Senators Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar are, among a mostly male field, serious contenders to be the Democratic Party’s pick for the 2020 presidential race.
All of these women owe a bit of gratitude to Ann Richards, the former Texas governor, who connected with people though her smart wit, outspoken feminism and memorable one-liners.
Before becoming Texas’ 45th governor in 1991, Richards served as Texas State Treasurer in 1983, delivered a nominating speech for Walter Mondale at the 1984 Democratic National Convention and gave the keynote address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention.
Holland Taylor, who has enjoyed a long career on TV and in the theater, showed her talent as a playwright with her solo show about Richards, in which she also starred. The play had a successful run here at The Kennedy Center in 2011 before heading to Broadway, where Taylor earned a Tony nod as best actress.
Ann will run from July 11-August 11, 2019 at Arena Stage. Details and tickets
When Ann arrives at Arena Stage this July, Jayne Atkinson will be in the title role. The play is a no-holds-barred comedy chronicling Richards’ legacy and how she was determined to make her mark on the world from her Texas Governors office.
Washington is familiar ground to the two-time Tony Award nominated Atkinson. She has played the U. S. Secretary of State in the CBS drama Madam Secretary and U. S. Vice President in Netflix’s House of Cards.
“Kristen first sent it to me to ask me to direct it and I read it, but said I wanted to act in it because it’s so inspiring,” she said. “She thought I would be too busy, but I told her I would make it work. I was so inspired by Holland’s very deep, funny, moving depiction of this amazing woman and felt her voice was something I wanted to bring into the zeitgeist, because I feel we need her.”
Atkinson admits that she didn’t know much about Richards before tackling the play, calling herself “not very political” early on and not being told about her in school.
“Somehow, she didn’t come into my world, so I learned everything about this woman when I started to read this play,” she says. “The thing that struck me most was her passion for everyone. She learned at a very early age—and I believe I share this with her—a passion for getting everyone a seat at the table. Women in particular but ever person who calls themselves a citizen of the United States. She wanted them to see themselves in a civic role that mattered.”
A familiar Richards quote is “If you don’t see yourself there, how can you dream yourself there?” and that’s something that resonated a great deal with Atkinson.
To get into character, she listened to a lot of Richards’ speeches to get her “beautiful Texas accent” and relied a great deal on Taylor’s knowledge of the legendary governor.
“Holland researched the show for five years, so she was such a great resource for me,” Atkinson says. “I picked her brain a lot and watched a lot of videos, read her biography and autobiography, watched her YouTube videos. Funny enough, her chief of staff’s secretary lived 15 minutes down the road from me. I met with him for three hours and he regaled us with first-hand information on what it was like to work with her.”
The biggest takeaway from her research is that Richards inspired people to be their best possible self.
“She found out there were a lot of people in office that were just there to ‘be in office’ and get the perks and weren’t there for the people,” Atkinson says. “That was very frustrating to her because she was there for the people. Holland called her a King Lear. She was a mother, a partner and a maverick. And you can’t help but feel Holland’s love for Ann in this story.”
A story like Richards’ is particularly important during the Trump and #Me Too eras, Atkinson shares, because she was someone who was all about women participating in government.
“If she was alive today, she’d say we have to stop whining and start participating,” Atkinson says. “Her message is really to pull up your Big Boy and Big Girl pants and find out what you can do to make change. It’s a big ole honking mess. Let’s figure out how to clean it up. And one of the best ways is to pick up your broom and start sweeping, but don’t sit there and complain about it.”
Richards was always very good at crossing the aisle and getting conversations started. She never sugarcoated how she felt, but inspired people to do better.
“That’s why she needs to be here right now and why I am doing this play right now,” Atkinson says. “When it comes to a play, usually I look for a metamorphosis—someone who moves from one understanding of themselves to a broader, more beautiful understanding of themselves. That’s what I want in a role. I look to inspire human beings to a deeper understanding of themselves but also to action. And in this specific instance, their civic responsibilities, my own included.”
Atkinson is involved in a a nonprofit called Running Start, which inspires young high school women to run for office.
“I think Ann would have loved this organization,” she says. “For a week in the summer, they provide scholarships to 50 young women from the age of 14-19 to come and be mentored by our congresswomen and women who work in D.C., and I am really proud to be part of this.” Arena Stage will hold a fundraising night for the organization on July 25.
Once Ann’s run ends, Atkinson will head to Memphis to start filming a new NBC series, Bluff City Law, opposite Jimmy Smits, playing a trust lawyer who works on class action suits. Like Ann, it’s a story that she thinks will resonate with a lot of people.