October 26, 2017
I wasn’t sure what it meant to be invited to do the “talk back” after a theatrical performance, so I had to ask. At a reception for my colleague, Ed Berenson, at NYU’s La Maison Française, I met up with Jerrold Siegel, an emeritus professor of history who had the answer: “It’s back talk but more polite.”
Thus armed, I walked down University Place to NYU’s Black Box Theater in Pless Hall on the east side of Washington Square Park and joined, in this intriguing new role, Professor Burt Neuborne, who, for ten years, was the Inez Milholland chair at NYU Law School. You could feel the excitement at this performance over the presence of the evening’s real special guests, the University President Andrew Hamilton and his wife, Jenny.
The quality of the 90-minute performance was remarkable, especially given that it had been collaboratively created, written, and scored in five short weeks by a group of 15 doctoral, masters, and undergraduate students in Steinhardt’s Program in Educational Theater. The director is Nan Smithner and you can read about the project in this Broadway World write-up.
In full suffrage era costume, circa 1917, the troup staged its performance half in the little theater and half outside, first on Washington Place and then scattered in scenes—each with a specific point—around Washington Square Park. What a perfect setting. So much of the actual suffrage rally activity started or ended there or in Union Square. I was too busy watching the performance to take any photos, but here is a video snippet of the first street encounter just outside Pless Hall:
The performers told the story of suffrage in the crucial period before the 1917 New York referendum vote that eliminated the word “male” from the state constitution. The script pointedly reflected the diverse interests of its collaborators, with strong Latino, African-American, LBGTQ+, and anti-suffrage sub-themes, along with nods to the situation of the children of activists on both sides of the question, several chapeaus to the Men’s League and raspberries to the men who opposed the movement and forbade their wives to join up. The finale was a stirring move to the present and the future with shout-outs throughout to note the victory milestones for women’s and human rights over the past 100 years. There were pledges to give voice to the issues that remain.
The park scenes were charming. (I only saw one rat.)
The writers did take some artistic liberties—Maud Nathan suddenly had three children, for instance. And there was a quote from my book from a biting George Creel letter to the editor of the New York Times that was put in the mouth of Max Eastman. Eastman is a character in the show, not Creel, and was the executive secretary and treasurer of the Men’s League at its founding. He also quickly became one of the suffrage movement’s most sought-after orators and writers, male or female, so he had plenty of compelling pro-suffrage arguments of his own.
Nevertheless, I could understand the artistic choice. It was Creel who headed up the publicity campaign for the Men’s League and whose words best spoke for the performers. Creel once heard speakers at an anti-suffrage rally declare that the granting of suffrage would mean “the disintegration of the home.” This is how he responded in print:
“Whose home? What home? Surely they cannot mean the dark, squalid holes in the 13,000 licensed tenements in New York City alone, where whole families and adult boarders sleep, eat, and work in a single room, toiling incredible hours for incredible pittances.”
As Jonathan West confirmed, Creel’s words said what the troup wanted to get said best. West played Eastman and, with Oriana Miles, was one of Smithner’s two assistant directors.
Neuborn, now the Norman Dorsen Professor of Civil Liberties, was by far the more inspiring talk-backer (if that’s a word), drawing on his background with the ACLU to trace the history of legal challenges to voting rights through the decades. He emphasized the urgency of continuing to defend these rights or risk losing them. He underscored the importance to this generation of performers of merging art with history and politics as they had done so effectively.
For the finale, the cast members mostly changed to modern dress, although some of the them remained in costume to be greeted by the university’s president, who posed with them for a photo.
One lovely surprise as I got ready to go home: Regina Ress presented herself as a messenger from Martha Wheelock, and delivered a package (via Marguerite Kearns of the Suffrage Wagon, I’m told) with a copy of the DVD of her fine (and short) eponymous Inez Milholland documentary. You need a copy.
And to top it all off, there is this:
As if to say, Bravi, Company!