An older Irish white woman cabbie driving Gloria Steinem and Flo Kennedy to an event in Boston after overhearing their discussion about abortion said, “Honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament!” Since then you may have seen that quote on cups, t-shirts, and other memorabilia. That priceless comment/story and countless others, plus witticisms, jokes, truths, and historical facts spill out in Gloria: A Life, written by Emily Mann and directed by Diane Paulus, currently at the Daryl Roth Theatre.
This exceptional production about the life and times of Gloria Steinem moved me to laughter and tears. Writing with extraordinarily seamless beauty, Mann trenchantly underscores how and why Gloria Steinem moved from bondage to freedom in her own life. And this account of how her transformation helped/helps countless women and men move toward freedom from destructive gender folkways resounds with power and reveals why Steinem has become a living legend.
Steinem’s development and experiences, and her own influences from so many other women, serve as the backbone of this superb production. With archived photos, videos, voiceovers, and more, the director and writer form a mosaic of the unique perspectives of men and women who have taken part in and still embrace the women’s movement. We discover a key point: that Gloria’s continuing evolution has strode in tandem with the movement’s multiple stages.
Adroitly, director Diane Paulus employs an ingenious, comfortable, interactive approach. She intersperses details, facts, stories, and themes about how women transformed the culture, through Christine Lahti’s portrayal of Gloria. Steinem’s development spins out from the stereotyping oppression and laws against women of her youth, to the legal revolution in support of women, in her 30s, to the current legal assault on women’s rights, in her later years. (As a reminder, our country has yet to pass an Equal Rights Amendment.) The actors take on multiple roles to reveal examples of the nullifying attitudes Gloria encountered early on. Lahti’s humorous portrayal sprinkled with good will reveals how Gloria eventually dealt with such attitudes as her eyes opened and she evolved.
As Lahti’s Steinem sanguinely points out, anti-feminist groups (represented by Phyllis Schlafly in the past) ultimately have the bottom line as their motive. Profits, not people’s concerns, fuel the hate rhetoric against feminists. Attempting to understand the logical truths behind what women are saying puts a downer on money making. Better for companies to stir people’s emotions with propaganda that makes them avid consumers. As such they buy products they don’t need to momentarily salve their soul sickness, stimulated by advertisements that browbeat them for not being perfect. The convenient, vacuous, catchy, divisive memes and gender-perfect advertisements perennially harm.
As she references such truths, Christine Lahti inhabits Gloria Steinem with joie de vivre and humility. Joanna Glushak, Fedna Jacquet, Francesa Fernandez McKenzie, Patrena Murray DeLanna Studi, and Liz Wisan portray the towering women who impacted Gloria. These include major influencers like her mom (a journalist who left her work to join her husband), Dorothy Pitman Hughes (who created the first non–sexist, multi-racial childcare centers), the feisty, no-nonsense Flo Kennedy, and lawyer, activist, and U.S. Representative Bella Abzug.
Mann took from Gloria’s 2015 autobiography My Life on the Road the feminist icon’s early experiences and her trials as a journalist. Ironically, when she wrote the book, Steinem most probably didn’t imagine she would be speaking at the greatest global Women’s March ever in 2016. The production includes photographs and video clips of Steinem speaking in Washington, D.C. Though the women’s movement, like Gloria, has evolved, so much more work must be done in the Trump era. The inspiration to get us to move and participate in this work activates the production.
Particularly startling, Paulus includes video clips of the demeaning, acid attitudes of interviewers like Harry Reasoner, who later apologized when Ms Magazine sold out in eight days. For those too young to realize how far women have come, we see archived photos of memes showing with women whose only functions are as housewives and sex objects. Photos of such advertisements in the 1950s and 1960s prompts Lahti’s Gloria to quip, “Is this what some Americans are nostalgic for?”
I particularly appreciated the historical facts about the movement revealed in archived material. The production cleverly projects video and photographs over two back walls on opposite sides. The entire production seats with benches and colorful pillows for the audience in the round. On the stage in the squarish round, red Persian rugs and pillows suggest discussion circles.
