- Rick Pollock
In the grand scheme of things, seven years isn't a long time. It was April 2013 when Jenifer Nii's Suffrage made its world premiere at Plan-B Theatre Co., and after all, how much could have changed in those seven years to shift the way a creative work might be perceived and interpreted?
But when it's these particular seven years, it can feel like everything has shifted. And when it's a play about who does and doesn't have a voice in American political decision-making, it's hard to avoid thinking differently about what it all means.
This week, Plan-B presents a script-in-hand presentation of Suffrage—featuring the play's original 2013 cast of April Fosse and Sarah Young—as part of 2020's centennial celebration of the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, which granted women the right to vote. The play's events, however, cover the period in Utah from 1887-1896, a tumultuous time during which the then-territory faced opposition in Washington to the LDS church's practice of polygamy which threatened the chance for statehood.
Nii recalls Plan-B's artistic director Jerry Rapier asking her if she wanted to write about that moment in Utah history, and, "of course, I said yes. Not only because it was a wonderful opportunity for me to write for Plan-B, but because I realized I was a complete ignoramus with regard to this particular subject."
The events of the play revolve around two sister-wives, Frances (played by Fossen) and Ruth (played by Young), whose household is already in upheaval because their husband is in prison. Tensions rise even higher when the younger Ruth witnesses a speech by suffragette leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and is inspired to fight for the cause of women's right to vote.
"Part of what made writing Ruth so fun," Nii recalls, "is she got to do some of the things that I sometimes wish I could say and do, and be so outwardly brash and courageous. I was more of the type to stand back and listen. I never really felt like I have anything to say that's worth commanding people's attention—which is what makes me being a playwright so weird."
As the play's story evolves, it comes to focus on the consequences to Frances and Ruth's family of the possibility that the church might shift its doctrine of plural marriage in order to appease the federal government. When a decision does come—one that shifts their world forever—it's a decision in which the two women themselves have had no ability to be heard. "What I felt for Frances was a real sadness at what has happened in her life, as a result of decisions made by others," Nii says. "And those others, at least perceived by her, as speaking on behalf of God."
That's what makes Suffrage seem particularly relevant in politically fraught moments like this one. Nii comments on the number of people who did not vote in the 2016 presidential election, and the impact of that failure to make your voice heard. "That gives a whole new sense of responsibility to the consequences of choosing not to vote," Nii says.
Nii notes that she hadn't re-read Suffrage since 2013 until just recently, and thought about it in the context of upcoming elections that stand to have even greater consequences. "One of the things I felt [after re-reading Suffrage] was the sense of urgency, the notion of what is at stake if we lose," she says. "And to me, to be faced with finding out the answer to that question, and have the answer not be triumphant, is sad and scary for me.
"But it does underscore this notion that, I think even I sometimes feel silly when I stand in line to vote: 'Oh yeah, I'm just going to sway the whole election.' But if you line me up with other me's, then yeah. And it does take me, and a bunch of other people. If I don't show up, then I've got to sit down and shut up."
For Nii, the essence of Suffrage is celebrating people who take action for the things that are of greatest importance to them, whether it's raising a family or becoming an activist. She acknowledges that, over the seven years since the play was produced, she's shifted her own personal sense of what it means to be involved in the decisions that will impact her life.
"I may not be any more likely to stand up and argue my point of view in a public place," she says, "but certainly I have been more challenged to develop a point of view, and understand why I believe in the things I come to believe in. And to understand the importance of acting on those beliefs."