hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture June 2020


The drama of democracy

WAM Theatre’s Suffrage Project explores voting rights, citizenship


Flo Brett, a member of WAM Theatre’s Elder Ensemble, is among those taking part in the theater company’s Suffrage Project, an online work begun in May that explores the ideas of voting and citizenship. Courtesy photo/Amy Brentano


Flo Brett, a member of WAM Theatre’s Elder Ensemble, is among those taking part in the theater company’s Suffrage Project, an online work begun in May that explores the ideas of voting and citizenship. Courtesy photo/Amy Brentano


Contributing writer

LENOX, Mass.

It’s an election year, and the United States is bitterly divided. Thousands of Americans are dying. People are taking to the streets to demand change. Some of the protests turn violent.

In the Democratic primaries, a candidate with strong support on college campuses is upsetting the expected nominee as the race takes off. But historic events keep upending the contest, and the question of who gets to vote is becoming a life-or-death issue. The Republican candidate is deeply unpopular – and will one day face impeachment -- but he narrowly wins a plurality of the national popular vote.

This is 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated and Richard Nixon won the White House. And though women had won the right to vote nearly 50 years earlier, the Freedom movements and civil rights laws of the 1960s made this the first national election when many women, and many Americans, could cast their ballots.

Now, as the 19th Amendment nears its centennial, and with a new presidential election fueling a national conversation about the right to vote and the process of voting, WAM Theatre is creating new work around the idea of suffrage. The group is asking people to think about what voting is -- what it means, and who gets to take part.

In May, WAM began the process of creating the Suffrage Project, a new work of community theater, online. They are working with ensembles of local people -- an elder ensemble and an ensemble of people of color – and each group is meeting virtually to create their own stories.
“Even before Covid-19, we thought we have to do this now, and especially now, because of the election,” explained Lia Russell-Self, WAM Theatre’s associate producing director. “It’s a pivotal election year.”

So the theater company is giving people a place to talk about their lives: what living in this country means to them; how they define citizenship and allegiance; the meaning and effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the isolation of the quarantine; how they feel in the lead-up to the 2020 election; and when voting has meant a difference in daily experiences as basic as getting a paycheck or dinner or walking home safely at night.


Adapting to a coronavirus era
At the beginning of the project, Russell-Self said, WAM had planned to work with the ensembles in weekend-long retreats where people could come and go and concentrate together on the work. Instead, the theater company has turned the ensembles into ongoing virtual gatherings, and they are creating new work to share online in June.

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, theaters across the country are in a holding pattern right now, Russell-Self said. Stages in New York City have the lights down and sets still up, in the middle of productions that have closed. But companies like WAM are finding ways to go on.
“We can’t stop telling stories,” Russell-Self said.

The theater company – its initials stand for “where arts and activism meet” – sees this as an important time to share stories of citizenship and the power a citizen can hold.

“This is such an important election, and there are a lot of distractions,” said Talya Kingston, WAM’s associate artistic director. “But how people deal with catastrophes … depends on who’s in power.”

The Suffrage Project began in part to mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment’s ratification in August 1920, she said. The constitutional amendment affirmed that women had the legal right to vote. But for the next 45 years, the women who could exercise that right were mainly white and well educated.

“We have to talk about which women got the right to vote,” Russell-Self said.
The 19th Amendment declared that the rights of citizens of the United States would not be denied, in any state, on the basis of sex. But states would continue to deny many citizens those rights on other accounts. And to others, the nation denied citizenship entirely.

Federal immigration laws, for example, barred people of Chinese descent from becoming citizens from the 1880s until 1943, and many Asian Americans weren’t able to become citizens or secure voting rights until legal changes enacted in 1965.

