A Single Woman
Chances are you’re not familiar with the story of the first woman in Congress. Neither was playwright Jeanmarie Simpson. That is until she wrote a play called "A Single Woman." It opens this week in Sacramento.
Thursday, January 6, 2005
Jeanmarie Simpson of the Nevada Shakespeare Company considers herself a well-educated feminist. So imagine her surprise when she discovered that she’d never heard of Jeannette Rankin, the very first woman elected to Congress, from Montana, in 1916, a time when women weren’t allowed to vote in most states.
(I… I… just thought, how could I have missed her? So I Google-searched her. And I discovered she was a pacifist, a very intense, lifelong pacifist. Including the way she was raised. Her father didn’t allow guns on the property, on the ranch in Montana)
Simpson, the playwright, is also a pacifist, and very much in sympathy with Rankin as a woman of conscience. As a result, the early drafts of the script were kind of preachy, relying mostly on Rankin’s speeches -- something the playwright realized she needed to change.
(What I did at first, and I tend to do this. . . I tend to start out in a very didactic place. Which is, of course, death to the theater. But for some reason, it’s my departure point.)
Many rewrites followed, as Simpson sought to develop Rankin as personality onstage. Then she discovered a transcript of Rankin in action, speaking on the floor of Congress in 1941, trying desperately to delay a vote on a declaration of war on Japan. It’s a scene that becomes a dramatic highlight of the play.
(Music, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy)
(Man: The gentleman from Massachusetts demands the yeas and nays.)
(Rankin, heatedly: Mr. Speaker, I would like to be heard.)
(Man: The yeas and nays have been ordered. The question is, will the House suspend the rules and pass the resolution?)
(Rankin, overlapping: Mr. Speaker, a point of order)
(Man: A roll call may not be interrupted by an emotion, or a point of order.)
(Rankin: The rules demand that a resolution must be sent to committee if anyone asks that it be.)
(Man: Sit down, sister! The president has spoken!)
(Rankin: The president danced around this chamber, danced around the question, danced around the issues, flirted, and distracted the American people. . . As a woman, I can’t go to war, and I can’t send anyone else. I vote No!)
Rankin, during her long career, met a bunch of presidents, and the world’s other movers and shakers. To balance the political intensity, the playwright sought ways to show the everyday aspects of Rankin’s life. Rankin, it turns out, was a fabulous cook. So Cameron Crain, who directed the play, decided to take advantage of this.
(She was known for her lemon meringue pie. So here’s this tough as nails woman, who could give a speech, and electrify an audience, and look fabulous. . . and then go back, and roll up her sleeves, and, you know, bake pies.)
Most of the play is set in Rankin’s kitchen, as she talks about life while baking bread and mixing lemonade. But ultimately, this show is about a dedicated woman of principle who had to ask herself some pretty tough questions about what it meant to believe in pacifism, even after the Holocaust, or the Rape of Nanjing, when the Japanese Army slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians.
(And that is Jeanette’s dark night of the soul. But it really does answer the question, how does she speak to the Saddam Husseins, the Osaba bin Ladens, the Hitlers, the Hirohitos. . . How does she speak to these people that we have categorized as demons, as evil, evil people.)
To find out how Rankin answered that question. . . you’ll have to see the play. It’s called “A Single Woman,” and it’s at California Stage, a tiny theater at the corner of 25th and R in Sacramento, on weekends through January 30. Jeff Hudson, KXJZ news.