Review: The Suffrage Plays Celebrate Centennial of Women’s Voting Rights

Brittani Yawn and Lucinda Johnston. Photo by Heather Mall.

Tennessee became the 38th state to ratify the 19th amendment on August 18, 1920, the last of the required 36 states. A women’s right to vote was officially adopted on August 26, passing these words in law: “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 power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

In the UK, 1918’s Representation of the People Act allowed women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications to vote. The Equal Franchise Act in 1928 gave the vote to all women over the age of 21.

Suffrage is the term to express voting rights. The term suffragette was seen as offensive in America so wasn’t embraced on this side of the pond. Artemisia Theatre presents the British take on the movement with three one-acts, The Suffrage Plays, directed by Beth Wolf. The first act is Evelyn Glover’s pair of polemics, “A Chat with Mrs. Chicky” (1912) and “Mrs. Appleyard’s Awakening” (1911), addressing the argument to include working class women in the cause.

An upper crusty matron (Lucinda Johnston) asks a maid (Megan Delay) to “tell me your difficulties and let me explain them away” in the former. The actors switch types, status and stances in the latter, adding a young suffrage canvasser (Brittani Yawn) who dupes a Phyllis Schlafly-esque antifeminist from the Anti-Suffrage Society, the ASS (an early version of the Deep State, perhaps).

The repartee is witty yet the message is similar and repetitive: watch out for double agents when proselytizing for or against the vote, with the particular British arguments being articulated on the anniversary of the American event.

George Bernard Shaw’s “Press Cuttings” follows, where military man Mitchener (enthusiastic Ross Frawley) schemes with Prime Minister Balsquith (Tom McGrath) over the backdrop of a suffrage protest outside in Parliament Square. They consider, A Modest Proposal-style, the efficacy of shooting the women rather than jailing them (an early version of the NRA, possibly). Three women (Johnston as an activist, Delay as another maid, Yawn as a lady) interface in this inner sanctum, determining that “every woman is a charwoman from the day she’s married;” yet they still end up engaged and ostensibly live happily ever after. So much for gender autonomy.

Megan Delay. Photo by Heather Mall.

The evening’s curation evoked Mrs. Banks’ “Sister Suffragette” song from 1964’s Mary Poppins, which reinforced the stereotype that suffragettes were flighty and abandoned their families (hence the need for a magical nanny). But the moneyed matrons also attempted to lift up their lower-class compatriots too. Banks supported the militant Women’s Social and Political Union leader Emmeline Pankhurst (in America, leaders included Alice Paul and Lucy Burns). The movie and these plays focus on the fight across socioeconomic strata in England:

“We’re clearly soldiers in petticoats
And dauntless crusaders for woman’s votes …
No more the meek and mild subservients we!
We’re fighting for our rights, militantly!”

The Suffrage Plays runs at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave., through November 24, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm, and Sundays at 3pm.

Karin McKie
Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.

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