Jenifer Nii’s beautiful new play, Suffrage, is playing at Plan B Theatre in Salt Lake. Before I get to the rest of the review, let me say this: you want to see this. It’s terrific. Tickets at 801-355-ARTS.
Frances (April Fossen) and Ruth (Sarah Young) are two of the five wives of Benjamin, an otherwise anonymous Mormon patriarch ca. 1880s. That’s the time and setting of the play. Frances and Ruth are, in a sense, Mary and Martha, in a play in which the issue of women’s suffrage is the cause to which they both adhere–Mary/Ruth, passionately engaged in that cause, Martha/Frances, more concerned with daily tasks and responsibilities. Benjamin has been jailed, and as the play begins, is waiting trail, for the crime of plural marriage. As the play progresses, he is, apparently sentenced to further jail time. With no male breadwinner, the women (and especially Frances) is worried about paying the mortgage.
It’s a deeply political play, on every level. The national political debate over the passage of the Edmunds/Tucker Act is alluded to. It terrifies both women, and energizes Ruth, who is sure that by organizing Utah women and gathering signatures on suffrage petitions, she can influence the national political debate. She is, in short, hopelessly naive, and Young plays that naivete superbly–Ruth is as appealing a character as a passionate and engaged young person can be. The play also explores local politics, as Frances, who is superbly qualified to work as a bookkeeper for a local businessman (a job that would save the family home), loses the job, in part due to her prospective employers’ knee-jerk sexism, but also due in large measure to local perceptions of Ruth’s activism. Frances, it turns out, is perfectly capable of defending Ruth to others, though in person, she constantly urges Ruth to tone things down.
But for me, the most interesting political element in the play is the inter-personal politics of a polygamous family. This is a play about wives number 2 and 4, in a 5-wife family. We never meet wives 1, 3 or 5, but they’re alluded to, and we get a very strong sense of them–the senior wife, sick and exhausted and dying, the youngest wife, illiterate and beautiful and (as Ruth puts it), ‘dumb as a houseplant.’ Wife 3, a drudge, waiting to be told what to do.
Obviously, I’ve never lived in a polygamous family, nor have any desire, ever, to do so. But in any family, things have to get decided, tasks need to be finished–stuff has to get done. Working out who does what and on what schedule and with what priorities is the task of any family leadership council, whether that council has two members or six. We talk of marriage as a ‘partnership of equals,’ and the Church has certainly toned down patriarchalist rhetoric, and that’s all well and good and valuable, but in the meantime, there are meals to prepare and laundry to wash and families have to work it all out. And who decides? Well, you talk about it, you make decisions, you negotiate. Its politics at its most straight-forward and simple. And the play shows those negotiations, complicated by the fact that Frances, as wife 2, doesn’t enjoy what you might call a presumption of authority from the other women. She has to lead, and she knows full well she may be resented for it. But there’s no one else to do it. That was what I loved best about the play, the interpersonal stuff, involving five women, only two of whom were ever on-stage. What a lovely dissection of inter-family dynamics.
But of course the play is also about larger concerns, specifically polygamy and its connection to feminism and the issue of women’s suffrage. And the play ends with a call for all of us in the audience, enlightened 21st century folks that we are, not to forget the struggle for suffrage. And yes, sure, we should remember and honor that struggle. Of course we should (Gayle Ruzieka and Ann Coulter notwithstanding). But honestly suffrage, as it appears in the play, is just ‘the thing Ruth’s into.’ It’s not really central to the concerns of the play, which were, to me, much more about polygamy, and its role in our community.
And it’s great. If anything, it’s a little embarrassing, as a Mormon playwright, that the finest play describing polygamy from the point of view of plural wives was written by someone not of our culture or faith. That shouldn’t matter, of course–Jen Nii is a wonderful writer, a deep and responsible researcher, and everything in the play rings true, from the language to the characters to their attitudes and testimonies. In fact, she may have had an advantage over a Mormon playwright, in that she went into the project knowing what she didn’t know. An LDS writer might have seen his/her LDSness as a shortcut. “Their attitudes reflect mine–I don’t need to research their testimonies, for heck’s sake.”
But it’s a play I have to approach from a decidedly mixed point of view. I think polygamy is loathsome. I think it’s frickin’ weird, even wanting it. I can’t think about it in our history without embarrassment. I wish it wasn’t in our history. I don’t get it, not at any level.
But Frances and Ruth, I do get. They’re my people; that’s my heritage. I have polygamous ancestors, and I honor that history. I think back to my polygamous ancestor, Mary Curtis Markham. Grim lookin’ lady, but heck, she had a tough life. And an amazing one. I’m tremendously honored to have her in my family history.
And then you look at the history, and that same mixed-and-confused feeling reasserts itself. So the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which ended polygamy in Utah, infuriates me. It was blatantly unconstitutional, clearly violating the First Amendment. (And both Edmunds and Tucker were renowned constitutional scholars too. Infuriating). It wreaked havoc in Mormon families, leaving woman like Frances and Ruth utterly rootless and bereft. Passing it was a contemptible act of moralistic self-satisfied hypocrisy. And part of me also agrees with it, and in retrospect, it did lead to President Woodruff’s Manifesto, which was important and needed and about time. I don’t think Utah’s current polygamists should be persecuted, but I also think it’s great Warren Jeffs is in jail.
I’m conflicted, is what I’m saying. And this play does something wonderful; it rubs my face in my own conflictedness. I belong to a faith that has, in its history, polygamous doctrine and practice, vestiges of which remain in our holy books. How do I deal with that? How do I reconcile those contraries?
It does what a terrific play should do, and it does so while moving us deeply. April Fossen, as Frances, gives an extraordinary performance, so focused and in-the-moment. Sarah Young’s character is less complex, which doesn’t make her performance any less remarkable. Cheryl Cluff directed, with her usual directness and economy, even making great auditory and visual use of costume changes. As always, when she directs, I loved the sound design in the show, including this amazing pro-suffrage version of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance.
Anyway, a wonderful play, given a great production. And if I left the theater wallowing in my own conflictedness, well, that’s a good thing for theatre to accomplish.