Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association; photo by NeoFuturists
Theatre as a history lesson: I actually learned something just reading the subheading on NeoFuturists’ page promoting its newest offering, 45 Plays For America’s First Ladies. As internet memes put it, I was “today old” when I first learned that we have actually had not 45 but 50 First Ladies and that one President (John Tyler) had four all by himself. Still, as Eliza Johnson (Andie Patterson) tells us, this will not be “one play per lady” but “one play per President,” for “it is the men who give us structure”—one of this show’s not always subtle societal commentaries.
Plenty of new (to me, anyway) information permeates this inventive, energetic and consistently fascinating series of very short plays (presented online, of course) in which we learn more about the individual women who, despite often possessing personalities, stories, and characteristics that overshadowed the presidents in their lives, reside mostly unnoticed in our history books. Playwrights Chloe Johnston, Sharon Greene, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Bilal Dardai, & Andy Bayiates use many varying techniques such as puppetry, painting, short film, music video, etc. to complement the monologues and give these women their historical due and highlight the important roles played by women, slaves, and other unsung heroes in creating our often-messy history.
We know that we are delving into uncharted territory right away, as Martha Washington (Brenda Arellano in a wonderful, nearly schizophrenic performance) sheds her staid exterior to reveal the passions and emotions she keeps inside. And by the time that Jefferson’s slave/mistress Sally Hemming and his daughter Martha actually kick the third president out of the play completely, viewers know that we are in for a real treat and an examination of America that we are highly unlikely to be taught in school.
Among the many highlights: Dolley Madison (Vic Wynter) essentially inventing the role of First Lady and developing a template for the honorary office that her successors will follow with varying degrees of success; Sarah Polk (Patterson) using a paper doll to show herself as one-half of “a 19th Century power couple”; Abigail Fillmore (Hilary Asare) ruminating on whether, simply by not trying hard enough to stop them, she is as guilty as her husband for the atrocities he committed in office; Julia Grant (Robin Virginie using her lovely voice) singing about her struggles with “The Blue and Gray Blues,” the result of being a woman from a southern slave-owning family who is married to northern general Ulysses S. Grant; Grover Cleveland’s wife Frances Preston (Arrelano) dancing to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and ending by telling her successor, “Take care of all the furniture; we’ll be back in four years”; Edith Wilson (Asare), who secretly ran the country after her husband’s debilitating stroke, singing “I’ll Lead From Behind”; Lou Hoover (Ida Cuttler) complaining that, despite many accomplishments, she has been forgotten due to her husband’s failures; and Rosalynn Carter’s (Arrelano) private bitterness about a nation that would choose Ronald Reagan over her husband.
A lovingly collaborative presentation, 45 Plays (which follows NeoFuturists’ similar shows about the presidents) is directed by Denise Yvette Serna, a talented theatre practitioner and arts activist who has done shows with many Chicago area theatres. It will be available to view through Nov. 2, and it is certainly one of the first “don’t miss” shows of the pandemic, a testament to this company’s trademark ability to see theatre in new and exciting ways.
45 Plays For America’s First Ladies is now available for streaming online from neofuturists.org. The show runs approximately 100 minutes. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.