Jenny Rowe’s solo show Tiptree: No One Else’s Damn Secret But My Own is about a woman with many lives, who is best known for not being a man. With the simple set-up of Rowe against a black backdrop wearing a man’s white shirt, the venue’s small capacity works for her conversational, conspiratorial delivery. We are alone, bar a typewriter and a bottle of whisky, being trusted with secrets the narrator doesn’t care about keeping any more.
Engaging, affective and intimate, this one-woman show brings all of Alice into the limelight, not just James.
Tiptree: No One Else’s Damn Secret But My Own tells the story of Alice Sheldon, a science fiction author who managed to find literary success, but only after hiding her identity behind the male pseudonym of James Tiptree Jr. The show covers in just an hour both the breadth and spirit of Alice Sheldon’s life, both before and after she became James. Though her pseudonym as Tiptree brought her fame and then scandal, there’s no need to be a student of science fiction to appreciate this show.
‘Tiptree was the way of being a man that I thought I would like to be,’ Alice tells us, and this is the story of a clever, headstrong woman repeatedly escaping from the helpless roles patriarchy pushed her into.
Alice had no problem being controversial, nor concern for being proper, which makes for blackly funny lines and accurate skewering of society. More than that, the writing uses humour to reveal moments that would break your heart if you weren’t chuckling. Rowe exercises good judgement about when to invite us to laugh, and when to pause for a moment of grief. She performs both ends of the emotional spectrum with equal deftness.
There’s a line early on about how a high pain threshold means you carry on when you should have already fainted, and as the drama of Sheldon’s life unfolds we understand that once this woman got going, she never stopped. Yes, fans of science fiction will revel in hearing more about Tiptree (and thrill as Leguin & Russ are name-dropped, too), but anyone interested in extraordinary lives will be rewarded here. From Africa to Switzerland and Paris to Virginia, Sheldon was by turns a debutante, a CIA agent, an early environmentalist and the queen of Dexedrine. And she was most famous for being someone else.
In writing about Tiptree, Rowe writes with wit about suffering, empathy, gender and desire. Also, ten gorillas and a jar of marmalade. Whatever you think you know about this important, fascinating woman, you won’t have experienced her story as directly or tenderly as in this play.