- Courtesy Of Laura Roald
- From left: Kathryn Blume, Sarah Mell and Julia Sioss
August 18, 2020, marked an important centennial in American history: the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. The work that started at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the de facto birthplace of women's suffrage, came to fruition 72 years later.
More accurately, the 19th Amendment gave white women the right to vote. Depending on which state they called home, women of color would have to wait another 45 years for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to guarantee their participation in the democratic process.
Disparity and inequality along the path to the vote are foregrounded in The Suffragist Reenactment Society, a new play by Vermont playwright Mary Beth McNulty. It premieres on Saturday, October 2, at Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center's Black Box Theater in Burlington, followed by a panel discussion with McNulty and others. Performances will continue throughout October at nine locations around the state. (The premiere sold out before press time.)
Performed by three actors, the interactive show is an edu-taining ride through women's suffrage that doesn't ignore its exclusivity, as well as some problematic aspects of the movement that have been often ignored.
"As we began working on it, a lot of issues related to the horrible racism in the country were really coming to the fore," McNulty said. She and the show's director, Laura Roald, operate Complications Company, which is producing the show. (Roald is also president of Burlington's Off Center for the Dramatic Arts.)
In 2019, Vermont Suffrage Centennial Alliance, an offshoot of the League of Women Voters of Vermont, commissioned McNulty to pen a new work about women's suffrage, originally intended to debut just after the centennial.
The result is not a typical stage play but an interactive experience. "The show is very much set up to feel like a board meeting of a local organization," stage manager Katelyn Paddock said.
That organization is the eponymous "society," whose members are holding a meeting to discuss upcoming plans. During the session, they survey more than a dozen suffragettes and people associated with the movement.
Julia Sioss, Kathryn Blume and Sarah Mell play three modern-day characters who have convened to debate and vote on which famous moments from history they'll reenact for an Independence Day celebration.
Through their discussions, the women give the crowd a crash course on suffrage, teaching and surprising one another (and, hopefully, attendees) along the way. At times, audience members are asked to vote on various matters, such as whether or not to include a particular scene in the July 4 reenactment. Or they might be asked to shout out slogans or weigh in on trivia questions.
Wanting to flip the script on the typically male-dominated practice of reenacting battles, McNulty imagined what female characters who were just as passionate about history might do.
"It just made me giggle, the idea of women who were so excited by the suffragist stories that they wanted to reenact them," she said.
The pandemic pushed the show ahead a full year, giving McNulty more time to workshop the script. "We knew we could go deeper," she said. "And we knew we could do better if we had more feedback from some women of color."
McNulty recruited several women to consult on the script, including Kathryn Dungy, associate professor and chair of the History Department at Saint Michael's College. Dungy will also participate in the panel discussion following the premiere.
"[I] went through it to see what voices were the loudest in the script," Dungy said. She described metaphorically "turning the prism" to see what other points of view, such as her own, might reveal.
She continued, "My job as a historian, and as a woman of color, was to say, 'There was other stuff going on at this time, and other people working in this movement aren't part of the dominant narrative.'"
The show balances the accomplishments of household names such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton with their shortcomings. For instance, those movement leaders were abolitionists and made significant contributions to ending slavery. Yet, after the Civil War, they reached a point where they felt they had to choose between women's suffrage and Black suffrage. McNulty pointed out a revealing quote from Anthony: "I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman."
"Literally, we see that conflict unfold between these suffragist reenactors," McNulty said.
The show also introduces key figures who might be less well-known, such as Chinese American activist Mabel Ping-Hua Lee and Black abolitionist Sojourner Truth. Their names and likenesses appear on giant trading cards as the characters mention them.
While one cast member recites the historical narrative, the others slip into scenes, donning the outfits and personalities of the figures mentioned and illustrating and quoting their way through their various achievements. Everyone's contributions are celebrated, and everyone's flaws are debated thoughtfully.
"I think there's something to be learned from good people doing terrible things and terrible people doing good things," actor Sioss said, paraphrasing conversations she's had with McNulty.
Each of the modern characters is to some extent a representative of one of the three waves of feminism. Blume's Deborah, the matriarchal figure responsible for the group's existence, has a perspective largely aligned with that of the suffragettes. Mell's Tory brings an academic, second-wave feminist energy. And Sioss' Lin is the archetypal millennial/Gen Z feminist, whose passion for truth and justice is matched only by her understandable naïveté. They bring out the best in one another, challenging each other's points of view for the greater good of their reenactment project.
Ultimately, the show illustrates how an acquaintance with the past can help people tackle the struggles of the present.
"We've faced horrible odds and horrible racism in the past when it comes to voting," McNulty said. "How do we keep fighting this fight when ... once again, people are trying to disenfranchise [voters]?"
Ending the premiere with a panel discussion ensures that the play's stories aren't relegated to a cordoned-off museum of the past but are instead brought into the ever-widening circles of present discourse.
"One of my favorite things to do is to link what's called public history, and all the things we do every day, and look at how it's part of our world," Dungy said. "The nation is not just one voice ... It is multicultural; it is multifaceted; it is multidimensional."