A one-act musical entitled Cowboy Bob doesn’t sound like something that would celebrate powerful women, but it does. Co-created by Molly Beach Murphy, Jeanna Phillips, and Annie Tippe, the musical blends the aesthetics of Riot Grrrl and the Texas two-step to tell the true story of small-town Texas bank robber Peggy Jo Tallas.
Tallas was a soft-spoken motherly figure, so of course none of her relatives or acquaintances ever envisioned her as a cross-dressing bank robber yearning to cast off a routine small-town existence for something more exciting. A November 2005 Texas Monthly feature describes her as “a modern-day Bonnie without a Clyde,” pointing out how her cowboy disguise perfectly concealed her identity, and that she never injured any bank employees or bystanders during her heists.
And the motive behind her robberies? Simply to pay off debts incurred as a caregiver for her ailing mother.
Consciously or not, Tallas knew how to effortlessly balance the duality of masculinity and femininity as she donned a 10-gallon hat and a fake beard to seamlessly transition into Cowboy Bob. “It is sort of like a sleeper-cell lesson of how much women do, how much women put up with, how women survive, and how women succeed,” explains cast member Nathaniel Tenenbaum, who plays the queer-identifying Stan. “[The women in this story know] it’s about revolution—fighting back against the oppression that the system makes for us, finding a way, and taking life for yourself,” he adds.
“These women are not apologizing to each other for it [by saying] ‘That’s too much,’ ‘I can’t do that,’ or ‘This is what my life is.’ I love that they’re at the forefront. This is an important opportunity to show women in positions of leadership and dominance—what that could look like, and how soft and safe that could feel.”
This kind of femme-forward storytelling and art is only gaining in relevance as we see women’s rights under attack. “In this musical, the world doesn’t go without women. And [the real] world doesn’t go without women,” Tenenbaum emphasizes. “I hope to God that people see that correlation.”
Using the real-life experiences of Tallas as a springboard, this musical accomplishes a lot. “[It is] holding a lot of narrative, holding a lot of funny, holding a lot of devastation, holding a lot of true things that are very present today. You would think that might make it hard to [enjoy this show], because you’re like, ‘This shit is actually happening!’” he says.
So audiences should be prepared to enjoy an evening of great theater that celebrates the strength and resiliency of women. The heart and humor will carry them through the performance and inspire them to overcome the hardships of everyday life. “This is not just a show. It is a message. It is a protest. It is all those things, and I love that about it. It requires more from me, and it requires more from anybody that wants to step inside of it,” explains Tenenbaum.
The actor sums up the show’s message that he hopes will resonate with audiences: “Thank God for women that are in a place in their lives to [challenge] boundaries and take what they want. I hope [the women in the story will help audiences] appreciate the women in their lives. That spans across every culture, and that’s the beauty of it.
“I want people to see the show and [come away ready to] encourage, support, and uplift the women in their lives,” Tenenbaum adds. “Call your mom. Call your sister. I wish they would put it in the program: After the show, if you saw somebody you know represented on this stage, call them, if you can—or think about them.”
What: Cowboy Bob at the Alley Theatre
When: March 3–26; the ActOut LGBTQ reception before the Thursday, March 16 performance.