Irreverent humor possesses the surprising ability to to smooth over the rougher edges of social interaction. In the right setting, a dirty joke can break the ice, dissolve an awkward silence and potentially win over that stoic father-in-law that seems intent on disliking you. But what happens when a derisive punchline or two enables people across social boundaries to come together and address the concerns of the global community? Dirty Joke by Jennifer Blaine proposes to do exactly that. Reviving the role of Ruth, an elderly woman with a knack for potty humor, Blaine portrays eight real-life superwomen (and one man), and together, they intend to save us all.
Describe the show in your own words.
Dirty Joke stars Ruth, my elderly Jewish grandmother, who tells dirty jokes. As she faces displacement from her home, she is visited by eight real-life superwomen, seven women and one man, who have overcome the impossible, innovated to change the world, using their superpowers. As the show progresses, Ruth faces major societal issues with her blend of irreverence and depth through song, dance and dirty jokes. In the course of the show, she becomes activated: She realizes she is not done yet with life and forges on to see how she might change the world too.
What was your inspiration for this project?
My grandfather told dirty jokes to me from the time I was 4. I always knew they were naughty, but in the character Ruth’s mouth, they become transgressive, and I wanted to see how dirty jokes could be an engine for social justice. I have been performing this character in various contexts for 17 years. I wanted to see what her deeper story might be. The inspiration for the show also stems out of my artistic relationship with my director, Vashti Dubois (pictured, right). We have the most amazing conversations, and I wanted to pay tribute to how Vashti pulls me through my own dark and doubting moments with her insights and brilliance. The superwomen do that for Ruth, who, in turn, does that for us. I want to both inspire and entertain, and this show is my way of doing that.
Describe the nature of your artistic background.
I knew I wanted to be an actress from the time I was 7 and told “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allen Poe and freaked out my classmates. That attention was electrifying to me. I grew up in NYC and went to Stuyvesant HS, for the gifted math and science geeks, but delighted in performing on the speech and debate team, where I got to act out plays in 10-minute segments. College was Wesleyan University, where my director, Vashti, and I became friends. While there, I started to write about one-woman shows for my senior thesis. When it came time to graduate, I realized I was going to do this one-woman show thing. Three years later, I produced my first original one-woman show on Theatre Row in NYC.Over the subsequent 18 years, I have continued to develop new characters and material. It took me a while to learn how to be funny—I wanted to be deep and change the world!—but over time, I kept experimenting and growing. I love Philadelphia because it is where I found my audience, people who want to laugh and think deeply. I am so grateful for the amazing relationship I have built over time with my audience and feel soul satisfaction when they laugh at me.
What was/is the most difficult aspect of portraying several characters, particularly those with an established image within society?
It was and is daunting to step into their shoes. I want to do them justice, and I find them so awe-inspiring. Over time, I realized that it is their personal stories, their private moments that make them who they are. I can relate to their frustrations and longing to create new moments, new thoughts, new solutions in the world. I also realized that it is Ruth relating to them, and not me, and she is sometimes goofy, sometimes tone deaf (not to mention deaf), and even disrespectful. That gave me levels to work with. And yet, to do a real life character, one must do a lot of research and practice them and discover a version of that person inside ourselves. So I took one step after another until I arrived at each of their doorsteps.
How do you think your character would fare in a conversation over coffee with the president of the United States?
Considering Obama’s grandmother looked a lot like Ruth, I think he would feel right at home with her. I do think she would make him blush several times, but I also think he’d be happy to continue to spend time with her and would have a hard time cutting off the dirty jokes to attend to foreign policy. She would probably use the jokes as a Trojan horse to talk about more substantive issues, like why when education is so dear to him, he is not tackling that more, but then ask how it is he gets away with patting his wife Michelle’s tush in public.
Dirty Joke runs Sept. 14, 15, & 17. Times vary. $20, $15 students. The Off Broad Street Theater, 1636 Sansom Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103. fringearts.ticketleap.com/dirty-joke