Theatre Seven Shows 100 Years of Extraordinary Chicago Women
Although U.S. women gained the right to vote in 1920, women's suffrage first took the national stage in 1913. Inspired by the movement's centennial, Theatre Seven (T7) of Chicago's new play, "Unwilling and Hostile Instruments," celebrates seven extraordinary women with strong ties to Chicago.
"Our history in this city is loaded with the legacy of women," said Brian Golden, T7's artistic director, who also wrote the "glue" that binds the eight new works commissioned from Chicago playwrights into a single play. This framework dramatizes the rehearsal process that gave rise to it, imagining a run-through of the play set in the Uptown Hull House Center Theater, which closed its doors for good in June 2013.
Development began with a company-wide conversation about the continued under-representation of women's stories, on stage and off, and the embarrassment of riches Chicago enjoys in this regard.
"We settled on seven or eight [women] from about 29 finalists that we felt somehow represented Chicago's legacy," said Golden.
Although the centennial prompted the work, T7 was not interested in a suffrage play, per se.
"We wanted to show different ways of being extraordinary. I don't think it would have been as interesting if we'd told eight stories of social pioneers," Golden noted.
But the play does not neglect Chicago's activist heavy hitters. Jane Addams bookends the show, which opens with Elaine Romero's "These People," set in 1889, a crucial time for Hull House and Addams personally.
"I wanted to write a piece that showed [Addams] in the early days of Hull House, but also in the early days of expressing her love to a woman. Love always takes a risk. My play captures two women on the precipice of taking that risk," said Romero.
Golden’s framework and Ike Holter’s closing piece, "Maverick," keep Addams present throughout the play, documenting Hull House’s successes struggles, culminating in its closure in 2012. Regarding recent conversations about applying "the L word" to Addams, the rehearsal process had already yielded dialogue dealing with the issue when a piece on the same topic aired on WBEZ in early September.
"All I can say is ’Boston marriage, my ass.’ Jane loved women. Jane was a lesbian. She was a lesbian and a genius and a visionary," said Romero.
Like Addams, Golden noted that activist and NAACP co-founder, Ida B. Wells, was a non-negotiable inclusion. Carla Stillwell’s "Under Threat of Lynching" depicts Wells in 1891 on the eve of her flight from Memphis to Chicago. The piece lays the groundwork for the play’s theme of conflict between obligations to self and family and those to community, cause and society at large.
Wells’ centrality is also emphasized in framing dialogue that maps out the rise and fall of the Bronzeville public housing that bore her name for 60 years. Likewise, Golden’s framework raises the issues of race that still render women of color largely invisible within feminism.
With little-known Cora Strayer, T7 turns to what Golden called the "kaleidoscope of extraordinary." Tracey Kaplan, who plays Strayer in Emily Schwartz’s piece, came across the private detective, who urged women in search of the vote to be willing to die for their country, when T7’s company members were pitching subjects.
"I was immediately struck by Cora’s audacity and refusal to let anything keep her down. She may not be a woman that you read about in textbooks, but I think she is absolutely an extraordinary woman we should all know," Kaplan said.
Schwartz captures the spark of Strayer’s ad copy for her agency and evokes the midways and exhibition grounds that formed the backdrop for colorful characters like her. It also moves the play forward in time and turns the focus to women whose contributions, though largely cultural, left political legacies, too.
In writing the play that would become "Chicago," journalist Maurine Watkins intended to lay bare courtroom corruption and the dangerous sentiment of the day, which held women to be incapable of evil. In giving voice to Watkins and the real-life murderesses whose trial inspired her, Seth Bockley’s "Murder, Grand and Gorgeous" explores the power of women telling women’s stories and the arbitrary nature of legacy.
Lauren Yee’s "Good Morning, Ann Landers" depicts the famed columnist as driven to forge a network bridging gaps of race, class and culture at the expense of traditional markers of women’s success, like marriage and family. In a similar vein, in "Circle Be Unbroken," Travis Williams uses a Mavis Staples’ soundtrack for an imagined connection across racial lines in the unlikeliest of moments, as white Chicagoans attacked peaceful protestors marching in support of fair housing.
Company member Nick Ward had initially pitched another extraordinary Chicago woman of color, Kid Sister, when Golden and director Elly Green asked him to take on a quite different challenge.
"[They] noted that Myra Bradwell had been left out of the picture, and the narrative... jumped from the 1960s to the 1990s. Both seemed like really crucial holes for the play, so I was asked to write a play somehow featuring Myra Bradwell, but set in the ’70s or ’80s," said Ward.
Although Bradwell is commonly cited as the first female lawyer in the U.S., she was barred from practice, and turned to other forms of activism, including founding the "Chicago Legal News." Adithi Chandrashekar, who plays the time-traveling ghost of Bradwell in Ward’s "No Place for a Lady," elaborated on Bradwell’s legacy and the importance of the stories T7 is telling from her perspective as a lawyer who chose not to practice and, though she brought her skills to bear in political campaigns and not-for-profit work.
According to Green, Chandrashekar’s passion and engagement reflects the cast, crew and writers of "Unwilling and Hostile Instruments" more broadly.
"In our first weeks, we workshopped, doing scene work and having extended conversations about the play’s themes and questions -- about a whole level of exploration of what it is to be an activist and a human being... Everyone was really generous in sharing feelings and opinions," said Green.
Although more than 100 years have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court denied Bradwell’s application to practice law in Illinois in 1873, the status of women in the legal profession is still not one of equality. This play goes far in drawing a stark relief between what people believe about women’s advancements, and the reality of life for women today.
"Barriers that keep women (and minority women, especially) from excelling at the same rate as their male counterparts are institutionalized," said Chandrashekar. "I know the themes and messages [in the play] are still important because I know my female lawyer friends, those on partnership tracks at prestigious law firms, are still getting asked to pick up the coffee and dry cleaning on the way into the office, and are still getting called ’bitchy’ and ’polarizing’ when behaving exactly as their male colleagues, who are deemed ’assertive,’ do."
"Unwilling and Hostile Instruments" runs through Oct. 27 at the American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron, Chicago. For tickets or information, call 773-853-3158 or visit http://theatreseven.org.