In collaboration with the Complications Company, the Vermont Suffrage Centennial Alliance celebrates the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment with a serious analysis of the suffrage movement’s virtues and flaws.
“The Suffragists Reenactment Society” was written by Mary Beth McNulty and directed by Laura Roald. Kathryn Blume, Sarah Mell and Julia Sioss play the three main characters. The runtime is an hour long, but much happens in that hour.
The play is organized like a town meeting. The audience acts as the voting public. They listen to the board announce, explain and debate the items on their agenda, before getting to vote on them, with little cards reading “aye” on the front and “nay” on the back.
The main item for consideration is a Fourth of July presentation. The voters’ town — White River Junction at last Sunday’s performance — has given them 10 minutes to reenact an event from suffragist history and the board is thrilled to share their ideas with the public. However, when the board is forced to come to terms with the problematic behavior of their heroes, tensions rise, especially between older board chair Deborah (Blume) and the two younger members, historian Tory (Mell) and treasurer Lin (Sioss).
The audience immersion is a highlight of this play. Not only are the audience members voters, but they play trivia with Tory, sing historical protest songs and take part in reenactments spanning the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to Tennessee’s historic ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920. The approach is reminiscent of a museum exhibit or a school assembly. There is even a quiz at the end.
There was a surprising silliness to the production. The actors seemed to be having fun; Mell sounds genuinely thrilled to talk about Susan B. Anthony’s illegal vote. The three make the most out of their props. A box becomes a pony or a table at a polling place. The historical figures are depicted on large, colorful playing cards.
But this silliness still contributes to the play’s message because McNulty is skilled at juxtaposition. I could hear the audience’s upset when an early Black female activist’s card was held up, only for her portrait to be missing. It is an effective way to demonstrate what is lost when people of color are left out of history.
The play is not subtle about this message. There is a noticeable difference in how the characters treat white historical figures and figures of color. When Tory recounts Anthony’s illegal vote and arrest, she is greeted with excitement from the other members. When she gets to what Anthony said about Black people voting during the 1867 Battle for Kansas, she is silenced. When Black abolitionist Ida B. Wells’ investigation of lynchings in the South is recounted, it creates conflict. Deborah, the closest character to an antagonist, emphasizes being “patriotic” and not “political” like abolitionism and indigenous history. Lin outright begs for an intersectional approach at the end.
One of the best parts of the play is that its characters are realistic. Deborah is reflective of older Democrats that young, progressive voters are frustrated with. She ignores and deflects criticism of her heroes to protect them. Tory idolizes these historical figures, too, but is concerned about their racism like Lin is. Lin may be reserved, but she is too concerned by the end to stay silent. All she wants is for the Society to remain aware and try to do better. If you have participated in politics for the past five years, you have likely met all of these people.
“The Suffragists Reenactment Society” is good for those looking to learn more about women’s suffrage or get a look at the movement through a modern, progressive lens. It is fun, educational, yet hard-hitting in its message. For a unique theater experience, do not miss it.
“The Suffragists Reenactment Society” will be performed at Bennington Performing Arts Center on Friday and at the Latchis Theatre Ballroom in Brattleboro, Saturday, both at 7:30 pm. Tickets are available at bit.ly/suffragistreenactment. Attendees must be vaccinated or able to present a negative COVID test and wear masks in the theater.