First things first. I pull up in front of the Daryl Roth theatre far “off Broadway” on East 15th street in Manhattan, shake the rain out of my umbrella, walk up the steps of what might have been an old brownstone and wonder who is this Daryl Roth that he should have a theatre named after him.
He turns out to be a 73-year-old “she” philanthropist-producer of seven Pulitzer Prize winning plays and a stack of theatrical credits way high.
I grab the hand of my 23-year-old Columbia Grad student granddaughter, and we make our way to the top tier of the roundabout theatre and become comfortably ensconced on the padded bench seats and puffy back pillows in rainbow colors, with a clear view of everything that is about to unfold before us.
And, before us, is the naked stage decorated with several patterned fabrics (approximately—from our skyward vantage point 18 inch square cube tables and some Persian scatter rugs.) There are two huge wall screens – left and right – which fill in for drama and context as the presentation enfolds.
And now for the “ta dah!”
Christine Lahti, heavy with acting credits, light on her feet, appears as an uncanny Steinem look-alike. She struts around the stage with a sprightliness that barely misses swagger, an icon of American feminism. Her straight long blonde hair neatly parted, her hallmark tinted pilot glasses resting easily on her nose, and her clingy black bell bottoms and tight black shirt, adorned by a hip belt of metal circles in Native American style hanging narrow leather strips – are all in veneration of this ageless (though now 84) trailblazer.
If you’re too young to know of Gloria Steinem – simply put: writer, (most recent book, My Life On The Road) lecturer, political-feminist organizer, crusader for Native American and African American rights, media spokeswoman on all issues concerning equality and nonviolent conflict resolution and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Obama.
The stage is peopled by six sleight of hand actors who change costumes, genders and personas, representing other significant social change figures of the 1970s. The audience is transported to the “bad old days” when Smith College graduate Steinem had dreams of writing the great American magazine article and was invited to (and refused) an editor’s hotel room in order to “discuss” the assignment.
And, when she finally found the job of her dreams, her allotted stories ran the range of such topics as parenting, cooking, and house décor, until she finally and famously was hired as a Playboy Bunny with the assignment to interview and expose the gender demeaning nature of the job.
Tony award winning playwright Emily Mann successfully quilted the patches of vignettes and events into a cohesive piece of bio entertainment and historical perspective. A fiery Bella Abzug (late of the congressional House of Representatives) depicted in full militant activism replete with classic chapeau, along with fellow activists perhaps not as well known, African-American Flo Kennedy and Native American, Wilma Mankiller (no pun intended). Their on-the-stump speeches full of the passion of yet unleashed freedom to be themselves, their unwavering fight for abortion rights, sparked the theatrical airwaves and surely moved those of us who “had been there,” to tears.
To the “newbie” millennials for whom much of this must have seemed like fiction, it hopefully served as a first-grade reader – with so much more to be learned.
Steinem’s mother, Ruth, played a large role in her life and on stage, originally, as the young journalist who needed to write her material under a male pseudonym and later as the physical and emotional invalid sucking up Gloria’s sensitive teenage years.
Steinem’s drive as the power behind the creation of MS magazine – a publication for, by, and about women of serious societal and philosophical concerns was handled too casually for my taste – its birth as a monthly publication and subsequent iterations – currently, a quarterly -- is history enough for drama, but glossed over, I guess, in favor of the myriad of issues addressed.
And then the “tour de force” second act consisting of audience participation wherein people speak up on subjects of personal concern related to the issues enacted on stage. One such event in its early opening days included Gloria Herself as part of the audience – sorry to have missed that one. Our “session” happily included contributions from very highly evolved men -- a nice balance for those of us always looking for balance.
And so, Granddaughter and I emerged back into the persistent rain with enough to talk about for the remainder of my visit, prior to my return to the Sunshine State and pre-election politics.
As theatre, of course, it was preaching to the choir with a good bit of drama, history, nostalgia and great camaraderie at the end – a really good- for-the-soul experience at a time when leadership of the past is a reminder of what is possible.
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