How does a woman make sense of the experiences that have shaped her— the painful, the wondrous, and the downright awkward? This question is at the heart of Ming Peiffer’s Usual Girls, which paints an unfiltered and deeply personal portrait of growing up female and Asian-American. Directed by Tyne Rafaeli, the production—which opens November 5—has already sold out its extended run at Roundabout’s Underground theatre, marking not only Peiffer’s professional debut, but the first time in Underground history that a show has sold out prior to its opening night.
But Usual Girls didn’t always look like the play currently debuting Off-Broadway. In fact, the earliest draft told a completely different story. When Peiffer first started writing it, during her final year in Columbia’s Playwriting MFA program, Usual Girls was a play inspired by the allegations of sexual misconduct against Dov Charney, the former owner of American Apparel. Midway through her process, Peiffer began to question her impulse to center a play about the way women were treated on a man. “I started to investigate what might have made me think that that was the more interesting story,” says the playwright.
The realization that Peiffer was writing the play she felt “other people wanted [her] to write,” versus telling the story that mattered to her most, was the moment she allowed herself to delve into a more personal exploration of the themes and ideas that initially inspired the first draft. “I recoiled from the original play that I was writing, and [a new version] almost just spewed out,” says Peiffer. “Even as I realized that I was going to some very deep, dark, and uncomfortable places, by that point I was already going—there was an energy attached to it that I didn’t want to stop.”
It’s thanks to this that Usual Girls feels refreshingly adventurous in its depiction of girlhood and female sexuality. Think elementary school girls “dry humping” their teddy bears before curiously turning to each other and wondering what it would mean to play “girlfriends.”
“I just want to show that women are sexual beings outside of the way I feel we’re traditionally shown,” explains Peiffer. “One of the things that I challenged myself with in writing this play was: Can you write a female story where there’s no love interest? I feel like that’s often the way in which we’re accessing female sexuality.”
Usual Girls is also the story of what it means to reconcile with the trauma of assault, and in the age of #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReportIt, what could be more pertinent? “A number of women have come up to me [after the show] and just started crying,” says Peiffer. “We just hug each other and both cry. We don’t even say anything.
“The narrative that surrounds rape can be a very narrow one, but the more we’re hearing from people, the more we’re realizing [that there are] variations of these experiences,” says the playwright. “It is such a common experience among women, and it’s not because of ‘one night going out and having too much to drink,’ it’s because of a lifetime of being told that you need to act a certain way, that things that happened to you aren’t a big deal…it’s all these moments that lead you to question your own personal life experience.”
The #MeToo movement has not just influence audience reaction, it shaped the play. In 2017, during a workshop of Usual Girls, the playwright toyed with the idea of a more hopeful ending in the face of what was then a burgeoning movement. But as she went into rehearsals for her world premiere this fall, in the midst of the allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Peiffer made the decision to revert back to her original ending.
“There was an ending that was more hopeful, but I felt that that was dangerous to do during this time,” she says. “People need to realize that what’s going on is wrong. I didn’t want to create a piece of art that made audiences leave patting themselves on the back. Because I don’t think we are moving in the right direction yet.
“Yes, it made me go the more devastating and the more angry route,” says Peiffer. “But honestly, it’s the more truthful route.”
Usual Girls is playing at Roundabout Underground through December 16. Click here for more information.