Dallas — It took an army of women decades of struggle and tireless organizing to win the right to vote in America, a law finally ratified in the U.S. Senate on August 18, 1920. New books, documentaries and plays recently published delve into the history and legacy of the heroic suffrage movement in its centennial year.
Echo Theatre's timely contribution to the celebration is a live-streaming reading of It's My Party!, Ann Timmons' play focusing on competing suffrage organizations, and the forceful women controlling them. Earlier suffrage leaders, like Susan B. Anthony, who died in 1906, are referred to only briefly. It's 1912, America will soon enter WWI, and hard-working women want the vote. Now.
After a brief welcome by Echo Theatre Artistic Director Kateri Cale, we shift to a Zoom screen divided into separate playing boxes, where we meet the major historical characters, named at the bottom of each box. Director Carson McCain (incoming artistic director for Second Thought Theatre) has costumed the all-female cast in white blouses of various era-evocative styles and cuts. We see characters only in portrait view, so nobody is seen walking, or interfacing with other actors. Remarkably, this impressive cast manages to make us feel they are in the same room together, staring each other down in a cutting argument or laughing with their loving friends during a high-spirited strategy meeting. We see no scripts in this reading, so actors either memorized their lines or adroitly read from an off-screen board. In any case, these women came to be heard!
The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) is headed up by minister and physician Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, played by Cindee Mayfield with arrogant self-assurance, a withering glance and a disdain for enthusiastic behavior. Carrie Chapman Catt, played by a determined Megan Haratine, is Dr. Anna's second-in-command, a shrewdly political woman with an eye to taking over the top job herself. As these two argue with each other and confront other suffragists, it's clear they want the personal glory for winning ratification, and they mean to make that happen by supporting the war and pleading with congress to give women the vote. After all, patriotic females helped bring victory home.
Quaker women's right activist Alice Paul, played with quiet passion and dark-eyed brooding by Kat Lozano, is an inspiration to other young women across the nation, and Alice's magnetic appeal infuriates the old gals. Alice's right-hand gal is Lucy Burns, played by Caitlin Chapa with firebrand energy and comic impatience. These young activists met fighting for women's right to vote in London, and their personal bond is as strong as their political commitment. The two have launched the brand new National Woman's Party (NWP). They take their demands for a national women's right to vote to the streets. Their sexy eagerness to throw their bodies into the fight attracts new members and bigtime funding. Hunger strike? Yes. Go to jail? If need be. Of course, the old guard is put off by these upstart tactics.
The dramatic arc of the play begins with the generational conflict between the two groups and their leaders. We know that both organizations played their part in winning the right to vote, and we clearly see how stylish feminists, like lobbyist Maud Wood Parks (smiling, laid-back Leslie Patrick) helped the cause by personally calling on individual congressmen. Plainspoken Dora Lewis (fretful Lindsay Hayward) also makes her contribution by filling in for Lucy and Alice when they hit bottom and need time to bounce back. It takes a village of wily women to challenge the power structure of a male congress.
Playwright Timmons loads in a lot of history about the issues and strategies of women fighting for their voting rights, and most of this is delivered in believable conversation between the characters. Lozano's Alice has the longest speeches, about what it means to stay in the fight, and why activists must take to the streets to force congress to recognize the power they represent. Still, despite the sometimes-wordy speechifying, Alice wins us to her heartfelt position as she buries her face in her hands, exhausted after a crushing defeat. We see what her dedication cost her, and so many others who worked for the vote.
Occasionally, Timmons' language drops into cliché, as when Dr. Anna says that "it will be a cold day in hell" when she calls a truce with the NWP. Or when practical Dora advises her activist pals to "dial it back." But the characters are more interesting than the occasional anachronism, and we want all these women to taste the victory we know is coming. All together now, "Women united can never be defeated!" Quite a rush — even on a Zoom screen!
Timmons' play also reminds us that black women's suffrage groups were often excluded from mainstream efforts. The Chicago-based African American journalist and activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, portrayed here by Octavia Y. Thomas with a steely delivery, tells Alice she's had it with white activists "shutting the door to Negro suffragists." In fact, the 19th Amendment allowed 26 million American women to vote in time for the 1920 presidential election, but it did not include African-American women or other women of color (they wouldn’t have this right for another half-century).
When Ida declares, "We deserve to be heard!" her voice rings forward to today's marches and chants. We hear her voice resonate with even greater force in the Black Lives Matter movement that has found its moment.
Echo Theatre is planning a fully staged 2021 production of It's My Party! to be performed for both a live audience and a streaming audience on show nights. Venue and show times will be announced at a later date.
» There are two more live readings of It's My Party!, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 20, and Saturday, Aug. 22. Tickets are $12; order at www.our.show/