ELAYN TAYLOR, IONA MORRIS and DENISE DOWSE
By Darlene Donloe
A May/December romance between an older man and a younger woman has become so commonplace that it doesn’t even raise eyebrows.
However, in recent years, the game has changed. Today, older women are taking younger men as lovers, and the phenomenon has tongues wagging.
In fact, the women have come to be known, somewhat affectionately, as ‘cougars.’ These mature women of a certain age are serving notice to younger women and the world that they are legitimate contenders for the affections of young men. Mrs. Robinson from the 1960s film, The Graduate, has often been thought of as the original cougar.
Relationships between individuals with a huge age gap have been documented throughout history, and have been regarded with a wide range of attitudes, that includes acceptance, disgust and unthinkable.
Cougars are the focus of Celeste Bedford Walker’s play, Sassy Mamas, currently running through March 30, at Theatre Theater in Los Angeles.
In Sassy Mamas, which stars Denise Dowse, Elayn Taylor and Iona Morris (who also directs), three lively professional women, who all happen to be friends, flip the script and start dating younger men.
The women are Wilhemina Calloway-Sorenson (Dowse), who is a Deputy National Security Advisor; Jo Billie Massey, (Morris) a hospital administrator and Mary Wooten, the ex-wife of an ambassador.
Wilhemina has never been married because her career came first; Jo Billie, through death, lost the love of her life and Mary is a divorcee. All are looking for love, but their journeys take them down very different paths with varying results.
Wilhemina hooks up with Wes Washington (Derek Shaun) a former star football player. Jo Billie gets a young buck named LaDonte (Jah Shams), who has baby-mama issues and Mary finds comfort with her gardener, Colby (Kareem Grimes).
All of the women know who they are, know what they want, and aren’t afraid to go after it. They are sexy. They are sassy. And, they are sensational!
Sassy Mamas has some serious undertones, but is presented as a comedy, which allows the material to go down a little easier.
In her bid to address the cougar experience, Bedford has written some interesting, engaging and well-developed female and male characters.
“I was motivated to write Sassy Mamas by the suggestion of another theater professional observing the "cougar" phenomena,” says Bedford, the award-winning author of the musical Over Forty, the comedy Reunion in Bartersville and the drama, Camp Logan, which is being produced, in chorus, at the same theater as Sassy Mamas on alternating weekends.
The reason this production of Sassy Mamas works is due, in large part to Morris, Dowse and Taylor, who deliver vivid and palpable performances, as do the men in the show, Shaun, Grimes and Shams. It also works because Morris’ bold direction puts the drama and the comedy in the audience’s face. Morris’ savvy interpretation of the material brings the three relationships to life and authenticity to the show.
Morris, whose character, Jo Billie, is over the top, is a scream. She decided to both act and direct the show because she wanted to stretch her talent.
“I have been acting for over 30 years and for the last 12 of those years, I'd been directing as well,” says Morris. “I had claimed that in 2014, I wanted to concentrate more on directing and make great strides in that arena. I love acting, but I really love having the view of the entire show in mind and putting that together. I put it out there, and Sassy Mamas came to me. I decided to take it because it has the potential to be very funny, the actors are wonderful, I knew it would stretch me and help me grow as a director and dramaturg.”
Morris has directed a 21-person musical, one-person shows for Blair Underwood, Kim Wayans and Tammi Mac (opening May 1, 2014), but nothing in-between.
“I decided to do the show because I wanted to see if I could work my magic with this two act play,” says Morris. “I wanted to tell a good story. I never thought about directing it and being in it. But, things fell into place and while I was turning down the opportunity to act in it, thinking how much work it would be, a clear voice said to me, ‘You asked to stretch and here you have this terrific play you can also be in.’ So, I did it.”
Morris, who admits to having been a cougar in the past and would “do it again” if she was single, loves the subject matter.
“Older or what I like to call, mature women dating younger men is a fabulous thing and I think a needed avenue for women to open up to,” says Morris. “We women are living longer and we are filled with energy, drive and passion. Why not be open to men who may be younger, but be at the same place, energetically, as yourself? This a subject that needs to be discussed and through watching what these three women go through, I think covers a wide gamut of relationships in this arena. Women are deliciously beautiful far longer than we often give ourselves credit for. This play empowers and inspires women and I love the way it has been written.”
Dowse, a seasoned film, television and stage actress, said the play and the role spoke to her.
“It does speak to me and some days it yells at me,” says Dowse. “There are so many parallels to me and my life that it was a tad daunting at first but how wonderful it is to find joy in the playing of it. Yes, it’s about older women and younger men but at the end of the day - love happens when you least expect it and with whom you expect / think you'll fall in love with.”
Taylor said after reading the play she understood the importance of being in a relationship that brings you happiness, regardless of the age.
“Delving into the characters and stories of the play helped me to see that a woman owes herself the chance to be happy with that special person, regardless of age, (within legal bounds, of course), race or even gender,” says Taylor, who has never been a cougar, ‘but has opened my mind and heart to the possibility.’ “It can be difficult to go against family expectations and tradition...but then you must ask yourself...are you here to make your family or society happy or to make your own happiness a priority? Throughout the play, Mary continuously makes the choices that would ensure the family's approval of her. Always afraid to rock the boat, Mary really had no control over her own life until she learns the hard lesson of putting her own desires first above family or society.”
The first play Taylor ever appeared in was in Houston, TX and it was written by Walker.
“We were members of a writers workshop and she [Walker] wrote a play called Sister, Sister and I was cast in one of the leading roles,” says Taylor. “I'd not had any prior experience in acting at that time, but I was bitten by the bug...HARD...and have not looked back. It's a wonderful irony and blessing that I am doing another one of her plays after all these years since she, in a sense, started it all for me. I will always be grateful to her for that beginning.
Although she has yet to meet Walker, Dowse has nothing but good things to say about the playwright.
“I think she has a true gift for creating characters and story,” says Dowse, who has also been a cougar but clarifies it was not because of his age, but about him as a person. “I’ve been working on and
off this project since August and have loved being a part of the journey as this play has stretched and grown. Having seen Camp Logan and the powerful voices and story she’s written for men - then turn around to write a wonderful comedy for women, strongly speaks to her abilities as a writer and storyteller.”
“I think Celeste is a wonderful writer,” says Morris. “She is a good storyteller and knows how to allow her characters to speak through her, so that there are very distinct voices in her plays.”
Pulling it all together are two of the producers, who are also husband and wife, Vanessa Paul and Alex Morris. Paul and Morris, who are also producing the award-winning show, Camp Logan at the same theater on alternate weekends, wanted to do the show for personal as well as emotional reasons.
“We had just spent a huge portion of our life doing Camp Logan, which is an all male drama,” says Paul. “We've always wanted to work with a great cast of women, so what a great time to switch gears--going to a women focused play, and a comedy at that! It also gave us a chance to go back to the same playwright who we feel is so incredibly talented.”
“We loved that diverse voice of the playwright,” says Alex Morris (no relation to the director), who also directs Camp Logan. “Plus her writing is amazing. She went from a military drama to a sexy romantic comedy about three cougars.”
Sassy Mamas and Camp Logan are produced by Sparkling City Entertainment, JuVee Productions (Academy Award nominated actress, Viola Davis and Julius Tennon) and Jeff Murray.
Sassy Mamas, Theatre Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd LA,; through March 30; Tickets: