The Fleecing of Young America: The S.M. Cabaret: Slaves of Sallie Mae – Student Debt Stories with Class and Sass

The Grace Period Blog, a collective of performance artists who write and perform original material around the theme of oppressive student loan debt, debuted their new show, The S.M. Cabaret: Slaves of Sallie Mae to a sold-out crowd on May 2 at the West Village club, The Duplex. Another performance is slated for May 9 at 9:30 p.m. Go. See. It.

The online blog, co-founded in September 2013 by NYU MA Performance Studies Alumni Gabriela Agape and Sydney Arndt, was a response to the contributors’ personal experiences with the student debt crisis in America.

The first song of the night was a group number called “Hey My Servant!”, sung to the melody of Sweet Charity‘s “Big Spender.” Dancing around the small stage, the women played the roles of lenders and schools who offer money to needy students. “Do you wanna buy books, books, books? Do you wanna new life, life, life?” Like glitzy, windowless casinos disorient gamblers, causing them to lose all track of time and keep gambling, needy students jump at the chance for “a ‘free’ ride” when they don’t understand the long-lasting effects of those loan terms. The women had fun belting out the lyrics. And they all had great hair! (They could probably pay off their respective debts doing commercials for Pantene.)

If Carol Channing and Antonio Banderas had a love child, their progeny might take the form of Gabriela Agape, who sizzled and amused throughout the night as the emcee. She began the show with a statement that these women, among so many others, have discovered is often far from the truth. “You buy a ticket [for our performance], you see a show. You get a degree, you get a job. You get a graduate degree, you get an even better job!” Her quote dripped with sarcasm and irony, as a placard (one of the many that a pair of disembodied hands held out for the audience to read) stated, 48 percent of 28 to 35 year-old adults are either unemployed or underemployed.

Cabaret PosterAgape deftly supplied both physical (*spoiler alert*: she squats and “gives birth” onstage!) and verbal humor, tempering both with moments of clarity and sobering yet vomit-inducing reality. In the show’s program we learned  that Agape owes $100,000 in student loan debt, proudly receives government benefits and has four jobs. She told the rapt audience that “the government says I don’t have to pay anything yet. It would be great if no interest accrued while I’m unable to pay…until I’m financially secure.” Unfortunately, “financially secure” is a reality borrowers like Agape may never know. She lamented not being able to fund a retirement or savings account, travel the world or even see her family (whom she hasn’t seen in a year). Yet it is clear she and the others will not let debt silence their voices or interfere with their art.

In “You Can’t Have Your Cake If You Want to Eat It Too,” Laura Mooney sang from the lender’s perspective — AKA a dominatrix — about trapping unsuspecting students into high-interest rate loans. She tied up fellow performer Kathleen Telfer, a prospective “student,” teasing her with cake–and then pulling it away. Good, sassy fun.

Soon, it was Telfer’s turn to take center stage. A dancer, Telfer began by stating, “Purchasing a degree in post-modern dance….Who the fuck did I think I was, thinking people would pay to see me roll around in glitter?” Her tone was light and playful, like her dancing; she moved skillfully, blissfully to The Contours’ “Do You love Me?” while making eye contact with the audience, causing some to blush as she unexpectedly thrusted her pelvis toward them.

Sarah Lucie, whose dewy skin and blond hair are reminiscent of a young Meryl Streep, hilariously sang, “Screw Loose,” a number about a woman who questions her own sanity — and thinks others do, too — after taking out so much money to fund her education: “They call me ‘Screw Loose.’ ‘Bonkers’ is another name for me. It’s so hard to have a master’s….I know it’s worth the cost.” At the end of the tune, she offered a clever play on words, offering a “loose screw” in exchange for cash — so she can pay down her debt.

Next up was Sydney Arndt, who was hilariously risqué in her performance of “Are You an Actress?” She played a waitress (also one of her real-life jobs) who’s constantly asked by customers if she’s really just an actress in disguise. She balks at first, pretending to be annoyed; after all, what’s wrong with “just” being a waitress? But soon she whipped out a headshot of herself while simultaneously whipping off her clothes! She sang of being so poor that she couldn’t replace the “worn out bristles on my hairbrush,” or her “broken hand mirror,” and “when you get sick, you STAY sick.” She then began stripping, right down to her shiny red nipple tassels, all while singing, “That girl in the mirror is going to go to Hollywood!” Like the others, even though she’s in debt, she’s still full of fire, fun and creativity. And, like the others, she had a blast onstage.

Emcee Gabriela Agape closed the show with her performance of “Off With Yer Debt,” a Sally Bowles-inspired number sung to the tune of “Mein Herr,” in which she also invokes the famous chair dance scene. She sang about faking her death and changing her name, so her federal student loans will be discharged: “I could die and change my name, Miss Mae, and you will never find me, Miss Mae.”

The S.M. Cabaret: Slaves of Sallie Mae is not only fun but also an important play. While it does point out a lot of problems with the student loan system as they exist today — high interest rates, inflated costs of degrees, low-paying jobs vs. high debt — the show’s message is that even though most of these women are indebted, they’re still strong, talented performers who have something to say. They are raging against the machine by pursuing their dreams and, like it says on the bookmarks that were also handed out at the beginning of the show, they will continue to Fight Debt with Art.

Photo by Debra Kirouac

The S.M. Cabaret: Slaves of Sallie Mae
9:30 p.m., Friday, May 9, 2014
The Duplex
61 Christopher Street at Seventh Avenue
Please visit The Grace Period Blog to join the conversation and reserve your ticket for $5 in advance on Friday, May 9th. Or you can pay $7 at the door without a reservation. (NOTE: There is a 2 drink minimum at The Duplex.)

Woman Around Town has been running a series of articles on the financial crisis of student loan debt. Click on the title to see our previous stories on The Fleecing of Young America:
Burden of Student Loans is Crippling a Generation
Debra’s Story
Wake Up! College Debt Is Your Problem, Too
Kate’s Story
Heaven’s Henchmen – When Student Loan Servicers Meet You on the Other Side
An Open Letter to President Obama
P.S. Mr. President – 20 and 30 Somethings Are Not the Only Ones Suffering
The S.M. Cabaret: Slaves of Sallie Mae

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