By Riley McGraw Hart
Social distancing and lockdown orders resemble disciplinarian time-outs from a bygone childhood. As the world renounces social interactions, many feel overwhelmed in isolation or lack of reprieve from family members. In these circumstances, it can be difficult to practice self-love or truly express personal authenticity, especially for individuals who find themselves enveloped in narrow-minded or stigmatized places. Anyone who feels choked by their surroundings, look no further than Roderick “Ricky” Woodruff. His creative process for hope and inspiration takes on its purest form in his original show A Boy’s Room. Exuding honesty, courage, and personal reflection, Woodruff proudly proclaims the liberation of what he calls his “inner bad bitch.”
In his multimedia memory play, Woodruff did it all: he wrote, produced, and even starred in A Boy’s Room. The show follows “little Ricky” in his struggle to accept his effeminate qualities while growing up in a society riddled by toxic-masculinity. Born and raised on the East side of Detroit, his identity as a gay black man was compromised by his surroundings. To Woodruff, loving himself meant genuine self-expression to release his “inner bad bitch.” In the process of creating A Boys Room, he aimed to “provide an alternative outlook on societal standards with the hope of engaging, inspiring and transforming [the] audience.” It became his “call to action to educate the world—particularly black men—on the importance of embracing one’s whole self.
Like many creatives, Woodruff implored his personal life as a riveting foundation for his work. “I write for relief,” he explained. Staged in Woodruff’s pseudo-bedroom, he claimed the aptly named show drew influence from Beyoncé’s Formation World Tour. Woodruff was constantly motivated by the singer while growing up. “[Beyoncé] was the epitome of being a bad bitch. . . . it was in the way she carried herself.” The show was further influenced by Woodruff’s first play, Boyz, which epitomized the discovery of one’s true self through the nuanced world of hookup culture. Following Boyz, Woodruff realized the story he wished to tell wasn’t about bad Grindr dates or “awful experiences with men” which resulted from toxic-masculinity and gender conformity—but rather the importance of self-acceptance in the face of such social standards.
Woodruff described his hometown of Detroit as being toxic instead of progressive. Most people, he observed, rarely had the chance to “make it out;” he considers himself to represent something of an anomaly. In Woodruff’s experience, Detroit placed strong traditional values on gender and sexuality. He remembered how people seemed to scrutinize every aspect of someone, regardless of their connection—or lack thereof—to the person. Thrust upon others were flash judgments, assumptions, and labels. He perceived the city as “too risky” a place to embrace his effeminate self. He reveled at the importance of intergenerational macho-masculinity in black men, as it relates to the persistence of toxic patterns.
“There’s an innate pressure for black men to be macho. . . . It goes back to slavery—slaveowners obviously couldn’t produce more slaves when it came to gay men since reproduction isn’t possible,” Woodruff elucidated. “[Black men] have to work twice as hard to get anywhere, even today. I think they’re worried that their children will be even more oppressed if they don’t continue to conform. So they push for masculinity in their children, attempting to protect [their kids] from more abuse.”
Woodruff often found himself coming back to Beyoncé’s voice for solidarity. He rationalized, “if she’s a bad bitch. . . . I can be a bad bitch, too.” Woodruff also encountered fortitude in his mother and sisters. In them, he found encouragement to be authentic, as “[the women] were unapologetic about themselves and the space they existed in.” He recalled his youthful desire to wear his sisters’ clothes because of the confidence he beheld in their beauty and strength. He reflected, “For so long I wanted to be seen as a regular man. . . . then you grow up and realize the strongest people in the world are probably women—so why not embrace effeminate qualities like empathy and nurturance?” Woodruff eventually came to realize there was nothing wrong in accepting his effeminate self. More than that, he registered that his self-expression didn’t have to be a pigeonhole. He found the material that would culminate in A Boy’s Room during this process of reflection and emotional liberation. In renouncing repression, Woodruff felt no choice but to leave Detroit despite the “ride or die” loyalty he held for his hometown. Writing A Boy’s Room thus became a process of reclaiming his authentic self in peace and clarity, with the intent to “leave all the toxicity behind.”
Woodruff further commented, “My bedroom was where I felt the freest. I could truly be myself and I performed as many concerts in the world as I wanted.” His bedroom was transformed into a space of discovery where he was able to identify that which impacted him both internally and externally. In his privacy, Woodruff was able to ask, “Hey Self, are you good? What do you need?” He could safely express himself in the ways he was afraid to on the streets outside. “I was the king, the queen, the bad bitch of that room,” he proudly proclaimed. “It was mine, it was me—a sanctuary where I could be most honest with myself.” Privately making peace with his “inner bad bitch” ultimately allowed Woodruff to expand his self-expression beyond the dimensions of his bedroom.
