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While the United States of America was established in the year 1776, women citizens of the country did not receive the right to vote until 1920. That means that (possibly more than) half the citizenry of the United States was unable to vote in any of the held elections for a total of 144 years.
Women across the country began to actively petition the government – which of course was made up solely of men – for the right to vote around the year 1850, which means that when the 19th Amendment went into effect in 1920, it had taken seventy-plus years for the women of this country to succeed in obtaining the right to vote in US elections. At the same time, there was another effort striving for this right as African Americans were attempting to secure the right. This push was also two-pronged, in that, once African Americans had obtained the right to vote, only Black men received it. Black women's right to vote became an effort that ran its course alongside White women's push for their right. But the black women of this country did not actually get to vote until 1965! More on this point later.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, Burning Coal Theatre Company has created a collection of 14 short films in connection with other Raleigh companies, and that collection is now available online; the entire collection steams through September 30. To view these shows – which were all created during the pandemic –go to Burning Coal's website and purchase a ticket. Burning Coal will then send you a link and password for access. You may purchase the entire series of 14 shows or any number you prefer individually.
It is not by accident that each of these films was penned by a woman, or women, as the case may be. Some are direct records of the accomplishment, some are more a flight of fancy, and some are recreations of events that might very well have taken place, involving historical figures and locales. We're going to go down the list of films as released to us by Burning Coal, go over a few particulars like cast, director, and playwright, and then we will select a few particular films to review. Were we to try and do a review of all 14, this would become a severely overlong document! In my viewing of these films, I have broken them into two groups – Act I and Act II, as it were – and I viewed each one in sequence, as they were provided to me. A list of the shows follows.
Act I – The 19th Amendment Project
1. "Inalienable Rights," by Deb Margolin. Produced by Raleigh Little Theatre, directed by Lucinda Grainey. CAST: Rebecca Blum (Ms. Merthbille:), Benji Jones (Voting Attendant), Simon Kaplan (Man in Booth). A 20th-century woman goes to her polling station to vote. Once inside her booth, she is confronted by an 18th-century man, who tries to convince her that she really shouldn't be there.
2. "The Tender-Hearted," by Clare Bayley. Produced by the League of Women Voters of Wake County, directed by Beth Gardiner. CAST: Hope Hynes Love (Mother), Dan Toot (Father, Tobias), Abbey Toot (Daughter, Ellen). A 19th-century family faces a crisis when a man's hunting dog is caught in a trap. He comes home to his wife and wants her to tend to the animal, but he confronts her as she is just on her way out to go to town to join the March for the Women's Vote. In an act of defiance, Mother – who has been urged by her daughter to go to the March – goes to tend the animal and, seeing the condition the dog is in, makes a decision.
3. "Apartment 19," by Magdalena Gomez. Produced by the Agape Theater Project; directed by Kenneth Horton. CAST: Lebone Moses (Custodian), Dannibeth Farnum (Tenant). The Custodian of an apartment house is called to Apartment 19 about a leak, but when she arrives, the tenant won't let her in. The conversation at the door reveals that not only did these two grow up as neighbors, they are actually Sisters in the Cause.
4. "Lost Music from the Heart of Everything, A Suffrage Aria for Amelia Himes Walden," text by Ruth Margraff and music by Kamala Sarkaram. Produced by North Carolina Opera, sung by Stephanie Foley Davis. As Ms. Davis sings, her performance is interspersed with pictures from the Suffrage Movement. Phrases from the text include "Are Women People?," "Kitchen Days and Nursery Nights," "How Can I Open the Mansion of Your Soul?," and "The Language of the Angels."
5. "Ladies Are Waiting (L.A.W.)," by Carrie Knowles. Produced By North Carolina Theatre; directed by Eric Wooodall. CAST: Estes Tarver (King Arthur), Rasool Jahan (Lady Guinevere), Music: Lady Gaga Fugue, composed by Stephani Germanotta and Nadir Khayat, performed by pianist Katherina Nohl. Arthur and his bride debate the Coming of the Women, both literally – a contingent will arrive soon to meet with Guinevere to discuss the horrid laws of the land – and figuratively – as Merlin has predicted, women shall (and should) receive the right to vote. As Guinevere tells her king, "You cannot change the course of history!"
6. "A Sentiment," by Elaine Romero. Produced by Justice Theatre Project, Directed by Jerry Sipp. CAST: Betsy Sharp (Mrs. Lucretia Mott), Jason Sharp (Mr. John Mott). On the eve of the 1848 Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention, Quaker couple Mr. and Mrs. Lott debate Lucretia's rewriting of the Declaration of Independence. Mrs. Lott and three of her peers are to present this document to the Convention in the effort to obtain The Vote for Women. There were 100 attendees, all of whom signed the document: 68 women and 32 men. It took another 72 years until the 19h Amendment secured women the right to vote.
