the chairs holding bouquets of flowers. An enormous white bridal veil covers their faces and torsos.)
Ridiculous, right? But then you read it. And then you understand it’s more serious than you first gave it credit for.
The next play, “Scars to Remember” performs a similar bait-and-switch. At first, it sounds very serious, only to then be undercut by the cute food names most of the cast has (Cookie and Cupcake and so on). These first two plays are only minor examples of Davidson’s tonal shifts, but they are fantastic examples of another common element in her works: food. Over and over again, food appears and takes lead roles; and if people are in the play, they are often named after food—especially if they are in a disadvantageous position. While the food theme was present in Bilabials—in “Juicy” most of all—those were fun romps with food. Sexy and goofy times.
This is not sexy now. This is quite serious. And since mouths eat as well as speak, I can’t help but think that Davidson’s making a point about what we devour in terms of our media, and our plate, and then what we do with it afterwards. What sort of audience (consumer) do you want to be? What are you doing to force change through narrow passages? Are you going to be part of the problem or will you—and the person next to you in this audience—also speak up? Will you remain silent and eat up instead?
This connection between speaking and eating is made that much more evident in “Moo Better Blues,” a play about a talking cow and the ethics of the meat industry. After Daisy is discovered to have the ability of speech, the entire meat industry changes. Take this brief exchange between Daisy the talking cow and her slaughter advisor, Derrick.
DERRICK: I’m so fascinated with you Daisy. If only clean living could explain your intelligence, this would be a simple slaughter advisement meeting. Heck … you’re the reason I have this job. If it weren’t for you I’d still be on the minimum wage butcher line in the factory cutting up steaks.
DAISY: Is this the part of the slaughter consultation when I say, you’re welcome?
DERRICK: Daisy … family owned and nurtured cows are nothing new. But the discovery of your remarkable intelligence has completely revolutionized the cow slaughter industry. I mean, Daisy … there wouldn’t be slaughter advisers if it weren’t for you, and I the first slaughter adviser in the industry.
DAISY: How nice for you! For me … this consultation is just about my life and death story.
Daisy’s lines are harsh and realistic, while everyone else seems to be concerned with the double-edged sword of magic and the bureaucracy that comes with any new discovery under capitalism. Most of the play revolves around Daisy deciding how to die, rather than saving her life. While all the points Daisy makes about ethics here are true, and the cow is given some agency I’ve not seen before in other works, there is just a hint of stereotype in this piece that I struggle with. Davidson, at least, is aware of a lot of this heavy-handedness and makes reference to some of it in the play; but I still think she’s just one step from naming the cow Elsie and reciting Old MacDonald. Especially when as a reader you lack the nuance of performers and theatre, some of this play’s points can be harder to take seriously.
Regardless of the themes these collections tackle, or how they tackle them, both Bilabials and Fricatives (and Articulation) return to the core message that we need one another. This need is as obvious as it is dangerous, since this urge can devour us, unless we find the words to speak. As Davidson states in her final acknowledgements for Fricatives, “Theatre exists because community exists. We need storytelling and the social interaction it generates for maintaining our humanity.”
I could not agree more. Since many of these plays involve minimal sets, few characters, and even shorter lines to remember (or funny ones that make them easier to remember), it means that Davidson’s words aren’t trite. She knows the value of theatre because she has been there, and these plays ring true (or funny or lewd) because these plays have been performed. (Davidson mentions several actors and performers who helped her in the construction of these plays and collections in her acknowledgements.) Because these plays did not exist in isolation, Davidson’s prose has been finessed in the best way possible. By working together to perform the plays, she and her actors have revised words into a collaborative tool. They formed a community, and in doing so, they also offered entertainment mixed among the various double entendres.
As much as I like these collections, I must admit they were not what I expected at first. So I must warn other readers: if you’re thinking that these short plays will give you a taste of a sci-fi pulp variety hour, you would be wrong. The SFF content of Davidson’s work here was quite light. Though I dislike Margaret Atwood’s assertion that science fiction must have space travel and Martians in order to make it fit the genre expectations, there were a few plays that left me wondering how this work could have been published at an SFF publication. Sure, there are numerous bizarre scenarios that involve talking peas or cows, but this work feels far more existential than speculative. Many of these plays are like the feminist version of Waiting for Godot (1953), or an off-beat Vagina Monologues (1996) rather than stories about speculative futures. These plays are talking about the present (sometimes in that casual way “Pasta Mob” describes, “circa today, tomorrow, yesterday”) and the insanity of that present. They remind me more of Gogol’s “The Nose” (1836) than Asimov’s Foundation (1951). None of this is bad, but it can be a matter of taste and expectation. Just know, before you dive in, that this work is filled with magic realism, slipstream, and irreality, rather than straightforward SFF. It is also far more political than it is speculative.
