Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
As the first production of its 2019-2020 season, Gloria: A Life continues the series of History Theatre productions, which started last winter, dubbed "HERstory Theatre," with plays that focus on women who altered history, including Stewardess, Sisters of Peace and Dirty Business, and continuing later this fall with a return engagement of their past hit, Beyond the Rainbow, about Minnesota-born Judy Garland. Of that string of plays, only Gloria: A Life was not commissioned by History Theatre. Ms. Steinem herself commissioned playwright/director Emily Mann, the long-time artistic director of the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey, to write a stage play about her life. The resulting play opened at the Off-Broadway Daryl Roth Theatre last October to approving notices and ran through March of this year. History Theatre scored a coup in bringing the play so quickly to its audience in the Twin Cities.
Like most things about Gloria Steinem's life, the play has an unorthodox structure. The first act runs about ninety minutes with one actor playing the title roleat History Theatre, it is Charity Jones in a luminous performanceand an ensemble of six other actors, all female, playing a variety of people who were a part of Steinem's life journey, from her difficult childhood in Toledo, Ohio, to her days at Smith College, her early career as a journalist thwarted by male privilege and arrogance, and her awakening as a feminist at the age of thirty-five. That was just the groundwork for Steinem's trailblazing activism.
Among those Steinem viewed as mentors who appear are Dorothy Pitman Hughes, the pioneering African-American entrepreneur who co-founded Ms. Magazine with Steinem; outspoken black feminist Florynce Kennedy, who introduced the concept of intersectionality to activism; congresswoman Bella Abzug, who campaigned against the Vietnam War and was an early advocate for gay rights; and Wilma Mankiller, first woman elected chief of the Cherokee nation and a champion for native people's rights. The play makes it clear that, counter to critics who paint feminism as a clique of middle-class white women, Steinem, at least, worked closely with and learned tremendously from amazing women of color.
Not all the characters joining Steinem on stage are famous personages. We meet Steinem's mother, whose stifled ambitions and subsequent mental breakdown greatly influenced her. There are her fellow Playboy bunnies when Steinem famously went undercover to work at the Playboy Club, which resulted in the sensational article "A Bunny's Life," published in New York Magazine in 1963. There are women of all ages who, in 1969, shared their heartwrenching stories about having an abortion, propelling her to speak out and write about feminism.
This sprint through cultural history from the 1950s clear up to the present, by necessity, glosses over much of the material at hand and often feels hurried, yet playwright Mann has done a remarkable job of packing into ninety minutes the substance of Steinem's evolution from a girl who wanted to be one of the Radio City Rockettes to one of the best-known and most accomplished American feminists, and it is given a brisk, articulate staging by director Risa Brainin. Video images, designed by Miko Simmons, projected on screens atop the stage, use archival footage well to embellish the historical context of each scene, and songs that typify the era also add to the "you are there" spirit, including rousing performances of "I Am Woman," and "We Shall Overcome."
The second act of Gloria: A Life lasts just twenty minutes, but is actually more powerful than the ninety preceding it. For those twenty minutes, cast members lead a "talking circle," a concept Steinem learned from Wilma Mankiller, to bring the audience into the play by sharing their personal responses to all that we had just seen and heard. At each performance, guests representing community concerns or organizations are invited to start things off (on opening night, the guests represented ERA Minnesota, a collaboration dedicated to passing the Equal Rights Amendment into our state and federal constitutions).
I feared this would feel like a contrived exercise, with the low energy that is sometimes felt during "audience talkback" sessions after a performance. As might be expected, audience members held back at the start, but then more and more, young and old, mainly women, but also men, openly shared their responses. Sometimes the focus was on themselves, sometimes their mothers, or their daughters, or their students. Somehow, the dynamic between the vibrant life that was just depicted on stage and the skill of cast members to prompt the audience, made this a genuinely moving experience, and placed everything Gloria Steinem has labored for and championed during the past fifty years squarely in the context of right now.
It bears restating, Charity Jones gives a great performance as Gloria Steinem. She projects the feminist icon's articulate strength, but also conveys weakness, confusion, frustration, loss and love as those feelings spring forth from the chapters of her life. The ensemble does a wonderful job switching from role to role, and gender to gender. Especially strong impressions are Cathleen Fuller's depiction of Steinem's mother, Dana Lee Thompson's outrageous Florynce Kennedy, and George Keller bringing Wilma Mankiller to lifelanding a wallop when she is asked to explain the origin of her surname. Katie Bradley, Lolly Foy, and Jamila Joiner complete the ensemble, all worthy of kudos.
Gloria: a Life is a potent contribution to the theme of "herstory" that is the focus of History Theatre throughout 2019. The production is given a solid mounting, with Charity Jones' performance providing a solid core. The second act talking circle should not be treated as a chance to slip out early, because missing this would mean missing much of the purpose of the play. One could easily read Steinem's memoir, or at the least look up her entry in Wikipedia to learn much of the biography that passes through the first act, but the second act is when the possibility of fostering change moves from stage to audience members, and elevates the play from being "interesting" to being "urgent."
Gloria: A Life runs through October 20, 2019, at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Tiers 1-3: $35.00 - $48.00; seniors (age 60+) $30.00 - $43.00; under 30 -$30.00; Golden Circle tickets: $53.00, no discounts. Students $15.00. For tickets and information, call 651-292-4323 or visit historytheatre.com.
Playwright: Emily Mann; Director: Risa Brainin; Scenic Design: Joel Sass; Costume Design: Amelia Cheever; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Video Design: Miko Simmons; Properties Design: Abbee Warmboe; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson; Assistant Director: Meggie Greivell; Stage Manager: Lizzie Streif; Assistant Stage Manager: Jose Rodriguez-Sosa.
Cast: Katie Bradley (ensemble), Lolly Foy (ensemble), Cathleen Fuller (ensemble), Jamilla Joiner (ensemble), Charity Jones (Gloria Steinem), George Keller (ensemble), Dana Lee Thompson (ensemble).