7. "The 19th," by Hannah Benitez. Produced by Sweet Tea Shakespeare, directed by Claire F. Martin. CAST: Emily Garrison (Alice, a young white woman of the upper class), Kelsey Blocker (Minnie, a young working black woman, an engine stoker). It is 1855, in the territory that will become New Mexico. Aboard a moving train, Alice has somehow managed to reach the engine of the train after it has been attacked by marauders. She finds that only the stoker remains; where the engineer is, is anyone's guess. A conversation between the two tells us that Alice's father actually owns the railroad, but as it is now possible that Father is dead, Millie suggests that Alice, being her father's eldest, is now the owner of this railroad. But Alice believes that her younger brother will actually inherit the RR. The question now before the two is, can they stop the train in an attempt to save their own lives?
Act II: The 19th Amendment Project: The Black Women's Movement
8. "BEHOLD: Colored and Woman: Inconceivable," by M.J. Perrin. Produced by Theatre in the Park, directed by Ira David Wood IV. CAST: Nadia Jones (Mace), Rozlyn Sorrell (Mom). Mace comes home to find that her aunt has had delivered to her home a collection of boxes and trunks, which now are strewn around the living room. Mace investigates, and finds one trunk filled with memorabilia of the Black Women's Movement for the Right to Vote. She opens and reads several letters chronicling the Black Women's Movement. By the time the 19th Amendment was passed, Black men had already received the right to vote. But Black women were not granted the right to vote until August 5, 1965, another 45 years!
9. "On the Roof, In the Tombs," by Prageeta Sharma & Kate R. Morris. This show has a cast of six, including three adult white females, two adult black females, and one adult male. But a cast list was not included with the film. With a clock ticking loudly in the background, three white women prepare to march for voting rights. The first dons a pair of gloves and begins to box with a white male. He asks her how far will she go? Dialogue highlights: "I know the power of women's hands." "America is not [yet] a democracy." "Break the window!" "There is nothing complicated about simple equality." This film ends with a quote from the author of African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote: 1850-1920, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn: "White women suffragists sought the vote only for themselves. Conversely, African American women were Universal Suffragists in that they sought the vote for All Citizens, not just for themselves."
10. "Voter Registration Drive," by Susanna Cook. Produced by North Carolina Central University, directed by Dr. Asabi (Stephanie Howard). CAST: Zora Umeadi. A black woman is in the hallway of an apartment building, knocking on doors. She is attempting to register people to vote, particularly women. After she talks with a woman and completes her registration, she goes to the elevator and starts downstairs, but the elevator stops suddenly and she is trapped. She prays to the suffragists for strength. This film is dedicated to three suffragists in particular: Lucy Burns, Alice Paul, and Dorothy Day.
11. "Thunderclap," by Tamara Kissane. Produced by William Peace University, directed by Amy Pridgen. CAST: Lilly Mills (Rachel), Nicholas Davis (Jake), Nicole Holmes (Alice). Mom and Dad are excited that their daughter Alice is now 18 and can vote for the first time. But Alice doesn't think her vote will change anything. She intends to register her dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs by refusing to vote! Mom and Dad attempt to dissuade her from this view.
12: "Bitter Flower," by Jennifer Natalya Fink. Produced by the Gilbert Theater, directed by Lawrence Carlisle III & Ryan Pagels. CAST: Tohry Petty (Ida Wells-Barnett), Marie Smartwood-Lowe (Jane Addams), Linda Flynn (Sally). It is New Years, 1901. Mrs. Wells-Barnett visits Jane Addams, prominent columnist, to see if she can get her to support denunciation of lynching. Addams is enthusiastic in her agreement, but once her column is published, it is clear she has entirely missed the point. After another visit to Miss Addams, Ida knows that she will have to write her own column. Miss Addams' own publication, The Independent, publishes Ida's column on May 16.
13. "Gerrymanderia: the Miss Earth vacancy in the Miss Universe Pageant System," by Ariel Zetina. Produced by Burning Coal, directed by Alex Procknow. CAST: Naomi Dix (Gerrymanderia), Jessica Fleming (TV Presenter), Catherine Calloway (Chastity Charity), Dutchesz Gemini (Tiffany Temple). Gerrymanderia sings for a place in the Miss Universe Pageant. After she discusses her entry with the hostess, two different viewers, Chastity and Tiffany, find that Gerrymanderia MUST win the slot, and both attempt to vote. But while both find it difficult, it is far more difficult for Tiffany, who is Black, to vote than it is for Chastity, who is White.