And though the 15th Amendment gave black men the right to vote beginning in 1870, individual states, especially across the South, set up barriers such as poll taxes and literacy tests that effectively denied this right for decades. The same tactics blocked black women from voting after they officially gained suffrage in 1920.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally threw out these state restrictions and made real the Constitution’s promise of full citizenship for black voters. It also extended voting rights to Native Americans, who had been barred from voting in many jurisdictions for more than a century.


Theater on the ground
WAM has been growing its community theater programs in the last two years.
The company formed its Elder Ensemble last year, Kingston said. In their first season, the elders worked with a teen ensemble including LGBTQ teenagers.

Russell-Self said the elders formed a close group.
“After they performed last year, every other week they would get in touch with each other: ‘Hey, do you want to hang out? Go to a show? Get together and be creative?’”

They felt a need to talk.

This year, WAM began exploring more ensembles, reaching out to people of color, veterans and immigrants.

“We want to make a space for all with an equal voice,” Russell-Self said.
They are creating two new ensembles: an Immigrant Ensemble working with Multicultural Bridge, a nonprofit group based in Lee; and a Veterans Ensemble with Soldier On, a Pittsfield-based group that works to end homelessness among military veterans.

The People of Color Ensemble began meeting in May. Russell-Self is co-leading it with Trenda Loftin, a theater artist from the Pioneer Valley. They have welcomed people from teens to 60s and a wide range of viewpoints and experiences.

“It is a needed space of belonging,” Russell-Self said. “Every time I get to talk with someone, they’ve said, ‘Thank you for creating this space. It’s what I need right now.’”

They put the call out to anyone interested, and people responded. Some have been a part of WAM or the teen ensemble, some were involved with groups WAM has supported, and some got to know the theater company through its award-winning production of “Pipeline” last fall.
“That was such an incredible experience,” Russell-Self said.

Dominique Morisseau’s “Pipeline” focuses on a public school teacher trying to protect her son as he navigates a prestigious prep school, and it takes its title from a current of bias in education that leads black families into interaction with the justice system and can have devastating consequences, especially for young black men. WAM’s production of the show opened a conversation with people in the community.

Before the first meeting of the new People of Color Ensemble, Russell-Self and Loftin asked all of the participants to create a work of their own on suffrage. In the early meetings, they will look at the work together. They took the first meeting to set the space and share stories.

“This topic can get personal,” Russell-Self said. “Politics at the end of the day are personal matters. … It is important to honor everyone’s experiences. We have people of all different races, backgrounds, migrant statuses. We want people to feel welcome. In my experience as an educator, … this is an arc of powerful ties. People immediately jumped in and wanted to be in a space with each other.”

They had just been reading the first works.
“One work that spoke to me,” Russell-Self said, “is about the pain we continually experience, that that person continually experiences. It is a poem about blisters and where they come from – a nervous tic to calm down every time someone asks ‘What are you?’ or ‘Where are you from?’ And they say, ‘There’s no one I can vote for whose blisters seem parallel to mine — no one who will stand up for me.’”


Looking across 50 years
Writers in the elder ensemble are reflecting on their own experiences with representation, and some of them can look back to 1968 and beyond.

Kingston is co-leading the ensemble with Amy Brentano, the artistic producing director of The Foundry in West Stockbridge. They want to hold a safe space, Kingston said, and also to give people a chance to find and turn over and understand ideas that are new to them.
“All of the members have different talents and skills -- dance, music, art. … One is a stand-up comedian,” Kingston said.

They gave each woman in the group a prompt to create an original work in any media: a monologue, a song, a poem, a photograph.

But they took time first just to talk. The people in the ensemble wanted to see each other, Kingston said. Some are living in isolation because of Covid-19.

“I taught some of them how to get on Zoom,” she said, “and the delight of seeing faces again. … We had one woman who had said she couldn’t create anything, and after the first meeting, she wrote a song.”

They began to share stories about the first time they remember voting, what their ideal president would be like, times when they have felt divided allegiances, people who inspire them.
“There’s a power in being together and being heard,” Kingston said, “and having people to talk with.

