Truth Values: A Review

September 23, 2022 by Kimberley Yates

Truth Values is a one-woman show written, produced, and performed by Gioia De Cari in which she narrates the story of her experiences as a doctoral student in MIT’s deeply misogynistic math program.

The story begins in California when a very young Gioia makes a long-shot application to MIT’s prestigious direct-entry doctoral program after a bachelor’s degree at Berkeley. She marries her sweetheart, and then against all expectations, she gets accepted. Her joy turns to trepidation as she navigates with a terrible basement office, an amorous officemate, demanding and unsupportive professors, and an environment in which she is constantly reminded that women are not mathematicians. She has nightmares of her breasts being cut away. Her few female fellow students dress to obliterate their femininity and avoid her. She begins to use fashion to act out an exaggeratedly feminine persona. Gradually, she finds a friend, a supervisor, and a supportive male faculty member and with their support, she settles into life as a grad student. As she approaches her comprehensive examination, her father dies. In the months that follow, she finds an outlet for her grief in theatre and begins to live a double life as a mathematics student by day and an actress by night; her larger-than-life femininity finds form in Gilbert & Sullivan musicals. She runs out of money and begins to work as a teacher as well as an actor. The tensions between the physical and the intellectual become impossible to navigate, despite the support of her elderly and genuinely lovable supervisor. She realizes that she doesn’t like math. And then, one day she skips theatre and goes on working away at one of the insoluble problems that her supervisor has been doing for years – and in a moment of epiphany, she solves it. She struggles with feelings of pride and loathing for her work and the call of the stage, and after seeking advice from a series of unsupportive academic advisors, she decides to call it quits and graduate with a master’s degree instead of completing the doctorate. The play resolves with a joy in what she has accomplished, sorrow for what she has lost, and a brave determination to go forward and find out what life will bring.

Gioia De Cari is a superbly talented performer: she slides fluidly in and out of roles, becoming her childhood self, her teachers, her friends, and the narrator who tells her story. Her body language and voice, which has amazing range and power, shift with each change of role. Sometimes the minor roles feel like comic stereotypes, but this seems intentional; the play is a comedy, and while it moves through emotionally affective moments, it ends happily with the reconciliation of the tensions of her identity. There are minimal costume changes – a sweater and a pair of high-heeled shoes are removed and added at various points. The only prop is a chair. The soundtrack is timed to De Cari’s recollections, pausing, adding sound effects for emphasis, and providing an emotional grounding to the narrative experience.  The set is five long vertical screens backstage, on which projections and animations reflect what’s happening in the story. When her intellectual breakthrough comes, the screens show three dimensional equations moving out toward the audience, an effect that reminded me of The Matrix: the effect is thrilling.

This show brought back a lot of memories: I was a doctoral student in English at around the same time that she was at MIT, and I had many similar experiences. Like her, I felt shame about not becoming the academic professor that my program was preparing me to be. I noticed all the little details of academic life that seemed designed for men and badly retrofitted for women; I struggled with the stereotypes and expectations that married students encounter, and the moments of dismissal and confusion when the information I needed was not available to me. I ran out of money and scrambled for jobs. I questioned my dedication to the field. But her experience studying logic in a math department was different from my experience studying medieval drama in an English department in the sense that feminism, as an academic discipline that could provide an intellectual framework for my research, was available to me. Her experiences of patriarchy—dismissal, eroticization, and the expectation of performative subservience—were harder and more insulting and demeaning than anything I encountered.

There is a deep old divide between the sciences and the humanities: the British scientist C.P. Snow described it in 1959 in The Two Cultures. At one point, De Cari laughs about her future as a mathematician, saying, “I might as well have taken a doctorate in English Literature” – it is a laugh line, but what it communicated is that the sciences and the humanities are not so far apart. For decades, the STEM disciplines have been emphasized, often at the cost of the humanities, but what we’ve ignored is the ascent of business: she describes encountering MBA graduates with dollar signs hanging from their mortarboards at her convocation ceremony, chanting “M-I-T,  M-B-A,  M-O-N-E-Y!” Ultimately, she finds both pride in her mathematical achievements and a new and humanistic career as a storyteller. Graduate school is a refining process: it strips away the “you” whom you thought you were and forces you to figure out the truths of your existence.  The process is painful, and it is tougher still for women. Truth Values speaks specifically to women in STEM, but it is absolutely a play for everyone, and especially anyone who is working within an academic structure.