14. "She Drove Me to Town Hall When I Turned 18 So I Could Register to Vote," by Kelly Doyle. Produced by the Women's Theater Festival, directed by Keyanna Alexander. CAST: Johanna Edwards. In what appears to be a press interview, a White woman is asked about her voting history. She is very enthusiastic in her response and says she has been voting since the age of 18. "I voted in every presidential election," but she later admits this is not entirely true. "I never understood why a woman would be a Republican!" She met John Kerry when she was 15, during his first campaign in Massachusetts. She meets him forty years later and reminds him of that first meeting. "I campaigned for Elizabeth Warren." "My parents canceled out each other's vote. He was a Republican." Interspersed in her monologue are photos of Black women battling for the vote, young Black women with bullhorns at voters' rallies, and many of the suffragists who fought for Black women's right to vote. After this woman has spoken for over twenty minutes, she finally concludes and leaves the screen. She is replaced with a image of a Black woman holding up a black sign that reads, simply, VOTE.
In reviewing this project, we've selected only three pieces to dive into. We don't want to spoil your fun. The first of these is "Ladies Are Waiting (L.A.W.)." It is the fifth piece in the series. We have only two characters, and they are well known to us: King Arthur of Britain (Estes Tarver) and his Lady, Guinevere (Rasool Jahan). Guinevere is busy arranging a floral bouquet as a centerpiece for her pending meeting with several of the upper crust women, who are here to examine the horrid regulations under which they must live. But King Arthur cannot let this go without comment. After all, these are his regulations.
This is a quick discussion of only 11:25 minutes, thus, we are content with a single setting: a round (reflective of the king's Round) table in front of a latticed window. Arthur is vexed; he finds the ladies' questioning of his laws to be highly irregular. Guinevere is questioning why it is that there are two complete sets of laws: one to govern the men, and one to govern the women. One of the first laws the ladies will examine is the fact that it is prohibited for a woman to leave her husband for another man. There is no such law for men. Arthur maintains that there must be separate laws; he tells Guinevere that "women are not built for battle; they are built for the home." Guinevere reminds her king that if a woman does leave her husband, she is considered an adulteress and subject to the very same punishment. She also intends to bring up the fact that women have no right to vote. We will put aside, for the nonce, the fact that Arthur is a king, and that there are no voting rights whatsoever. Guinevere tells her king that Merlin says women should be allowed to vote, just as men do. "The ladies are waiting; we intend to draw up a few demands." While it is a fairly well understood fact that these demands will not change much, Guinevere is looking to the future, when "we shall be treated as equal citizens to men." Merlin has told her as much, that it will take place. At some point long into the future, perhaps, it shall be so. "You cannot change the course of history!" she tells him.
This is a fast-paced clip and the interaction between the two is stellar. Guinevere does not cajole; she is cool, and states her comments merely as facts. Arthur, on the other hand, is not at all cool. He is being challenged at the highest level, and by a woman, no less! We are not filming with a static camera, either. We get close-ups of both characters and a variety of angles, all of which helps move the action forward. This story is Guinevere's; she is both the first and the last person we see. At the end of the conversation, she has completed her floral arrangement and placidly turns to gaze out the window. She is as calm and cool as lake water, because she is secure that her beliefs are right.
We should also look at the sixth in the series, "A Sentiment," by Elaine Romero. This is true for a number of reasons. First is the sheer amount of information to be gleaned from this piece; it went the farthest in educating me as to several salient facts. The action takes place in and around the home of a Quaker couple, Lucretia and John Mott; these two are not fictional. Lucretia is one of those who drew up the documents presented at the 1848 Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention. She used as her template the Declaration of Independence. Also, this is one of the longer films, almost 24 minutes. With only two characters, this is a more challenging film to make. Finally, while almost all of these films may pass muster with very little to criticize, this particular film has one obvious drawback. What that drawback is becomes apparent in very short order.
The piece opens as Lucretia is returning home after meeting with those who helped her draw up her famous documents. It is already dark; with prescience, she has taken a lantern with her to guide her home again. She is met immediately by her husband, who has been worried about her.
He queries her on what she has been working on, and, only half-jokingly, he wonders what it is going to cost him. He has learned before now that Lucretia's challenges require compromise.
