Take What Is Yours
nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
May 5, 2012
It is 1917. Alice Paul has been arrested for leading her group of women in picketing the White House. Two generations after Susan B. Anthony's efforts, they still want the vote. They carry signs with quotes from President Woodrow Wilson about the need to spread democracy around the world. They question why he does not spread democracy at home. Meanwhile, Alice is on a hunger strike and is politely harassed by a psychiatrist ("The Man") for making such demands on the government during wartime. After all, if the suffragettes are given special status as political prisoners, it would create a precedent that pacifists and other objectors could use.
Based on transcripts from Congressional hearings and publications of the National Woman's Party, this shocking play gives a glimpse of the violence the suffragettes endured. Dozens of photos of protesting women are projected on the screen. Many of these women are being beat up by policemen or sailors. Little girls, middle-aged ladies in "Mother Hubbard" dresses, and silent movie goddess types are all protesting. A protest song "Tonight we're camping on the White House grounds" evokes the present-day Occupy movement.
The action of this play takes place behind a barrier (designed by Jill A. Samuels and Deb O) which represents the bars of the jail cell. Panels are moved by unseen hands, thus adjusting the perspective. Alice and The Man sit on a hospital bed and chair, which are also wheeled around by unseen hands. It is a dizzying, constantly changing dynamic. Indeed, Alice's hunger strike has put her in an ecstatic frame of mind. (Significantly, she is a Quaker, descended from a Paul who left England to pursue social equality.) She also remarks that she does not follow the law because her disenfranchised class did not create it, because it is unjust, and because it is hard to keep track of what the law is today. (This last bit refers to President Wilson's ability to push the isolationist USA into World War I.)
At first, Alice refuses to wear the prison uniform. She is later stripped naked and forced into rough prison clothes. She sleeps on a bed where the blankets are washed once a year and the sheets never. A rubber feeding tube is forced down her throat. The Man asks her why she is unmarried at age 32, implying that she is a sociopath. The printed agenda of the anti-suffragist men in Congress is projected on the screen, advising that "women must be protected against themselves...they think they want to vote...as a matter of fact, they do not want to vote, and man, being aware of this fact, is obliged to prevent them" and that voting women would oppose the "duty of organized murder" which is also called war. The finale, although known to us, still has some surprisingly light-hearted twists.
In this election year, I appreciate co-creators Erica Fae and Jill A. Samuels's efforts to remind us of the hard-won privileges of democracy. Taking its cue from the emancipation of the slaves, the women's movement in turn used non-violent protest methods which reappeared in future civil rights marches. Erica Fae is amazing as Alice Paul, who has quite a lot to say which was radical and difficult for some men of her time to hear. Wayne Maugans as The Man is to be commended for slowly letting his condemnation of the women's cause turn to admiration. The other cast members—Adrian Jevicki, David Riley, and Courtney Stallings—are responsible for the magical and eerily shifting scenery. Tal Yarden's projections and Kristin Worrall's sound design make the women's movement feel very alive. Alison Brummer's lighting is indeed a battle to consign Alice Paul to the darkness, which only leaves her more and more brightly illuminated. Add to this Alixandra Gage Englund's costumes, which present Alice Paul as a beggar-like woman next to the empowered Man.