Take What Is Yours

Written by Erica Fae and Jill A. Samuels
Directed by Jill A. Samuels
Featuring Erica Fae, Adrian Jevicki, Wayne Maugans,Courtney Stallings
Anecdota at 59E59, 59 East 59th Street
May 9, 2012 — May 27, 2012
production web site
Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
May 6, 2012

Erica Fae. Photo by Augustinus Tjahaya.

Physically mobile set pieces and curtain wall sections merge with emotionally and intellectually and historically moving words and situations inTake What Is Yours at 59E59, a story of a phase of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.  Erica Fae and her colleagues have crafted theatre from history, gymnastics on stage from gymnastics of historical political logic.  Projections with pieces of legislation and images of protest merge sometimes haltingly with the live storytelling, accumulating power as the physical vocabulary and the flavor of this artistic team’s style becomes more apparent.  Not quite mime, not quite dance, not quite straight historical biography — this is history of the U.S. women’s suffrage movement during the early years of the 20th century.  And it is entrancing theatre.

We focus on the story of Alice Paul (Erica Fae) as she is imprisoned for her stand for voting rights for women, as were women before her in the U.S. and in Britain for this same cause. The battle for women’s voting rights began in the middle 19th century involving women such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Julia Ward Howe, who worked in the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Some of their younger sisters in the movement believed in direct action (marches, hunger strikes) more than the social change through committees and legislative proposals and policy level debates NAWSA had pursued for years.  Chief among these more militant direct action advocates is Alice Paul (our play’s heroine) who was born in 1885 and by the age of 32 had attended Swarthmore and other universities, obtained a Ph.D., had organized the National Woman’s Party (NWP) where marches and hunger strikes were used, and was imprisoned for her political actions.

We meet her during a phase of imprisonment. In this play we have an assembled story of many lives in the person of Alice and other composite characters representing oppressors as patronizing colleagues, e.g. The (composite) Man (Wayne Maugans), medical professionals such as Gandor (Adrian Jewicki) and Nurse (Courtney Stallings), and others. What we come to feel here on stage is a theatrical sensibility, a physicality, that matches the nature of the story being told.  We live with Alice in her cell, on a bed that moves from location to location on the stage (physicality of actors and set pieces rule in this production), and a solid structural wall/curtain that forms segments and boxes and openings through which the actors play, and through which we view slices of action. It was not surprising to me that this integral and powerful set design, a choreographed scene partner, is by Erica Fae’s co-author and the play’s director Jill A. Samuels.

We grow to know a bit of our Alice — not her whole life but the nature of her highly educated mind and belief in direct action and the events in the years just prior to 1920.  We watch her resist taking on the garb of the common prisoner, and the varying ways her keepers (doctors, a nurse) care for her.  We meet no other peer/colleagues but we hear of her sisters-in-action who, though released from their cells at one point, sit down and refuse to leave their current prison to await Alice Paul’s release. Those word images combined with visceral descriptions of the barbaric nature of force feeding in those days (metal tubes that cut on their way in and out, and raw egg meals), wounds that won’t heal and nuanced descriptions of the conditions (wet cold walls, roaches and rat that live among them, omnipresent cold) powerfully remove any sense of romance from this story of a political heroine.

As theatre this works so much of the time.  As the hero of her own story, we are with Alice Paul all the way. The end of this particular historical story, policy making wise, provides our theatrical denouement: the August 26, 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granting American women the vote.  And yet — the playwrights can’t resist telling the familiar story of Harry Burns the final male legislative holdout vote who tipped the scale in favor of voting for the proposition despite his earlier resistance.  A letter from his mother convinced him, our playwrights and other sources tells us.  “Be a good boy,” she wrote her son, “and vote for suffrage.”  (I personally recommend the 2003 book by Eleanor Clift Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment — the final chapter of which is entitled “A Vote for Mother” for a wealth of detail on the events surrounding the passage of this Amendment.)  Ending the play with this story provides a factual button on the fight for the 19th Amendment and tension-release chortles for the audience. What this choice also does, dramatically, is bring this entire profoundly feminist project dangerously close to losing its hold on me — it doesn’t really pass the three-pronged Bechdel Rule (i.e. have a least two women, who talk to each other, about something other than a man).  Here women are everywhere in the story, two are on stage (Alice and mute nurse), and almost all dialogue is about politics and procedures — but a man is provided the final dramatic move. It may only be me, but this fact (though historically accurate related to the 19th amendment) doesn’t keep me in the world of women and in particular the world of Alice Paul as powerfully as it might after the play ends. All that said, history is given a face and repression is given a lashing in this powerful piece of theatre.

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 9, 2012)

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