In today’s context of out-of-touch politicians blaming millennials’ lack of real estate on avocado toast and “Fight for 15” groups across North America protesting the stagnation of the minimum wage compared to the rising cost of living, we are sometimes left wondering: Who and what actually constitutes being “poor”?
Kate Robards approaches that question in her self-written one-woman-show, Ain’t That Rich—a multidisciplinary performance about the latter’s childhood in Orange, Texas, and her ascent to the one per cent through a fortunate marriage. Ain’t That Rich gained acclaim as Maui Fringe Festival’s First Prize and Audience Choice Winner.
Robards recounts her early years growing up amongst rural rednecks scrimping and saving, through to her transformation as a highly educated woman with a “magic” credit card attached to her husband’s account. Her hometown family is rough around the edges, some dealing with alcoholism and drugs, some beaten down by the sludge of poverty, but mostly happy through and through. There are holes in the roof and the garden’s a mess, but Robards’ mother reminds her to be thankful that they are only “broke,” not “poor.” Robards’ ascent to wealth is less of a ladderlike climb and more of an accidental teleportation: She suddenly falls in love with a law student who happens to be from a family of wealth exceeding eight figures. Rags to riches, indeed.
Robards uncovers the disparities between these labels in a deeply personal, introspective way, far from a decisive quantification of wealth. Ain’t That Rich could easily go down the over-trodden narrative path of didactic adages that money isn’t the real joy, it’s nature and love that allow you to find a true happiness that makes you feel alive. Admittedly, there are references to Louis Vuitton thousand-dollar purses, visibly overdone botox, and other cliches of the uber-rich. However, Robards mostly avoids these tropes through her humility and a touch of humour. She won’t deny that being wealthy is amazing, but she’ll also weave into that joyous confession the harsh habits endured by those who grew up poor and had to live paycheck to paycheck. Her mother packs her lunches for school, but they can only afford the same thing every day: A sandwich and a Little Debbie cake. The family scraped enough money together for dance classes, but she has to salvage second-hand spandex workout clothes. True to Southern tradition, her extended family has always lived in the same neighbourhood, but that tradition is perpetuated by the lack of money required to travel and disseminate. The play asks: How little is just enough? How much is always needed?
The performance’s first steps forward are a little shaky, unsure if the focus is comedy, monologue, or social commentary. The punchlines aren’t especially sharp and the autobiography is interrupted by accurate but superfluous facts about poverty realities. There are a couple of laugh-out-loud moments, but Robards favours her writing’s descriptive syntax and rhythm over comedic timing, so the real pleasure in her performance is her storytelling ability and her finely-tuned acting skills. Rather than keep the audience laughing—even though it seemed this was where she was going when she started—she minces words poetically to make the real punchline a sucker-punch long con, inciting an emotional silence instead. Her pacing is excellent as she switches between crucial moments in her life, and there is no weak point in the plot so as to drag down the performance. Without spoiling the last 20 minutes of the show, I will admit Robards successfully sacrificed those potential comedic punchlines for a heavier, more nuanced intent.