By Roy Berko
Watching Cleveland Public Theatre’s Ancestra is both an enlightening and a depressing experience.
Depressing in that the play adds yet another layer to the still on-going tale of the fight for women’s equality in what was and in many ways still is a conservative white man’s world. In spite of progress, such issues as gender equity, equal pay for equal work, women’s health care and reproductive rights are still lagging. Yes, women now have the right to vote, own property, aren’t regarded legally as possessions, and can get advanced collegiate degrees (even though some fields are still generally closed to females).
Enlightening, especially to those who know little about the rights movements in this country, the rights of women, blacks and homosexuals/transgendered persons. Unfortunately, those who really needed to get the edification probably won’t attend the play. It would be too threatening to their closed minds and unbending beliefs.
The National Women’s Rights Convention was a series of annual meetings that brought visibility to the women’s rights movement in the United States. The first convention was held in 1850, in Worcester, Massachusetts. That session attracted men and women who were advocates for temperance, abolition and suffrage for women.
As one of the speakers stated, “I conceive that the first thing to be done by the women of this country is to demand their political enfranchisement. Among the ‘self-evident truths’ announced in the Declaration of Independence is this – ‘All government derives its just power from the consent of the governed.’”
Ancestra, which is now in production at Cleveland Public Theater, is a play by Holly Holsinger, Chris Seibert, Renee Schilling and Sally Groth that was inspired by the 1853 National Women’s Rights Convention held in Cleveland.
At that convention, in a letter read aloud, the Reverend William Henry Channing, a leader of the Christian socialism movement, suggested that “the convention issue its own Declaration of Women’s Rights and petitions to state legislatures seeking woman suffrage, equal inheritance rights, equal guardianship laws, divorce for wives of alcoholics, tax exemptions for women until given the right to vote, and the right to trial before a jury of female peers.”
The authors have creatively woven flashes from the past with instances of the present to create an effective portrayal of their message “to celebrate those who came before and champions of current efforts to achieve dignity and justice.”
Interesting to locals, who tend to be proud that Oberlin College was the first institution of higher learning to admit women, is a segment which indicates that their education afforded women was not parallel or equal to those given to men. The women were restricted as to the courses they were allowed to take, how they were treated, and the need to hide in the woods to be able to speak their minds and just not be sponges in the classroom.
The play is well staged by Holly Holsinger in a creative setting designed by Aaron Benson. An inner proscenium consisting of twigs and trees, with platforms for portraying various places, providing a pleasing and practical acting space. Having those from the past always in the background, and vise versa added much to creating the image of the past as it affects the present.
The cast is excellent. Special kudos to Chris Seibert as Cora, a modern day reporter who fights to continue the assault on tradition to make for continued changes to help the cause of women through the power of activism.
Anne McEvoy does a nice transition from the stern administrator at Oberlin to Cora’s caring mother. Rhoda Rosen, as the emblem of elderly women, is endearing. Katy Lynn Patterson is excellent as the educationally frustrated Lucy.
As is often the case in the CPH theatre, being able to hear the actors is a problem. The high ceiling, open fly gallery and distance between the audience and the stage makes for echoes and a loss of projection. Since the production I saw was a preview, I don’t know if several of the females, who were very difficult to hear due to a lack of projection, improved during regularly scheduled productions.
Capsule judgement: “Ancestra” is a well written play that gets an excellent production at Cleveland Public Theatre. It is a story that needs to be told. It should be seen by everyone who assumes that the rights movements…the march for equality for women, blacks and homosexuals, have completed their tasks. Kudos!
Ancestra runs through June 7, 2014 at Cleveland Public Theatre. For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to http://cptonline.org.
Roy Berko is a member of The American Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle and Dance Critics Association. He is a college professor of communication and psychology, author of thirty-one books, and a life coach. His reviews and commentaries can be found on ArtsAmerica.org, BroadwayWorld.com, NEohioPAL and CoolCleveland.com and on his popular blog, http://RoyBerko.info.