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‘Gloria: A Life’ focuses on the feminist icon, but also honors other oft-overlooked women who aided the movement

Natalie Pompilio

September 13, 2019

Article taken from NJ.com

The first act of “Gloria: A Life” – at the McCarter Theatre Center through Oct. 6 – highlights the work of well-known political activist Gloria Steinem and a few of the lesser-known but equally passionate women and men who mentored her, joined her or were inspired by her.

The second act is more unconventional: Audience members are invited to join a 20-minute “talking circle” where participants can share thoughts about the production, personal stories of struggle – or perhaps even issue a call to action.

“All social justice movements come from people sitting around in a circle and talking,” said Artistic Director Emily Mann, who wrote the play with Steinem’s input. “The first time we did one … Gloria said, ‘Don’t worry. Talking circles are magic. They take care of themselves.’ She was right. They’re different every time and the stories are incredibly powerful.”

The production reunites Mann, who is retiring from McCarter after the 2019-2020 season, and Mary McDonnell, a two-time Oscar nominee (“Dances with Wolves,” “Passion Fish”) most recently seen on television in shows including “Fargo,” “The Closer” and “Major Crimes.” The pair met about 40 years ago when McDonnell auditioned for a role in a show Mann was casting. McDonnell didn’t get a part, but she made an impression.

“She was like a force of nature,” Mann recalled. “Her quest for the truth as an actress just blew my mind.”

Which is why, a short time later, she cast McDonnell in “Still Life,” a drama based on interviews Mann had with Vietnam War veterans. The production opened off-Broadway in 1981 and earned Mann an Obie Award for “Best Production” while McDonnell – and the other two cast members – took home Obies for their performances.

Mann and McDonnell continued to work together on different stage productions throughout the 1980s. Then in 1990, Mann took on the roles of resident playwright and artistic director at McCarter while McDonnell explored Hollywood. When Mann came across roles she thought would suit McDonnell, the actress was inevitably on other projects and the two “fell out of touch, artistically,” Mann said.

Reuniting for “Gloria: A Life,” the production that opened Mann’s final season at McCarter, is amazing, McDonnell said.

“I get to work with a lifelong friend and mentor,” she said. “The foundation of the way that I work and the success I’ve had, I can take back to the early work I did with Emily as a director and the freedom she instilled in me to find my own way and my own technique.

Mann, whose next project is an adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s book “The Pianist,” said she envisions more collaborations between them in the future.

“We missed each other’s second acts,” she said. “But we’re together for our third acts.”

When “Gloria” opened off-Broadway in 2018 with Christine Lahti in the title role, many critics called it an inspiring night of theater, praising the way it went beyond a standard Steinem biography to include other activists’ stories. Some, like New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug, are well-known. Others, including Wilma Mankiller, Florynce Kennedy and Aileen Hernandez, are not. But they are included here. There are even nods to those whose names are lost but whose words and actions are remembered, like the female cab driver who said, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

McDonnell remembers first learning of Steinem and her work as a college student in the early 1970s.

“The Women’s Movement was happening but not every young woman was connected to it because we didn’t have social media. We didn’t have cell phones. They sure as hell weren’t giving it a lot of advertising on television or in news stories,” McDonnell said. After learning about Steinem and hearing her words, “I thought, ‘This isn’t just an idea that women will be equal some day. This is a woman who gets the whole thing.’ … I felt such hope to be guided by someone so brilliant.”

Besides McDonnell, the cast includes six actresses who play male and female roles of all ages.

“Women can play men in such an interesting way and in some ways better,” Mann said. “You see the men through women’s eyes and it adds another layer that’s just fascinating.”

While the play’s hour-long first act presents the gains Steinem and other activists have made in their quest for equality, one of the play’s take-away messages is that the battle is far from over.

“You’re going to have to march for another 50 or 100 years,” Mann said. “You’ve got to get your children and grandchildren motivated to keep up the fight.”

Having Steinem continue to lead and inspire is an ongoing need, McDonnell said, especially as some seek to go back in time and turn “feminism” into a bad word.

“When I listen to the interviews she’s been doing the last 10 years, she just keeps pushing the door open further,” she said. “We are in such a terrible time of backlash (and) to have her voice still here and to be gracefully acknowledging the difficult times we are living through …repeating again and again that feminism is simply human equality.”

Mann said the discussions that emerge from the talking circles are enlightening, interesting and inspiring. One young woman, she recalled, saw the show with her mother and said she’d learned a lot from the play, noting, “I took for granted all of the rights I have. I realize now how much you went through and what you’ve given me.” An 11-year-old boy said the production helped him realize that he’s a feminist because “all people are human and all people are equal.”

A few younger men have said they believe in equal rights for women, but the anti-women sentiment coming from some politicians had left them unsure how to show their support. An older man, forced into seeing the show by his wife, said he was leaving it with the realization that he had not always treated women with respect.

“He said, “I can’t be at a bar with guys or in a locker room anymore and take part in the kind of demeaning language and demeaning stories told,’” Mann said. “That’s pretty cool.”

In the play and in real life, Steinem has called herself a “hope-a-holic.” The talking circle can spread that feeling and allow people to leave “reassured,” McDonnell said.

“We’re not going to lose this battle. We are not going to be isolated. You cannot turn us away. You can’t silence us,” she said. “We won’t let it happen. I think that could be quite marvelous (message) for people right now.”