Lucretia and her other ladies have been working on a document that uses the Declaration of Independence to point out that, while the men of this new country have "certain inalienable rights," the women do not. This, she tells him, is because the original Declaration is based upon "the false supposition of the supremacy of men." She has been working on this all day, and now she is unburdening herself. "What burdens you?" he askes her. "Justice. It always comes with a price." By this time they have made it indoors and Lucretia in now rid of bonnet, coat, and lantern. But coming indoors does not alleviate the darkness of this film. The interior scenes are no better lit than the dark night outside, and we have trouble making out the features of these two characters, ably portrayed by Betsy and Jason Sharp. But the words are by no means obscured. Lucretia uses words like "disenfranchisement" and "civilly dead." "I long to be called 'citizen.'" She tells her husband we are all citizens of the United States. She says how women feel aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived. They want the right to vote! "Your thoughts terrify me," declares her husband. "Thinking has made me brave and scared. Women must have the vote! We have daughters that will one day require it. It is stitched in words and blood." By the time Lucretia has reached the end of her discourse, John has realized the necessity of what she needs. He and 31 other men who attend the Convention join 68 women in signing the document that the Convention was held to ratify.
This one piece does more than any other one work to bring to the fore exactly what the 19th Amendment was all about. It is a short and sweet declaration, consisting of only two sentences. "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."
The last film we will discuss is twelfth in the series, "Bitter Flower," by Jennifer Natalya Fink. This three-character film is the one that best differentiates the fights that were fought by White women and by Black women, and how and why they differed. These characters are also drawn directly from history. One is a leader of the Black Women's Movement, Ida Wells-Barrett (Tohry Petty). She comes to the home of a noted White woman, columnist Jane Addams (Marie Smartwood-Lowe), who had just signed a contract with The Independent. The year is brand new, 1901. Ida is visiting Jane in her home. There are nicely matched pieces of furniture in Jane's receiving room; the ability of film to place the entirety in front of a black backdrop is nicely done. The only other person is Jane's servant, Sally (Linda Flynn), who deftly serves and is silent, but she hears everything.
Ida has come to see Jane to ask if she would address, in her column, the terrible repercussions of lynching. Ida tries to make Jane understand the crisis of the practice in the South, and why it is so monumentally unjust. Ida tells Jane, "There is a veritable plague of lynching. Many north of the Mason-Dixon Line do not understand the crisis the Negro faces in the South." But while Ms. Addams declares she is in full agreement with Mrs. Wells-Barrett, the column that is published on the topic, it is obvious to all who read it, entirely misses the point. Jane cannot see the subject from the point of view of the Black individual; she is incapable of it. Thus her column is woefully short of addressing the true crime of the subject. "Bloodshed and arson and ungoverned anger have never yet controlled sex," she writes. There is no talk of the noose, no talk of the reason behind the act, which is to keep the Negro "in his place." The point of lynching is to keep Blacks fearful so that their human desire to have, to own, as does the White man, a shop, or a farm, or even a home, remains unmet. None of these salient facts appear in Ms. Addams' column. So Ida makes the attempt to re-emphasize the point to Ms. Addams in a second visit.
Ida reemphasizes the threat to Black men of the noose, because they hold the same desire as White men to own. But any Black man who attempts to own anything of any value is lynched. "In Tennessee," Ida remonstrates, "they even threatened to lynch me." But Ms. Addams' response is temperance. That lynching is a result of too much drink. Ida asks her, "Have you ever lived in the South?" Ida tells Jane that lynching is the problem; Jane remains convinced it is drink. So Ida, in a move born of desperation, writes a column of her own for The Independent, in which she refutes the assertions of Addams and drives home the illegality and horror of hanging as sport. The Independent publishes that column on May 16, 1901.
The shooting of this episode was exceedingly well done, so that the points of the dialogue may be focused upon. Both Petty and Smartwood-Lowe have their characters in pristine shape, and everything flows so smoothly that the segment is over almost before we wish it to be. This piece brings home the reason why it was necessary for the Black Women's Movement to be separate and apart from the White movement. It was almost unfair of Ida to believe that she could convince Jane of these facts. Jane had absolutely no basis for understanding them.
Once you go to Burning Coal's website and purchase your chosen films, whether it be all or only a portion, Burning Coal will send you an e-mail for each film you wish to see. Included in that e-mail is a rather long password, which is needed in order to access each film. Also included in each e-mail is an invitation to view other aspects of the overall show, including The Speakeasy, which consists of several tutorials on preparing mixed drinks, and also an invitation to Club 39, which is a club designed for the 39-and-under set, as a means of community and the exchange of information. All of these aspects of The 19th Amendment Project are yours for the asking at Burning Coal's website.