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StageStruck: Descent Into Academic Hell

A "recovering mathematician" describes her experiences in a male domain.

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Thursday, February 02, 2012
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Gioia De Cari

"I used to be a mathematician. I went to graduate school at M.I.T. And, please, before you get too impressed by that, just notice what I'm doing with my life now."

That disarming line opens Gioia De Cari's solo show Truth Values. An actor, writer, musician and self-described "recovering mathematician," she recounts the experience summarized in the play's subtitle, "One Girl's Romp through M.I.T.'s Male Math Maze." Her performance next Monday at Mount Holyoke College is sponsored by the Mathematics and Statistics Department—not just a theater piece but a statement of academic "truth values."

In an interview last year, De Cari said, "I had no intention of writing anything educational. I just thought, 'Well, it's a story from my life. How can I make something compelling and entertaining and artistic out of it?' " But the show has attracted a lot of interest from colleges and universities "because it touches on some diversity issues about women in math and science, and this gives them an entertaining way to address these issues that aren't always all that entertaining in real life."

The creative spark for the piece came from the storm of outrage that followed former Harvard president Lawrence Summers' suggestion that gender imbalance in the sciences, where men far outnumber women, may be due to "issues of intrinsic aptitude." (More women than men are enrolled in almost all college majors except the sciences—something the strong science programs at both Mount Holyoke and Smith College are actively helping to rectify.)

De Cari had thought her experience at MIT in the late 1980s, where she faced stress, insecurity and ridicule while negotiating a male-dominated environment, "was something that used to happen. But actually some of it is still very current and a little disturbing. Some women come up to me [after performances] and tell me some really heavy things about their experiences." There are also, typically, expressions of gratitude. "Women tend to be touched when it resonates with their own experience," she said. "They appreciate when someone else gets it."

De Cari performs the piece on a bare stage, using just a table and chair, evocative lighting and sound to frame a multitude of settings and over 30 different characters. Director Miriam Eusebio has described the play as a modern version of "the hero's journey, the mythical story that we all feel in our gut—the descent into Hades, the transformation and return to the world of the living."

The show's title is a play on math terminology. The "truth value" of a mathematical statement—whether it's true or false—is not always clearcut. It can depend on a number of variables and is often conditional. Like this girl's romp through the math boys' clubhouse.

Truth Values: Feb. 6, 7:30 p.m., free, reservations recommended, Rooke Theatre, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, (413) 538-2162 or lkamins@mtholyoke.edu. No late seating.

Chris Rohmann can be reached at StageStruck@crocker.com.

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