“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.” That’s the short, sweet, and simple 19th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1920. Suffs, Shaina Taub’s new musical at the Public Theater, is set in the final few years of the battle for women’s suffrage. (Had COVID not intervened, the intended run would have celebrated the centennial of ratification.) This is history I thought I knew, but it turns out I’m two generations off; all the figures and moments that pop to mind–Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, maybe?–come from the movement’s early days. Suffs picks up in 1913, features a cast of characters, mostly unknown to me, whom you couldn’t improve on with fiction if you tried. (I spent most of intermission looking them up, trying to find the liberties that surely must have been taken for the sake of the story, and failing.)
Taub–who wrote the book, the music, and lyrics, as well as playing the central role–is interested in the final march to victory, of course, but, like the character she plays, she’s more interested in how things get done: the internecine politics, the personal alliances and rivalries, and particularly the complicated spot where idealism meets pragmatism, tactics get decided, and ethical compromises get made. (Director Leigh Silverman, who thrives on nuance and the kind of subtleties that big musicals are not always known for, is a great match for the texture and detail of the piece.) The show zooms in on its subject–we get very little backstory for the characters, almost no personal or domestic moments; even World War I is primarily discussed in terms of how the suffrage factions will respond to it. But Taub is also interested in the recurring nature of power struggles, the way that issues and schisms repeat themselves fractally on different scales and in different moments.
In 1913, Carrie Chapman Catt (Jenn Colella, marvelously magisterial) is the “old guard” of the suffrage movement, the on-and-off head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), focusing on winning the vote for women one state at a time. Young upstart Alice Paul (Taub), on the other hand, is not a gradualist: only a constitutional amendment securing suffrage will do, and with all the savvy of a modern-day publicist, she thinks not only of how to win votes, but how to win the attention of the media and the public. Her first big action is a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue the day before Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration, with all the participants dressed in white (to stand out in photographs) and led by a huge white horse. (There are no men in the cast; Wilson, the villain of the piece, is played by Grace McLean with almost gleeful, mansplaining condescension and paternalism.) Taub plays Paul as a single-minded wonk with a passion for strategy above all earthly concerns; you can see why her cohorts adore and admire her . . . but also sometimes get extremely frustrated with her blinders. Her path to her goal is such a bright straight line for her that she can’t always recognize the consequences, or the compromises, until it’s too late.
Alice puts together her own activist cadre, who will break away and form their own organization shortly: labor lawyer and pacifist Inez Milholland (Philippa Soo), who also has the glamor and social cachet to be the public face of their project; Alice’s dear friend Lucy Burns (Ally Bonino); labor activist Ruza Wenclawska (Hannah Cruz); and Doris Stevens (Nadia Dandashi), another politics nerd, who would later write the book that tells their story.
Silverman makes good use of all four, both as a bloc and as individual performers; they all have a kind of mannerliness that contrasts with Taub’s less polished, more direct Alice. Soo is the known quantity among the performers here, and she’s as good as ever, slyly making political use of the way Inez is underestimated, while the glory that is her singing voice matches the glamor of her character. Ruza and Lucy aren’t as well fleshed out; the book plays their single notes a little too frequently: Ruza the immigrant and labor activist; Lucy the loyal friend. But Bonino and Cruz bring nuance, wry humor, and heart to their somewhat thin characters. And Dandashi sparkles in the closest thing the play has to a romantic B plot, in which the naive Doris is sent on a political-negotiation-turned-romance with Dudley Malone (Tsilala Brock), a Wilson staffer who is ultimately persuaded to the suffragist cause.
In addition to the rift between the two tactical factions, both populated primarily by white women of a certain class (the inclusion of Ruza in the core four acknowledges class issues, but that’s not a primary focus here), early debates over the parade set another thematic strand in motion: the racial issues within the movement. In order to secure participation from women of the Southern states, Alice promises to segregate the parade, with a “special colored delegation” at the back, a compromise that seems nothing but practical to her but which enrages journalist Ida B. Wells (Nikki M. James), a celebrity Alice et al. had been feeling extremely fortunate to have in their ranks. Wells’s solo, “Wait My Turn,” is a scathing repudiation of the strategy, delivered with fiery outrage by James, full–like so many other moments here–of resonances with contemporary politics. Its message may be lost on Alice, but the audience hears it loud and clear. Taub draws a parallel between Paul’s relationship with Catt and Wells’s with Mary Church Terrell (Cassondra James), who’s painted here as working “within the system,” compared to Wells’s “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” philosophy: a characterization that perhaps doesn’t give enough credit to Terrell’s actual historical militancy. (Which is not to say Terrell is short-changed–her speeches on the double oppression of Black women prefigure the much later invention of the term “intersectionality” and the much-maligned critical race theory, in one of the many ways the piece shoots an arrow straight into our historical moment.)
