I thought a lot about the 2017 Women’s March while watching “The Good Fight.” Though the play takes place during the British suffragette movement in 1913 and 1914, the parallels to today’s protest movement were almost overwhelming. As the characters onstage debated whose voice guided control of “votes for women,” and worried over loss of space during a large procession, I remembered the national conversation that happened over who was best represented by the Women’s March organizers, and how concern loomed that the permit for the Washington march might be pulled at any minute. Anne Bertram’s script is about how the sausage of equal rights got made in Britain, and Elizabeth Lovelady’s production for Babes With Blades is at its best when shaping practicalities to meet with principles.
Grace Roe (Arielle Leverett) is put in charge of the Women’s Social and Political Union after its leader, Emmeline Pankhurst (Jean Marie Koons) is imprisoned and on a hunger strike. Emmeline’s daughter, Christabel (Alison Dornheggen), has escaped to Paris, and sends Grace advisory notes and warnings from France. Emily Wilding Davison (Taylor Raye) begs Grace for paid work to help the cause, and when she is rejected by Christabel for her extreme protests, she takes drastic action, illuminating that these women must protect one another in order to further the message of suffrage. By play’s end, many women in the organization have taken up jujutsu, in order to keep their leaders from being needlessly returned to prison, and a deeper conversation about violence and peaceful protest has been engaged.
The WSPU was famously known for militant tactics, such as the destruction of shop windows, escalating all the way to arson of uninhabited churches. Only the female perpetrators were ever put in harm’s way, it was reasoned, and that should prove their hunger for, as well as the necessity of, the vote. But such thinking does not win sympathy with the public. The police abuse the WSPU suffragettes, and drag Pankhurst back to jail as soon as she has regained her health. The government refuses to take up bills granting women the vote, because women are not as strong, and cannot rule forcefully, the way men must in political life. Bertram’s script allows for lots of debate over the best ways to win one’s freedom, and these scenes are powerful. There are never easy answers, and one can see both sides in how these women plan to defend their principles in reality.
Lovelady’s casting shines a light on this theme, highlighting issues we face now. Leverett and Raye are strong anchors for a cast full of vibrant, talented women; they are also women of color. The British and American suffrage movements were not welcoming to women of color, cutting them out of events and protests, and in the case of American history, preventing women of color from claiming their voting rights until the Voting Rights Act was implemented, after years of protest and social justice activism. Last year, the Women’s March struggled to include the voices of women of color, before reorganizing the leadership structure. So placing these actresses at the front of the story makes this not just history, but a story for now, about how those who are silenced will never stop fighting institutions, and even allies, for their voices.
While the integration of jujutsu felt schematic in some of the playwright’s work, the excellent fight choreography by Gaby Labotka makes the throws and falls land with intense reality. These women are athletes, and they protect their own, using opponents’ strength to their advantage, and protecting one another before striking against others. Such movement represents the heart of “The Good Fight.” Compromise and action can only happen when activists are willing to stand together, and force the public to see their points of view.
DIE RATING: Heckuva Good Show
TEN WORD SUMMARY: A thrilling examination of protest in regards to women’s rights.
Show: “The Good Fight”
Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company
Venue: City Lit Theater (1020 W Bryn Mawr Ave)