Amali is 12 years old. She’s blunt and inquisitive. She gets math, thinks history is cool, and charts her own sadness because she likes understanding things.
She’s curious about her first menstrual cycle, cryptic but proud as she tells her best friend, Finn: “I got it this morning.” He’s uncomfortable, telling her, “I don’t like blood” — but she’s unsympathetic: “Too bad for you. We are filled with it.”
And she’s fascinated by the fate of two siblings found stabbed to death in the woods near her town, to the point of worrying school officials and her mother.
New York City playwright Charly Evon Simpson tells Amali’s story in her new play, “form of a girl unknown.” It’s a frank look at puberty that includes an older sister’s brusque instructions for inserting a tampon, Amali’s thoughts about sexuality and suicide, and the quest for answers that leads her to an altar with a Michelle Obama candle in the woods.
Simpson will be on hand for the world premiere at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Salt Lake Acting Company. For this Q&A, she and the actor who plays Amali — Amanda Morris, 24, also from New York City — spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune via phone and email about what it’s like to tackle such a complex character and challenging time of life. Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
SEEING ‘FORM OF A GIRL UNKNOWN’
This frank coming-of-age story was written by New York playwright Charly Evon Simpson.
When • Performances begin Oct. 16, with opening night on Oct. 18, and the run continues through Nov. 17.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $15-$46; group, student, and age 30 and younger discounts available
Details • saltlakeactingcompany.org or 801-363-7522
How to help • SLAC is collecting feminine hygiene products on behalf of the Youth Resource Center run by Volunteers of America, Utah. During the play’s run, new pads and tampons in unopened packaging can be dropped off at the theater Mondays and Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturdays from noon to 9 p.m., and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
How do you think Amali represents young women today?
Simpson: “… My hope with Amali is that she represents young women today by being herself and by feeling like she can be herself. And even though in the play, she’s definitely struggling with the fact that people don’t quite get her, she’s still not changing to fit what other people will get.”
Simpson, 33, has worked as a teacher, mentor and social worker, and said Amali was inspired in part by the young women and men she’s met in those roles.
Simpson: “I feel like I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by youth that are just more comfortable being themselves than I was, for sure. And so, in that way, I hope that she represents sort of this trend of young people, especially young women, being able to sort of speak their truth and sort of fight for the ability to be themselves.”
Simpson graduated from Brown University, earned a master’s degree in women’s studies from University of Oxford, New College, and her Master of Fine Arts in playwriting from Hunter College. Her other plays include “Behind the Sheet,” which explored the role of enslaved black women in the history of gynecology and was described as “deeply affecting” by the New York Times in January.
She came to Utah to further develop “form of a girl unknown” last year, after she was selected for a workshop for emerging playwrights at Salt Lake Acting Company in partnership with The Davey Foundation. The best feedback she’s received, she said, came from a 12-year-old Utahn who attended her workshop and felt the preteen characters, while played by adults, still felt like real 12-year-olds.
Simpson: “She felt like she was seeing a version of herself on onstage and that felt fairly good.”
Morris: “Being 12 again isn’t really that different from being 24, honestly. From what I remember about being 12 and most 12-year-olds I know, at that age you’re in an in-between stage. You think you’re grown but not really ... and I feel like that at 24 sometimes. You’re constantly working on finding yourself and your place in this world.”
Amali at times is not very likable or sympathetic, yet your performance highlights her humor and vulnerability, I think, more than the script is able to. Can you talk about how you wanted to portray that?
Morris: “When I first read the script, I was like, ‘Woah, this little girl is really something else.’ I like to look for the funny in anything I read because I think comedy can be found almost anywhere. I saw that in the script, took it and ran with it. It was important to me that the audience took her seriously and the best way to do that, in my opinion, is to reel them in with laughter.”
What does Amali’s occasional lack of likability or sympathy for her family and friends say about youths in general, or about adults and society in general?
Simpson: “Especially for young women, we are taught that we’re supposed to be likable, and we’re supposed to, you know, be nice and be sweet and sort of take everybody else into account. And very often we do that to the detriment of our own selves. Now, I 100% agree that Amali, when it comes to Finn, she totally pushes past his boundaries. ... And so for me, it’s a little bit more of an exploration into how far can you take being yourself and being interested in the things that you’re interested in. And sometimes that means learning, ‘Oh, I’ve gone too far.’ Or, ‘Oh, I haven’t gone far enough.’
“... We probably are in a moment where we’re seeing a lot of people being very honest about, sort of, who they are and what they believe in. And we are seeing the consequences of people really standing in their truth. Not everyone is connecting, right? Like that’s a big conversation piece. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing or bad thing.
“... That certainly wasn’t in my mind when I was writing the play. ... But I do think the part that does really ring true for me, in terms of what was happening as I was writing, is being comfortable writing a young woman who is not always likable and is not always right and is not always polite. And can we see that and still connect when she does open up ... not necessarily forgiving those moments, but seeing it as an example of a young woman who is learning, and at 18, at 25, at 35, is going to have a little bit more finesse when someone says ‘I don’t like blood’ to perhaps not, you know, bring up blood every five seconds.”
Can you talk about the decision to include so many difficult themes?
Simpson: “That’s what Amali is thinking about and in some way, all of those things are connected to her. Like there’s something about how weird it is to be bleeding and it be an OK, natural, good thing. But then when someone dies, and there’s blood, that’s not a good thing. And I think that for her, in this moment, that’s the way sort of her brain works.
“... And I think she is bucking up against maybe a time in her life where she’s beginning to understand that there are just certain things that are not as clearly answered. But she’s still going to ask the questions.”
What do you hope to achieve with ‘form of a girl unknown’? What’s the ultimate message?
Morris: “I really hope that the show encourages dialogue between people of all ages and genders. Dialogue about periods, mental health and family dynamics and so much more. All the things that are natural, that society tries to punish us for speaking about. I hope that people, especially young people, leave feeling more comfortable talking about them. I just want to start conversations and evoke empathy, not only for the characters but for people we encounter on a daily basis.”
Simpson: “I simply wanted to write a coming of age story that felt a little bit closer to my own story, and to stories of some of my friends at that time, and some of the young women that I have worked with. And part of that was having a young black woman at the center and black family and black best friend and all these things. ... And so my ultimate sort of hope is to show that we come of age in a variety of different ways and whatever that path is, is OK.
“… I think being able to watch her experience and see her struggling to understand herself and hold on to that, I just hope that the audience opens themselves up to experience that and be witnesses to that.”