Taub and Silverman are trying to do something very nuanced here in engaging with the racial history of the suffragist movement—to use a twenty-first-century, and specifically a post-2020, casting lens throughout, building an ensemble intentionally diverse not only racially but in body type and disability (and of course cross-gender casting all of the male characters), while at the same time, drawing attention to the race of characters and the performers who play them, when it matters to specific racial tensions within the movement and within the world of the play. Wells and Terrell, explicitly tasked with plots that hinge on the race of their characters, are played by Black performers–but so is Alva Belmont (Aisha de Haas), who the script names as a “rich white broad” and so is Dudley Malone, Wilson’s aide-de-camp. We the audience need to mentally hold the identities of the character–which, in a historical setting, aren’t as open to interpretation as they might otherwise be–and those of the actor simultaneously, aware of where they reinforce, contradict, ironize each other. When Wells lashes out at “all you white women,” for example, she’s talking to a group of white characters, but many of their performers identify as neither Black nor white. It’s a tricky balancing act, providing more food for thought than can always be processed while watching the show. But it’s no accident, I don’t think, that Wilson, the prison warden (Liz Pearce), the Washington police chief, Tennessee state senator Harry Burn (Jenna Bainbridge)–the figures with the most worldly power—are played by white performers, while their second-in-commands, often, are not. (There’s another entire play in the relationship between Catt and her deputy, Mollie Hay, that is only glancingly addressed here.)
Taub’s music (played by an orchestra that, like the cast and most of the creative team, is entirely female or nonbinary) plays with the idioms of the early twentieth century stage, for the most part. The musical references add a period flair, most successfully in the most theatrical numbers (the music-hall act openers drawing on actual anti-suffrage tunes; Wilson’s winky vaudeville/burlesque schtick), which also show off choreographer Raja Feather Kelly’s best work (the show is not particularly movement-heavy otherwise). Sometimes the references feel perhaps a little too on-the-nose–the hint of bluegrass in the song by a Tennessee state senator’s farmer mother, for example.
If you’re going to be the young solo creator and star of a musical that uses the tools of theater to engage with American history, you’re going to reckon with the ghost of Hamilton (and I confess a few cynical fears that Suffs was in fact a conscious attempt by the Public to launch Hamilton 2.0). This is clearly a dynamic of which Taub and Silverman are well aware; the late song “I Wasn’t There,” whose refrain runs “a man signed a paper behind a closed door in a room somewhere,” seems very much a riposte to “In the Room Where It Happens,” though there’s a crucial difference. Aaron Burr wanted access to the halls of power that he felt was his by right. Paul and her compatriots want to be there because they fought for years to gain a denied right–and still find themselves on the outside. In much the same way, Suffs is doing something even more complicated with American history than Hamilton, because Taub can’t count on preexisting knowledge of the story she’s telling; she needs to teach the history in order to complicate it. There are so many stories here, of each and every one of which could anchor a musical: The labor organizer who wound up an actress. The suffragist who convinced an assistant Secretary of State to change sides and then married him. The glamorous lawyer/activist who rode into the first March on a white horse and died of anemia just before Wilson’s reelection. The crusading journalist who risked her life time and again to highlight Black issues. The “Boston marriage” between two leading suffragists. And of course the almost sixty years of Alice Paul’s life post-ratification, as she fought to pass the ERA, summed up in a quick flash-forward scene at the end of the play.
With a cast of nearly twenty, Suffs puts a constant visual before you of the many ways there are to be a woman in this world, and then strikes home that all of those women lack the basic rights of a citizen in their country. (The first line sung by Doris in the closest thing the play has to a romantic duet is “If we were married, I’d promise to forfeit my legal autonomy for good.”) And for all that the main action of the play builds to victory, we also end with a reminder that the ERA, which became Paul’s cause for the remainder of her life, never passed, and that even the 19th Amendment’s promises proved as hollow for most Black women as the 15th’s had for Black men. As Alice is still saying in 1975 at the end of her life, “The ink is still wet. My country needs me, they just don’t know it yet.” It’s 2022, and the ERA never did pass, and our current historical moment brings a rollback of abortion rights nationwide. May this light shined on the battles of the past help us fight the battles of today.