Indeed the discussion circle is an important part of the production. In Act II a special guest each night opens the circle. Audience members may remain or leave. This theme also abides throughout: The discussion and integration of ideas happen in a circle where everyone sits equally. For the hierarchy (the pyramid) to diminish, we must hear, see, listen to, and interact with each other as comfortably as our Native American forebears chose to do. Steinem points out that Native American democracy included such discussion circles and caucuses. Women were integral parts of these, a fact that stunned (and inspired) Benjamin Franklin when he learned about culture of the Iroquois Confederation.
Gloria credits her ideas and actions to the mighty courage and determination of black women, Hispanic women, and Native American women. In underscoring who remained instrumental in spearheading second-wave feminism, she presents a list with photographs of black women who were crucial to the movement. Paulus projects their pictures with inspirational quotes on two screens. The list includes Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Flo Kennedy, Pauli Murray, Aileen Hernandez, Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm, Margaret Sloan, and Alice Walker. Wikipedia doesn’t recognize some of these women, but Gloria credits them for their prodigious efforts.
Finally, wonderful milestones are noted. For example we see acutely how our culture changed. Yet more change is needed with regard to the artificial gender images fostered by corporate agendas. As Lahti inhabits Steinem, Mann’s brilliant encapsulation of Gloria’s words through Paulus’ sterling direction opens our eyes. What we may have thought we knew bears hearing and seeing again and again. Indeed, this all-female production stirs us as an amazing, uplifting experience. Most importantly, it has the earthiness, historical universality, and erudition to appeal to all genders, races, and religions.
Would even evangelicals appreciate this production? Of course. Don’t women make up more than half of their numbers? Indeed, sharing stories about men’s personal habits always resonates. For example the actors include humorous stories about non-partnership minded men who leave their underwear on the floor, expecting their wives to pick it up. Such stories of personal lives are integrated beautifully to illustrate the importance of discussion among women. The more women talk to each other, the more healing comes, the more solutions to problems may be found.
At the heart of what is called the women’s movement, Gloria’s life’s work promotes freedom for men. Indeed, women and men both need freedom from the nullifying, dis-empowering macho and female roles of domination and passivity. These roles deny personality, growth, evolution, partnership, friendship, companionship, and the integration of the family unit beyond commands and orders.
Gloria: A Life suggests that women and men should have equal opportunities for medical care, financial wellbeing, family care, and prosperity. That the privileged wealthy minority will use gender division to cloud our eyes and misdirect our pursuit for human rights for all is a given. Noted, and stopped, say Gloria and millions of others. We must work to bridge the divide and jettison such roles, which crucify all genders and destroy the social good.
By looking at the past, though we may not have been alive at the time, we understand the value of what women globally endured then and now. Also, by understanding the past, we appreciate and value the hard-won freedoms (Roe v Wade, LBGTQ marriage equality, a woman’s right to use her own name, etc.) that women in democracies enjoy. Still, throughout these moments of progress highlighted by the actors and visuals in the production, concerns about the present political climate whisper.
Understanding becomes crucial to our growth. The production fosters understanding. And from this understanding we realize that the current political partisanship has pushed us to a precipice. All the more noxious are the agendas right-wing organizations like the Federalist Society and conservative think tanks use to consolidate power on the right. For these uber-conservative organizations, women’s rights must be overthrown and diminished as a political initiative. The prize to be gained includes corporate hegemony. The power and money behind these groups are used to maintain supremacy over puppet leaders. And they intend to employ “unbeatable” partisan, conservative voting blocks of nativists, anti-feminist groups (Neo-Nazis, white supremacists), and evangelicals (anti-abortionists, etc.) to maintain or usurp power by any means necessary.
For what it encourages – to understand ourselves today through viewing the past – Gloria: A Life is a must-see. Additionally, you will enjoy its humanity, good will, and uplifting remembrance of history, as well as Christine Lahti as Gloria, the sterling ensemble performances, the active staging, and Mann’s integrated writing of Gloria’s perspectives. All of this enthralls and contributes to making the production soar.
Gloria: A Life runs until 31 March 2019 at the Daryl Roth Theatre in NYC. Stay for the discussion circle in Act II and raise questions with the cast, audience, and special guest. Or just listen. Tickets are available online.