- January Joiner: A Weight Loss Horror Comedy by Laura Jacqmin
Although fat and “the war on fat” are ever-growing topics of national conversation and often exploited in popular media programs like the long-running reality show The Biggest Loser, few playwrights have taken fat as their central subject. In the rare instances that a playwright calls for a fat character, that character is typically “Othered”—pathologized, demonized, or victimized (often for comic effect)—in contrast to the “normal” characters onstage. Laura Jacqmin, winner of the 2008 Wendy Wasserstein Prize and the 2013 David Mark Cohen Playwriting Award, takes a different tack with her play January Joiner: A Weight Loss Horror Comedy. This new play fearlessly amalgamates pathos and satire with conventions borrowed from the horror-film genre to interrogate America’s preoccupation with dieting and the stigmatization of fat in popular culture. In a fresh reversal from stereotypical depictions of fatness, Jacqmin offers us a world in which the fat characters are normalized and the skinny characters are depicted as simultaneously weak-willed, obsessive, narcissistic, and even cruel. Through thoughtful characterization, the fusion of horror and satire, and clever dramaturgy, January Joiner indicts our cultural obsession with weight loss.
The setting of January Joiner is a mythical weight-loss boot camp called Evolve. In the opening sequence, we meet the new recruits: Terry (Ashlie Atkinson), who has enrolled at the spa following a health scare, and her younger sister Myrtle (Meredith Holzman), who is joining her for support. We also meet the winsome Darnell (Daniel Stewart Sherman), who returns to the spa annually to lose the same thirty pounds that he regains each year—only one example of how Jacqmin codes the pursuit of weight loss as a futile endeavor. In contrast to the many representations of fat on stage and screen where the fat character is portrayed by a slender actor in a fat suit, all of the roles in the Long Wharf production were played by performers considered fat by popular standards of beauty. Over the course of the production, the actors appeared in various stages of undress, reminding the audience of how unusual it is to see fat bodies represented onstage. Rather than making their bodies the target of jokes or exploiting over-rehearsed stereotypes of fat people as lazy and filled with self-loathing, the fat characters were humanized, depicted with nuance and emotional complexity.
Jacqmin reserves her satire for the cultish nature of “fat camps” and weight-loss spas. The personal trainers April (Tonya Glanz) and Brian (Anthony Bowden) are broad stereotypes, both vapid and villainous, even bordering on psychotic. In an effort to inspire the inductees on their first day, April promises the “fatties” that when she is through with them, they will be “completely different people,” a turn of phrase that ominously foreshadows a plot turn, but also highlights the ludicrousness of equating weight loss with metaphysical metamorphoses. April then leads her charges through a disturbing creative visualization in which they take up a serrated butcher knife and slash away their unwanted flesh.
This graphic monologue sets the stage for the titular horror/comedy juxtaposition. As campers [End Page 582] and trainers navigate their way through personal fears and evolving relationships, they are menaced by the siren call of a vending machine—a playful take on the proverbial deus ex machina. This diabolical machine comes alive in the dark of night to proffer forbidden treats and psychotic surprises, thus effectively satirizing Americans’ fear of getting fat and the power of food to seduce and victimize those who do not have enough willpower to resist. Each character ultimately has an encounter with the demonic, blood-dripping vending machine. One reaches in and pulls out the aforementioned butcher knife, another is barraged with endless Twix candies. Even the audience seemed haunted during the production, as many spectators audibly gasped when a zombie arm reached out of the machine.
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