“Activism lets you move forward even if you’re stuck in one space.”
She and Brentano have been working with the artists on their individual pieces -- recording a choreographer as she dances in her home studio, helping the composer to record her song.
One member of the elder ensemble is writing a conversation between American suffragist Alice Paul, one of the leaders of the campaign for the 19th Amendment, and prominent British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst. It has a flavor of Oscar Wilde, Brentano says, and a comic wit. It also has an edge to it. Pankhurst believed in increasingly direct confrontations -- she and Paul were both arrested repeatedly, as they led rallies against obstructive national legislatures -- and Pankhurst was willing to resort to violence.

Another member of the ensemble is creating a spoken-word poem in honor of a suffragist in New York City, Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, a woman she recently learned about for the first time through Berkshire Museum’s ongoing (and now virtual) exhibit, “She Makes History.”

In 1912, when she was 16, Lee entered her first year at Barnard College, the sister college to Columbia, and she led a suffrage parade of 10,000 marchers through the city, riding on horseback. She fought for women’s right to vote, knowing that as a Chinese American, she would not be able to it. She saw voting rights extended to Asian Americans only near the end of her life, before she died in 1966.


Working as a group
Brentano also hopes to create a work with the whole ensemble, even while the participants have to work from separate houses.

They have been experimenting with the Zoom camera, she said, playing with the frame, with movement and with cloth masks as props.

Kingston said they are exploring with gesture and connection and voice, creating a physical expression of community.

And the more they meet virtually, and the more they talk, the deeper they go. The conversation bridges past and present, and it can touch feelings of power and urgency and fear.
“They remember the civil rights movement,” Brentano said, “and they talk about it and feel dismayed. They talk about current events.

“They remember the Equal Rights Amendment. They remember marching and burning bras. They have a sense of the women’s movement. In the first meeting, we talked about black women not being able to vote until 1965. They are asking … ‘How are we where we are right now?’”
They remember voting with their unions. They remember the election of 1968, and the draft, and the Vietnam War.

The Equal Rights Amendment, which would have guaranteed legal equality between women and men, seemed headed for easy ratification in the 1970s, winning support from 35 of the 38 state legislatures needed, before running aground in the face of a conservative opposition campaign.
The Berkshires felt those national currents. Williams College created its Africana Studies department in 1969 and admitted its first women students in 1970.

In Pittsfield, the Urban Renewal movement led to demolition of the old Union Station in 1968, with its Berkshire marble and tall windows, and the historic Hotel Wendell on the corner -- and entire neighborhoods around West Street.


Live theater online
Kingston and Brentano find this shared exploration powerful and rich in possibility, though they both deeply miss the power of watching a live performance with an audience.
“Just breathing the same air -- which of course is the one thing we’re not supposed to do -- is so powerful,” Kingston said.

For now, they plan to share WAM’s efforts virtually. Both ensembles will create and hone work in early to mid-June and, in time, to make it public through WAM’s website and social media.
“We are not putting pressure on the artists,” Russell-Self said. “This year, even before Covid-19, we were talking about relying more on the process than on the performance and giving the artists time to experiment and experience in the way they have to.

“We are cognizant and aware of that. At the same time, people are excited to be creating and find ways to share their work, and to create work as an ensemble.”

The work the elder ensemble has created, since it began in early May, shows potential in virtual forms.

“It’s powerful,” Russell-Self said. “And I didn’t expect that, as a theater person doing work outside of film. The ensemble magic still exists.”

Russell-Self recalled reading “A Prayer for Theater,” a piece by Larissa FastHorse, the playwright of “The Thanksgiving Play,” which WAM has chosen for its Fresh Takes series in November.
FastHorse talks about what theater is, what it is meant to be and what can be.

“We’re going back to the bare bones -- storytelling and community,” Russell-Self said. “That’s what we’re doing. Hearing your neighbor’s story is so important and powerful. Especially now.”