By MIRA REINBERG
There is nothing like the subject of women’s suffrage to remind us that society’s historical memory is exceedingly, perhaps alarmingly, short, and consequently that each battle for the recognition and institution of a fundamental human political right needs to be fought anew, in a Sisyphean enterprise of selecting the most efficient tactics.
The Good Fight, playwright Anne Bertram’s new contribution to Theatre Unbound, opened at the backdrop of an intense campaign that aims to determine whether such a political right will undergo a restrictive transformation: Minnesota’s general elections ballot of November 2012 will include an amendment to qualify as voters only those presenting a government-issued photo ID.
The struggle to win voting rights for women in Great Britain began in the early 1830s and lasted nearly 100 years. The prolonged campaign, undertaken by various women’s organizations that followed a constitutional approach, was wearying some women leaders who made the case for a more militant course of action. Such were the protagonists of the play, Emmeline Pankhurst (Delta Rae Giordano) and her daughter Christobel (Laurel Orman), who together with their fellow suffragettes founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903.
In addition to giving testament to one of the West’s most momentous social reform movements, the play problematizes the decision to revert to violent means in order to achieve just ends. This production, under the direction of Carolyn Levy, stresses the dilemma facing the women and their ambivalence in making the grave choices. Indeed, in the first Act the camaraderie and intimacy among the women seemed rather to highlight the stereotypes attributed to women’s hesitation. The second Act, however, succeeded in harnessing the emotional and physical toll that the women’s actions and commitment took, and the actresses conveyed forcefully both the suffering and the determination that their zeal generated.
“We don’t initiate violence. We turn it against itself.” Such is the rationale for learning the jujitsu method as a self-defense measure against police brutality. The medium of theatre is strikingly potent in offering a stage for the tension between the reluctance to harm fellow humans – hence the insistence on striking only property (including the planting of bombs in churches, theatres, and botanical gardens) – and the one-on-one combat with the British police. It was in these scenes that the question of the relation between resistance and violence was most powerfully probed.
There was a high price to be paid for this bravery, and Jennifer Kudelka gives a moving and compelling performance as Grace Roe, a leader in the WSPU, enduring the consequences of imprisonment, hunger strike, and force-feeding. Sadie Ward’s stage design provided the stern but circumspect aura of the wood-paneled image of the period, enabling Parliament to turn into prison as a reminder of the dubious proximity of these institutions.
One is tempted to speculate on Pankhurst and her fellow combatants’ sentiment toward the current endeavor to curb the right to vote. The playwright does not attempt to transpose the historical circumstances to the current political arena, but although the play ends on a somewhat conciliatory note, one wonders whether the women who fought the good fight would be amused.
The Good Fight by Anne Bertram. Directed by Carolyn Levy. Set design by Sadie Ward. Theatre Unbound, September 29 – October 14, 2012. Performed at The Lowry Lab Theater, 350 St. Peter Street, St. Paul, MN 55102. Tickets at 612-721-1186, or athttp://www.theatreunbound.com/tickets/tickets.shtml