We are very lucky in St. Louis to have many fine actors on our stages. An outstanding gathering of them is currently on the stage of The New Jewish Theatre. They are performing a piece in which each plays multiple characters. As they are playing characters, I suppose you can call what they are presenting a play, though it lacks some of the continuity and other characteristics we associate with a play. It is a series of scenes connected by its central character and taken from her life; hence the title Gloria: A Life. Such presentations are now usually called docudramas, because like documentaries in any form, they draw directly from real life. But dramas they are because, unlike say a film documentary, which actually shoots real life and presents it on the screen, these recreate the incidents with actors on a stage.
Docudramas have become popular over the past several decades, one of the ways theatre could share in the excitement of the political movements of these times. Emily Mann, for long the Artistic Director and Resident Playwright of the Tony Award-winning McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey, has been one of those most responsible, both with her writing and her directing, for the success of this form.
Mann wrote Gloria: A Life. The “Life” is the life of the writer, lecturer, political activist, and feminist organizer Gloria Steinem.
Steinem got lucky in a way with an early assignment. Show magazine sent her to the New York Playboy Club to be a Bunny. The article, an expose of the Bunnys’ sexist treatment that included a photo of Steinem in uniform, created a stir, even causing Playboy owner Hugh Hefner to improve the women’s working conditions. The Bunny connection stuck – see Legally Blonde – and so did the recognition of her writing, leading, among other things, to a story for New York Magazine about an abortion speak-out. That event, women speaking freely together about their abortion experiences, marked her birth as an active feminist.
So the cast takes up roles in talking circles, in marches both for and against Steinem and Feminism, in the founding of Ms. magazine, in political activity, in literary discussion, and in all else
Because of this constant changing of roles, I find it hard to single out the actors and their particular and various parts, whether man, woman, black, white, adult, child, bold feminist, timid victim. But I would praise them all: Summer Baer, Kayla Ailee Bush, Carmen Cecilia Retzer, Chrissie Watkins, Lizi Watt. I omit Sarah Gene Dowling because she gets to play the politician-feminist-member of Congress Bella Abzug. Abzug was herself a bundle of theatrical energy, always on, always a joy, and Dowling made her all of that and more.
Jenni Ryan plays Steinem. If the whole cast represents the best of the best, Ryan is in this role perhaps the first among equals. The person originally cast as Steinem had to leave the company about a week before the opening. Director Sharon Hunter asked Ryan to take it on. She did. She gets her first medal for bravery right there. Watching her on opening night, I saw a carefully, thoughtfully, fully developed character. I did notice that she was carrying with her what looked like a little notebook, which made sense since Steinem was a reporter taking notes and a speaker with points in a speech. Eventually I realized that what she was carrying was a script. Every now and then, she’d glance at it to be sure she was on the same page as the rest of the cast. Even that seemed to be done in character.
Director Hunter, who keeps action moving, and Scenic Designer Fallon Podrazik recreate the talking circle of second-wave feminism in the theatre, with the audience surrounding the players in the center of the theatre, and the players sometimes joining the circle. Black boxes, chairs, an elevated speaker’s stand provide most of what is needed, assisted by Denisse Chavez’s Lighting Design, Michele Friedman Siler’s smartly designed costumes, and Amanda Werre’s Sound Design, all coordinated by Stage Manager Joy Addler.
When the 90-minute performance concludes, the audience is invited to remain in their seats in the talking circle, joined by the company, for a talking circle, whether about the play, about Steinem, about feminism, about the audience’s own lives, or whatever. Each evening, an active feminist will begin the discussion. The night I was there, Missouri State Senator Tracy McCreery articulately initiated the discussion and encouraged – but did not force – participation.
Gloria: A Life brings a different, and welcome, kind of energy to The New Jewish Theatre.
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Gloria Steinem shares a cab with Saul Bellow and Gay Talese. From the left, Sarah Gene Dowling as Bellow, Jenni Ryan as Steinem, and Lizi Watt as Talese.