As I step under an arch leading into Green-Wood Cemetery, a smiling woman instructs me to “follow the orbs,” directing my attention to dozens of silver balloons scattered amongst the graves like morbid party decorations. Haunting music grows louder as I descend a hill to find a magnificent church. Sitting on the cemetery lawn next to a pair of women sipping red wine mere feet away from a headstone feels mildly sacrilegious, but the Green-Wood Cemetery is no stranger to special events.
But tonight’s performance is different. Rather than a walking tour, The Secret Society of the Sisterhood is a celebration of womanhood in all its forms. The audience is almost entirely women, with the exception of a dozen or so doting partners and allies. Tonight’s performers are a mix of local authors, musicians, and even Golden Globe-nominated actress Amber Tamblyn. Proceeds from the event go towards Girls Write Now, an organization offering NYC high school girls mentorships in writing and digital media.
I expect a night of unorthodox and heartfelt female-centric performances. And the first Brooklyn edition of the Sisterhood certainly does not disappoint.
A representative from Green-Wood stands atop the steps of the cathedral, clad in a crimson cloak that looks like it came straight from Little Red Riding Hood. She beckons the guests, rousing us with the spooky story of Emma Cunningham, a woman buried in Green-wood Cemetery. Her tale involves immense sorrow, un-ladylike behavior, and the murder trial of the (nineteenth) century.
With that sordid bit of lore, we’re ushered into the church. The eerie music crashes to a sudden halt, replaced instead with noises like a bell hitting a gong. Gong. Gong. Gong. Then, a handful of red-cloaked women ascend to an altar under a stained-glass mosaic of Jesus. They light candles.
The producer of tonight’s event, Trish Nelson, steps to the stage to send us off on this ultimately empowering journey. She’s the founder of BanterGirl—a multi-genre platform for female comedians and performers—and a prolific performer who has orchestrated live shows across the country for the likes of Amy Schumer. Nelson also prominently came forward against celebrity chef Mario Batali—who now faces allegations of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women—as well as restaurateur Ken Friedman and chef April Bloomfield in 60 Minutes and two New York Times articles over the past six months about the abuses she endured while working as a server at West Village restaurant The Spotted Pig.
Beginning the lineup is musician Treya Lam, who performs a song from her debut album Good News, which releases next week at Joe’s Pub. Focusing on the harmonious rhythm of her violin, it’s like I feel all my struggles slipping from my shoulders. On the guitar, award-winning composer and multimedia artist Kaki King joins Lam for some heart-stomping collaborative beats.
Trish Nelson urges us to set down our wine glasses and clasp the hands of our neighbors for a pledge of sisterhood. As the pledge grows more political, audience members stop repeating her words and start laughing. Nelson doesn’t hold back, taking shots at figures like Ivanka Trump for using her political influence to sell jewelry.
Afterwards, Ayanna Dookie, bombastic comedienne and writer for 50 Central, regales us with the tale of a lust-filled trip to St. Louis to meet a man from a conference. Since they were both Catholic—though Dookie definitely wasn’t a practicing one—he took her to church for Palm Sunday, which filled the man with a religious zeal that trickled into the bedroom. Dookie practically cackles into the microphone. “He starts screaming, ‘Crucify [me]!”
Lorri Davis, who co-authored the book Yours for Eternity: A Love Story on Death Row with her partner Damien Echols (who was falsely imprisoned on death row and released in 2011) talks about their earth-shattering relationship and the comedic foibles that resulted from it, including a remarkable scene involving an El Paso hotel and a masseuse-turned-sex worker.
Dhonielle Clayton, acclaimed young-adult book author and COO of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, follows Davis. “I wanted freckles. Instead, I got cystic acne,” she remarks bluntly. Clayton takes us through the brutal experience of her teenage trauma and desire to treat her acne by any means necessary. Finally, a birth control prescription gets it under control. “I had found my magic pill,” Clayton says proudly.
However, doctors recently found a benign tumor sprouting off her liver. The cause? Hormonal birth control. “I called it Voldemort,” she says of her tumor, which is “sixty percent gone” after an operation, though it may never fully vanish.
And then, the showstopper: Amber Tamblyn, the critically-acclaimed poet and actress known for her role on the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Tamblyn reads a fantastical letter from a she-wolf, which serves as an empowering confrontation with patriarchal men. She mingles self-confidence with progressive jokes: “I am going to win all the awards… I am going to grow up to have an affair with a man’s… wife.”
At the show’s closing, the performers embrace on stage in a messy tangle of red robes as Beyoncé’s “Run the World” plays. Guests gradually file outside, where Brooklyn DJ Tikka Masala busts out some Cardi B and a line forms at tarot reader. The balloons on the cemetery lawn glow with tiny lights under the full moon.
“I wanted to create a storytelling salon for women and fierce allies of woman that would celebrate our commonalities and the life experiences that bind all of us together,” Nelson tells me in an email after the show.
The Secret Society of the Sisterhood is hosting another Green-Wood show in July. Grab tickets here before they sell out.