Review: Downtown Players Club Makes a Raw Debut with Ladies First

The Evening's opening performance from Angela Bortone
The Evening's opening performance from Angela Bortone
The Evening's opening performance from Angela Bortone
The evening’s opening performance from Angela Bortone. Photo courtesy TLY Photography.

Broad Street buzzed with activity as Downtown Players Club made its debut.

Owned by Deer Bear Wolf’s Elizabeth Jarrett and Kris Pilcher of the Dream Collection Agency, the performance-based community center aims to accommodate writers and performers with rooms for events, rehearsals and private offices.

Co-Founder Jarrett welcomed patrons with a calm smile and a nod. Cool jazz played softly from the house speakers. The downstairs, a former dentist’s office, is a waiting room adorned with old Medicaid signs and a receptionist space destined to become a box office. The scent of new carpet filled the air. The second-floor performance space is a generous, post-industrial room with exposed wooden beams. The building’s inherited vintage suitcase display served a handful of cheap beers, wine and liquor. The only embellishment was the space’s logo, projected on one of two long walls and a single blue light that illuminated the stage, set for an evening of performance art.

The Variety Show: Ladies First (Who Run This Mother), the inaugural event, was the brainchild of Haylee Anne and Angela Bortone.

Sarah Shipman performing "Unto Others"
Sarah Shipman performing “Unto Others.” Photo courtesy TLY Photography.

The showcase — a female and non-cisgender variety show — featured nine separate acts that ranged in style “from absurdity to emotion to challenges,” according to Anne. She and Bortone initially planned for The Variety Show to be a one-off event, though a favorable response opened up the possibility of a seasonal show. In a city where art is often exhibited on the street or the gallery, these ladies wanted their event to be a blank slate “where performers can come and try something out or just perform something and make it regular, make it something that happens just as often as other art shows,” said Anne.

Despite the variety of in-town shows, there has been a scarcity of female-centric events in Atlanta’s history. But with the past year’s resurgence of Ladyfest and a “Girls” themed Zine Fest, the tide has been gradually turning. It is thus unsurprising that Ladies First drew a crowd of about 150 people.

Host Laura Lewis opened the show with a feminist rallying cry, going beyond setting the stage — she set the tone, along with some house rules: No catcalling and victim-blaming allowed. Some jokes were sharp, some tone-deaf, all the while she insisted the audience respond to “Who runs this mother?” with a loud, unanimous cry of, “Ladies First!” The energy in the air was infectious, evident by the crowds’ gleeful grins and devout attention.

Some pieces proved to be more accessible than others in their execution. In one of the more esoteric performances, Sarah Shipman struggled to untangle her legs from tightly wound fabric. While masked, she emitted high-pitched cries punctuated with the sounds of scissors opening and closing. The more she freed herself, the quieter her inner demons became. Though stirring, Shipman’s performance was intensely removed, which left the viewers feeling borderline voyeuristic.

Angela Davis Johnson continued a previous performance inspired by a dream of walking with her ancestors. But even without knowing its complete context, it was impossible to ignore the piece’s gauzy, ethereal atmosphere. She sang and danced while stunning portraits outlined in stars faded in and out of the background. Johnson was powerful, but not frantic; by the time she left, the audience was enamored.

Caldas' emotionally charged "Reframe"
Caldas’ emotionally charged “Reframe”

Without a doubt, Jessica Caldas was the crown jewel of the evening. She sat on the stage in a tank top and flesh-colored spandex shorts, snapping rubber bands against her arms and legs. She muttered self-deprecating comments while her 12-year-old sister, Shoshana, braided her hair. “I sleep too much!” “I’m weak!” “I’m useless!” The intensity of her self-loathing took us to a vulnerable, often unexamined, place. The muttering slowly graduated into panic as Shoshana weaved her way through the room whispering to the audience before rejoining her sister. While Caldas cried, Shoshana gently reminded her, “You’re enough.” The piece was a gut-wrenching display of the cruelty women show themselves regularly.

At close to four hours, The Variety Show left me satisfied but drained. Fewer artists would serve future shows well. Yet, Ladies First delivered exactly what it promised: a hearty, emotionally charged evening of dynamic performers that ran the gamut from raw expression to practiced theater.

The venue is something the arts community needed but didn’t know. Downtown Players Club will be idyllic for Atlanta’s developing artists: affordable, cushioned by other creative venues and run by invested peers, perfect for those just beginning to realize creative projects from conception to completion.

Read our story about artists working to transform the South Broad Street area into an arts district.

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