Beyond this point to note, my only criticism of the works is minor, and has a lot to do with the fact that I read both play collections as I would have a book, rather than seeing them as plays as they should have been. The medium is the message, if we buy into Marshall McLuhan’s mantra (and I do), and so part of me knew that paper was never going to be as pleasurable as being on set. Even with this in mind, however, there were moments of complete blundering and utter confusion as I read along. Perhaps because I used the @Voice reader program to mimic the act of human voice, sure, but so many of these plays sounded like the B-plot for a zany American Dad episode. On the one hand, these stories were realistic and grappling with political and social issues with some satire and fun, but then there would be a random talking animal or food item that was not explained. Still entertaining, even with the confusion—but I soon found that I couldn’t read more than three plays in one day (each requiring about a half hour or so) before it became too much and a little nauseating. I could have probably managed more if I had seen them as plays, with intermissions, and an audience clapping (or being confused) along with me.
So while I can admit that my reading experience was not ideal—and that surely contributed to some of these plays sounding funny (and not in the good way I’ve outlined earlier)—I think the main thing that Davidson can be imprecise with is in her portrayal of the archetype vs. stereotype.
Most of us know what a stereotype is, but not many know that the word was derived from the literal type that printers used when they were recasting the same sequences of words, over and over again. (Similarly, cliché is the sound that keys made in the printer for commonly uttered phrases; and I’m just telling you this because I think it’s neat.) Stereotypes are common feelings, common characters—but precisely because they are so common, they can lose their creativity or be boiled down into obvious triteness (and they can also be quite offensive!). The talking cow play, “Moo Better Blues,” was one of those stereotype vs. archetype misreads for me—especially having spent my youth being misread as an angry vegan wearing a Meat is Murder shirt, and making many of the points Daisy makes in the play.
Meanwhile, the play “Baby Doll” (which directly precedes “Moo Better Blues") managed to move away from the stereotype and into archetype, through its depiction of a battered woman’s daily worries. Over the course of the play, the narrator, Baby Doll, speaks directly to the audience about her “daddy” Antoine and his love of shoes. As her monologue progresses, we realize she is being beaten by these shoes; then she lashes out by throwing several different kinds of shoe; and then she settles in for her next session with Antoine. To me, this play manages to take the very common victim archetype that we see in “Moo Better Blues” rendered more bluntly as a mere stereotype, and use that archetype to communicate a deeper message about gendered violence.
An archetype, for those who want a refresher, is a term popularized by Carl Jung about the nature of characters and narratives. An archetype is a common trope, expression, or idea that is part of the universal language of stories. For Jung, most people will have some interaction with and knowledge of the four main archetypes: child/spirit, trickster, mother, and rebirth. Archetypes are common, but they are not cliché. They are used by everyone, yet each person places their own distinct flare in their interpretation of a trickster or a mother. In the case of “Baby Doll” by Davidson, she evokes the role of victim with her character’s name, furthers it in her actions, and then yet subverts it in her final statement: “My destiny is in my hand. I’m ready. I wonder how Antoine will like my new shoes? I’m ready.”
After the standard “Lights out” stage direction, the play ends—but we are also given a production note that we’ve never seen before in any of the other works:
The audience sits in “stadium style.” The play is staged in the center. The audience can see the play and each other.
The audience represents the silent observers.
In performance, the present date is used.
By turning the play back onto the audience, Davidson delivers a holistic and interesting interpretation of the victim archetype in interpersonal conflicts. These situations are intimate and deeply familiar—yet they cannot involve only two people. They must involve a community. Now we see that community, and are forced to be part of it. So what are we going to do now? Will we speak? Or will we continue to look away and stay silent?
I think this play—and “Juicy” from Bilabial—are the stand-outs from Davidson’s collections, since I believe each one uses tropes and archetypes effectively and sincerely. But I also think “Baby Doll” stands out among all others because Davidson has provided audience instructions as a call-out. In doing so, she tells us where to sit, how to move our bodies—and in that way, we become like the actors as well. We become part of the show. And when we’re together, as all of Fricatives points out, it becomes a lot easier to force change.
My total experience reading Davidson, then, loops back around to the point she truly wants to make: we need theatre. We need people to bring us these stories. We need to be in the audience, part of the feeling, and playing back our own drama onto the stage. Or else we may be feeding our kids peas and feeling deeply unsettled, and then, tragically, never say anything about it.