Have you heard of the musical juggernaut about the scrappy young American revolutionary with a surplus of political genius, who is determined to change the course of history with the help of a band of committed buddies? No, not ‘Hamilton’ – I’m talking about ‘Suffs’, an ambitious new show (directed by Leigh Silverman, to The Audience) which sets out to do for suffragette Alice Paul what Lin-Manuel Miranda did for Alexander H. La Thirty-three-year-old series creator Shaina Taub wrote the music, lyrics and book, and she stars as Paul, who surely counts as one of the most remarkable figures of the 20th century, if not – again – one of his familiar names. “Suffs,” which sold out long before it opened, features a strong female and non-binary cast, an inspiring story, and songs that stick in your head for days. Paul has been featured on screen before, in the 2004 film “Iron Jawed Angels.” Soon, she might find herself sabotaging it on Broadway, a founding mother to beat the band.
Paul was born in New Jersey in 1885. Her family was Quaker, a religion that advocates gender equality, and she was able to get the kind of top-notch education that wasn’t readily available to most women. of his time. She studied biology at Swarthmore and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, then crossed the Atlantic to attend the University of Birmingham, where she met the militant suffragist Christabel Pankhurst and immediately converted to the cause. From Christabel and his famous mother, Emmeline, Paul learned the principles of direct action and civil disobedience. She marched, protested and was repeatedly arrested; in prison, she began a hunger strike, which resulted in torture by force-feeding. Physically weakened but spiritually unshakeable, Paul returned to the United States, determined to use her organizational expertise to win the vote for American women.
This is where Taub picks up the story. It’s 1913, and popular sentiment toward the suffragist struggle isn’t exactly rising. On a stage dominated by the wide steps and majestic columns of the Capitol (the decor, designed by Mimi Lien, embodies male power), the actors, equipped with false mustaches, bustle about in the guise of furious men. Tossing out era-appropriate yuk-yuk jokes (“What do a good wife and a good show have in common?” “They’re both quiet!”), these little gentlemen ridicule what ‘they fear and despise, a strategy which “Suffs”, armed with the hindsight advantage of history, backfires.
We see Paul for the first time when she bursts breathless into a meeting of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, whose members are determined to conduct themselves with all the dignity their critics lack. The organization’s veteran manager, Carrie Chapman Catt (Jenn Colella), is convinced that only polite and genteel persuasion will prevail. NAWSA helped win women’s suffrage in Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Kansas, Arizona, Washington, Colorado and California, a record that Catt recites with pride, but Paul is unimpressed. Only eleven states out of forty-eight? Catt’s progressive approach is too cautious for this fast-talking big thinker. Woodrow Wilson is about to take office, and Paul wants Catt to join her in demanding the new president’s support for a constitutional amendment that will bring suffrage nationwide. She prepares a protest march, the first of its kind, for the eve of the Inauguration: thousands of women from all over the country parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, dressed in white to stand out in the photos of the newspapers.
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The gall of Paul! Catt, dismayed, pushes the upstart away, but there’s no incentive for the young like the doubt of the old, and Alice rushes to assemble her own elite team. First to join is Lucy Burns (Ally Bonino), a devoted school friend, who is followed by Inez Milholland (Phillipa Soo), a beautiful radical with high society connections and a law degree, whom Alice recruits. to legitimize and glorify, walking. (Inez suggests she lead the walkers atop a white courier: the woman knows by sight.) Rounding out the group, Ruza Wenclawska (Hannah Cruz), a Polish immigrant who cut her teeth in organizing fellow factory workers, and an enthusiastic young graduate, Doris Stevens (Nadia Dandashi, serious and funny), who is enlisted as the group’s secretary. “How are we going to do it when it’s never been done?” women wonder. Paul only knows that she must “find a way where there is none”.
Taub is surprisingly good at turning the wild tangle of history into drama and at capturing the grueling effort of an organizer’s job: meetings, protests, and meetings to plan other protests. She has a lot of ground to cover. The Nineteenth Amendment was not passed until 1919, by which time Paul had separated from NAWSA to found the more radical National Woman’s Party. Taub cleverly compresses into panoramic song the years Paul and his band spent pressuring Wilson; When it becomes clear that no amount of vigorous nudging will move the president to action, Paul escalates the conflict by picketing the White House, an act of dissent that results in a brutal move to the Occoquan Workhouse, in Virginia.
Taub also has a number of people to consider. The fight for suffrage was nothing if not heated, and Taub cleverly echoes the rivalry between Catt and the impatient Paul with a more brotherly argument, between the incendiary journalist Ida B. Wells (steel Nikki M. James) and her friend Mary Church Terrell (Cassondra James), the first president of the National Association of Colored Women. While Terrell advises strategic conciliation, Wells backs down on Paul’s suggestion to march with a black contingent to the rear of the Washington March to avoid upsetting the Southern ladies whose support Paul considers essential. When Paul disagrees with movement tactics, she goes her own way. Why shouldn’t Wells do it?
Yet for all its many merits, “Suffs” doesn’t quite cross the line between very good and excellent. The show, which lasts two hours and forty minutes, is not preachy, exactly, but it is didactic; Taub’s knack for condensation is a boon when it comes to a thorny political plot, but it can be a weakness when character is at stake. Take Wilson (Grace McLean), who is caricatured as a prancing buffoon , an approach that worked for “Hamilton” mad King George but makes little sense for a president renowned for his intellect. That’s not all Wilson is known for these days. His Deputy Secretary of State Dudley Malone is portrayed by black actress Tsilala Brock; the casting, perhaps intended to criticize Wilson’s notorious racism, also oddly hinders the show’s ability to acknowledge him.
Then there’s the enigma of Paul, who appears in the series as a sui generis force of nature and never strays from his fixed goal. (When the Nineteenth Amendment is signed, Paul calmly announces that it’s time to write another and quickly drafts the Equal Rights Amendment.) Taub brings it to life with a powerful, inspiring singing voice and the look of a stubbornly determined A student. ; her Paul is a woman born with her nose to the grindstone of life, and serious high school girls who might be the show’s ideal audience will recognize themselves in her and applaud. But, while self-doubt can be the enemy of the activist, it is the friend of the artist. We want a glimmer of inner conflict, weakness or slip-up, to distinguish Paul from a feminist picture book paragon. The show has heart and a message to spare. He could use more salt.
Towards the end of the first act, we are very close to having it. Inez shows up in Alice’s office to explain that she needs some rest. She is supposed to go on a speaking tour across the country to get the vote, but she is exhausted. Isn’t it Alice? “I don’t ask anything of you that I don’t ask of myself,” replies Paul. But there is a flash of tenderness. If Alice would stop for a moment and open up, confide in her friend, it would only add to the joy of this musical. But there’s work to be done, and she’s pushing to prepare for the next battle. ♦