Gloria Steinem herself came out in the last twenty minutes of Gloria: A Life to lead the “talking circle,” an unscripted conversation with the audience. This was the officially designated Act II of a moving, enlightening and inspiring show whose 100-minute Act I starred Christine Lahti in Emily Mann’s script about the life and work of the famous feminist, journalist, activist, co-founder of Ms. Magazine and one-time Playboy Bunny.
The presence of this Act II helps drive home how beside the point it would be to assess Gloria as if it were a conventional bio-drama. It isn’t. It’s half storytelling, half consciousness-raising — a support group in trying times. “Social justice movements start with people sitting in a circle, like this,” Lahti says at the outset, indicating the in-the-round stadium seating.
Complete production photographs at NewYorkTheater.me
The audience members’ personal stories – putting into practice one of the tenets of the feminist movement that the personal is political – recalled a scene in Act I of a “feminist speak-out” about abortion that Steinem covered for New York Magazine in 1969, which she credits with drawing her into the women’s movement; she had previously dismissed activism on behalf of women’s issues as frivolous.
“Finally, I understand the radical idea that women are equal human beings,” Lahti as Steinem recounts. Steinem was then 35 years old.
That was half a century ago (Steinem looks nowhere near 84 years old), and her life since then has been intertwined and identified so completely with what’s called second wave feminism that it’s obvious any play about Gloria Steinem would also be about that movement.
In Gloria, the seven members of the cast are storytellers, telling us the stories of Steinem’s life but also as many or more memorable events in the women’s movement that she witnessed, more or less chronologically right up to the present moment. It introduces us along the way to leading figures in the movement such as Rep. Bella Abzug (portrayed by Joanna Glushak), Flo Kennedy (Patrena Murray) and Wilma Mankiller (DeLanna Studi), the first female president of the Cherokee Nation. Indeed, some of the most fascinating, and surely least-known, facts in Gloria concern the gender-neutral approach of Native American society. “The heart of our governance is the caucus, an Algonquin word that means talking circle. It’s a consensus among women and men. The paradigm of human organization for us is the circle, not the pyramid.” Benjamin Franklin, we’re told, even used the Iroquois Confederacy as his model for the United States Constitution, going so far as to bring two Iroquois men to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia as advisors. “Guess what their first question is said to be: ‘Where are the women?’”
Gloria doesn’t completely neglect Gloria Steinem’s personal life, weaving in a selection of briefly told stories that Lahti relates dressed in Steinem’s trademark aviator glasses and black pantsuit – how she took care of her mentally ill mother from age 11 to 17, and realized only late in her mother’s life how much her mother had achieved before giving it up for marriage and motherhood (“Like so many women, I’m living the unlived life of my mother”); how as a teenager Gloria aspired to be in the Radio City Rockettes, and tap-dance her way out of Toledo, but changed her ambition after Smith College to become a political reporter in New York. She had a hard time of it, hampered by sexist attitudes: After Steinem hands an article to an editor of the New York Times, he tells her “you can discuss this with me in a hotel room this afternoon.” (“Sexual harassment isn’t even a term then. It’s just called life.” ) She explains with embarrassment and characteristic self-deprecating humor how she took on an assignment “that’s haunted my entire life” – going undercover as a Playboy bunny. The reenacted scene that Lahti narrates of Steinem’s experience as a Bunny is one of the longest in the play that’s about her personally.
There is liberal use of documentary footage projected onto screens on two sides of the theater. We are shown everything from the patronizing advertising of the 1950’s (“You mean I can open it?” next to the face of a smiling woman and a ketchup bottle) to the recent confrontation over the Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination in a Congressional elevator between two angry sexual assault victims and Senator Jeff Flake. Photographs or videos of the real-life figures are often projected on the screens while the cast impersonates these particular real-life characters on stage. At one point, we hear Aretha Franklin sing “Respect” as Ms. Magazine covers flash on the screens; we had just learned that the first issue in 1971, which they expected to last three months on newsstands, sold out in eight days and generated 20,000 letters, many of them deeply heartfelt. It was one of several surprisingly stirring moments. Another one followed soon afterward, when Coretta Scott King (Fedna Jacquet) delivers the final oration of the official, government-backed 1977 National Women’s Conference – “There is a new force, a new understanding, a new sisterhood against all injustice that has been born here. We will not be divided again” – and then leads the ensemble and the audience in singing “We Shall Overcome,” while holding hands.
Of course, we are divided again (depending on how one defines “we.”) And the Equal Rights Amendment, which the conference endorsed, and both the Senate and the House passed, failed after only 35 of the necessary 38 state legislatures ratified it. This is a failure that the play doesn’t explicitly mention, although we are shown video of a speech by ERA opponent Phyllis Schlafly. It’s not that Gloria spares us details of what women were (and are) up against. But Gloria has the clear aim of bucking up the audience during “a crisis like I’ve never known” – by looking at the silver linings: “I haven’t seen such activism as I’m seeing right now.”
So, Gloria says such things as: “Hostility is a step forward from ridicule. Hostility means we’re taken seriously. And we felt that in the last election, right? ‘Lock ‘er up!’”
Almost everybody involved in Gloria: A Life is a woman – the single exception among the cast, producers, creative and design teams and even the crew is one of the two sound designers. One gets the sense that they see the show as using theater to do something larger. That certainly seems true of Lahti’s impersonation (even if you didn’t know that she’s a close friend of Steinem’s and that her memoir is entitled “True Stories from an Unreliable Eyewitness: A Feminist Coming of Age.”)
The actual Gloria Steinem is only an occasional “guest,” one of more than a dozen who have led the Act II sessions. At the performance I attended, she addressed some of the feelings of hopelessness expressed by the audience members with a dose of her “hopeaholism.” She offered an analogy between the current times and domestic violence. Studies show that the violence is at its worst, she says, when the woman announces she’s about to leave or when she actually leaves. “We have to understand the danger we’re in now,” she concluded, “and that we might be about to be free.”
Gloria: A Life is on stage at the Daryl Roth Theater (101 East 15th Street, East of Union Square Park, New York, N.Y. 10003) through January 27, 2019.
Gloria: A Life. Written by Emily Mann. Directed by Diane Paulus. Scenic design by Amy Rubin, costume design by Jessica Jahn, lighting design by Jeannette Oi-suk Yew, sound design by Robert Kaplowitz and Andrea Allmond, production design by Elaine J McCarthyFeaturing Christine Lahti, Joanna Glushak, Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Patrena Murray, DeLanna Studi, and Liz Wisan. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell