Victoria and Frederick for President
nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
August 15, 2009
Barack and Hillary were not the first. Victoria and Frederick for President tells of a 19th-century New York feminist, Victoria Claflin Woodhull, who in 1872 became the first woman to run for the nation's highest office. She named abolitionist Frederick Douglass as her running mate—even as Douglass was stumping for the re-election of Ulysses S. Grant.
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, the play begins in our time with a videotaped intro to "The Damon Stevens Show." The host, Damon Stevens V (Devin Haqq), full of Obama jokes and some groan-producing puns, claims he's descended from Damon Stevens I, 19th-century "Negro columnist" for the New York Herald. The giant screen behind him splits into nine, with Barack, Sarah Palin, and Hillary Clinton on top. While "Simple Gifts" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing" play simultaneously, video archives, newsreels, and pictures fly backwards in time, to 1865 and the original Stevens (Haqq again), who narrates the tale. (Stevens is not an actual historical figure.)
The Civil War and slavery past and Lincoln murdered, the stately Frederick Douglass (an impressive Mel Johnson Jr.) convinces Army hero U.S. Grant (Edward Hyland), who is wary of politics, to run for President in 1868 and carry on Lincoln's policies of equal rights. (This was back when the Republican Party truly was the Party of Lincoln.)
Then in 1872, Victoria Woodhull (Antoinette Lavecchia), backed by her sister Tennessee Claflin, or Tennie (Kate MacCluggage), announces her campaign to become the country's first female President through the Equal Rights Party. Fellow suffragist Susan B. Anthony (Liza Vann), whose plain, stiff style and dress clash with the Claflin sisters' more colorful, sensual approach, warns Victoria that this campaign could turn into a silly stunt that undermines their fight to gain votes for women.
Victoria's husband Col. James Blood (Ariel Shafir), who shares his wife's philosophy of "free love" (no, this didn't begin in the 1960s), generally supports her campaign. Meanwhile, Frederick's wife Anna (Brenda Pressley) worries for her family's safety while her controversial husband is away so often making speeches for Grant. "Have you really become someone, Fred, or something?" she asks. "They still think they own you."
Victoria's naming Fred as her veep without his consent, and the violent acts that follow, threaten Fred and Ulysses's uneasy relationship. Public attacks on her character have Victoria questioning, "I can't even vote! Why am I running for President?"
The cast is all-around excellent. Johnson captures the dignity and impressive presence of Douglass, even as he stumbles over a word or two. Lavecchia is feisty, bold, and subtly sexy as Victoria, as is MacCluggage as Tennie. Haqq as the two Stevenses handles well his characters' humorous lines and wry observations.
Jonathan L. Davidson's script is instructive, engaging, and funny, with a few knowing winks to our own time. For example:
- Frederick (to Ulysses): "Black folks love Presidents from Illinois."
- Damon (about Ulysses): "We are fortunate enough to have a President whose drunken mangling of words leads the dumbest of children to say, 'Hey! I can be President!'"
- Frederick (to Victoria): "Republicans and Democrats...found a common ground in being white men. We are an afterthought."
Thematically, Victoria and Frederick presents issues of dirty politics, racism and sexism, smashing the rules, political compromise, political daring, and what happens when the marginalized try to seize power. I would like to see this play produced in schools across the country, showing how 19th-century politics speaks to the 21st century.