Woodruff began working on A Boy’s Room as a part of a two-year fellowship during his collegiate career at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. “It was originally supposed to be a very short and quick thing,” he admitted. “But I’m extra…. So the show grew into more than I could’ve ever imagined. It went from being this stand-up bit to being a full-blown concert.” Infused with ambition, A Boy’s Room grew to reach its full potential: Woodruff carefully curated a cast of performers, creative consultants, and designers. He hired a live band and background dancers for the final production. The show’s narrative was further supplemented by a short film enhancing his innermost dwellings; Woodruff aimed to render a sense of comprehensive clarity. “At its core, A Boy’s Room is meant to disrupt, deconstruct, and ultimately dismantle toxic-masculinity that is generationally imposed on black boys.”
During Woodruff’s “flamboyant pop performance” he is routinely heckled by “inner demons” who consistently push him towards gender conformity The alluded struggle Woodruff battled onstage was that of self-hatred, manifested from the societal notion that “real men” bear aggressive pride in their masculinity to exude strength of character. However, his experience with social pressure to stand by toxic ideals only strengthened Woodruff’s internal pursuit of releasing his “inner bad bitch.” He hoped his narrative would encourage others to discover their own “inner bad bitch” by emphasizing “the importance of embracing one’s effeminate qualities” and other bona fide attributes that aren’t widely praised in society.
Woodruff envisioned breaking traditional theater rules by transforming the show into a synergistic encounter with his audience. In breaking the fourth wall, active participation became crucial to the artistic experience. Audience members were not only unprohibited but actively encouraged to post, Tweet, or stream the show to expand its narrative reach. Woodruff additionally planned to broadcast the performance in the hope A Boy’s Room would be easily accessible to his target audience. In keeping his viewers engaged, Woodruff wanted them to be familiar with the show’s music before their attendance. His forthcoming EP, set for release this winter, kept this intention in mind and shared three tracks from A Boy’s Room. By delivering his music outside of the performative environment, Woodruff hoped his audience would be especially invested in the performance. In pioneering this immersive art form he aimed to purposefully engross the audience through multimedia channels.
Woodruff’s EP traced his journey of self-discovery with elegance, begging questions such as, what is love and what does love cost? He encountered musical influence in artists like Solange, Frank Ocean, and Tyler the Creator. Infused with jazz and Detroit-style hip hop, the tracks demonstrate that when he thinks of love, Woodruff thinks of his hometown. The songs consider the kind of love that withstands time; he observed: “you need a healthy, loving relationship with each other and yourself.” Other songs included excerpts from Boyz and contemplated being “engulfed in love. . . . and wanting so badly to be the ideal partner,” even if that meant shielding his true self. The EP concluded in Woodruff unleashing his “inner bad bitch” with love for his authentic self and present life.
“Where we are in our life right now is okay,” Woodruff declared with sincerity, “All of the emotions we feel are okay to feel.” He confessed his regret over not loving his younger self more, and continued, “There are light and love at the end of the tunnel. . . .These struggles are growing pains that push us towards who and where we need to be. Now, I love and fight for the presence of ‘my inner bad bitch’. . . .You can be the most macho, the most effeminate person—it doesn’t matter as long as you’re true to yourself.”
A Boy’s Room was so successful in its endeavors that it officially partnered with Underbelly Theatre, one of the top venues at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Although the festival has been postponed to next summer due to COVID-19 concerns, tickets remain on sale. Updates and more information on A Boy’s Room may be found on it’s official Instagram page, @aboysroomxrw. Meanwhile, Woodruff, who now resides in New York City, has found a silver lining despite the confinements of social distancing. “Even in lockdown right now, I feel so connected to my personal space,” he said. “I am more myself in this space than I would be if I went back to Detroit during this time.”
When asked about any advice he could offer to those with no choice but to endure their personal version of Detroit and pressure to obscure their “inner bad bitch,” Woodruff sighed in genuine empathy. “I do know people who can’t express themselves because of situations around their family and fear,” he admitted. “I would tell them to keep their imagination open. I’d say, listen to your favorite music and play the songs that make you feel most like yourself. Track how you feel and check-in with yourself—find a space, even for a second, where you can release the entirety of your ‘inner bad bitch.’ Dive into creativity and use it as an outlet during these times.
“I would tell them to envision a world where they can live honestly. At the end of the day, you are who you are—and there will come a day where the world, where you, accept that.”
Riley McGraw Hart is a creative writer at The New School contributing to Honeysuckle Magazine as an editorial intern. She is also part of The New School’s award winning literary magazine, The 12th Street Journal, as an editorial staff member.