By Cynthia Darling
Come along for a rollicking dive into the history of women’s suffrage, updated to fit our 21st‑century sensibilities. In “Digging in Their Heels,” Sally J. Perkins condenses over ninety years of political struggle into a sixty‑minute show, presenting a clear and memorable historical account. She keeps the focus sharp: the women’s movement from one generation to the next, until the vote was finally achieved.
Ms. Perkins updates these stories. In her depiction of the Grimke sisters, for example, she imagines that these early suffragists might have contacted each other via FaceTime to fight for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. These sisters would then hold parlor talks in Philadelphia, where they would discuss racial politics over margaritas. Ms. Perkins compares them to Venus and Serena Williams, and similar analogies abound. Interestingly, these real‑life parlor talks were called “unnatural” by the Philadelphia clergy, and thus began the fight for women’s right to vote.
A funny bit comes when Ms. Perkins describes Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and others “sipping on macchiatos,” discussing how to host a women’s rights convention. With only one week to plan it, the women, naturally, Ms. Perkins says, “googled how to run a convention.” The understatement of this joke is the point: these women pulled off the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in only a week without the benefits of modern technology. Ms. Perkins says that soon the Uber drivers started showing up, dropping off 300 people for the convention. What doesn’t need updating is the fact that the convention was planned by only five women and resulted in the Declaration of Sentiments. As Ms. Perkins says, “It blew up on Facebook and Instagram,” and more conventions started cropping up, “like ‘me too’ claims.” The connection, of how one group’s political activism can spread to others, is apt.
The visuals of the show are excellent. They are beautifully constructed, forming a stimulating backdrop for the narrative. On one side, a row of empty picture frames hangs from the wall, gradually filled in with large photos of the key figures in the fight for women’s rights. On the other side of the stage hangs a similarly bold, floor‑to‑ceiling‑size map of the United States. A timeline from 1830‑1920 runs above the map, and Ms. Perkins uses a sliding pointer to indicate the passage of time. Later in the show, as the women break into two camps of political belief, Ms. Perkins likens the split to the American League versus the National League of Baseball, and the audience is divided up into these two camps, each cheering for the corresponding women.
This is no passive theater experience; the audience is meant to participate. As the show progresses, Ms. Perkins makes use of simple but effective props and crowd interactions to teach and involve us. She is a deft translator of history.
Ms. Perkins’ tone doesn’t always fit the gravitas of the suffragists. Not only does she use contemporary language and cultural references, but, in several cases, she gives women who fought for suffrage an adolescent, slangy voice. Doing so undercuts the seriousness of the work of these activists. As she reports these women’s struggles, the updated slang is reductive in its teenager‑like affect. At one point, she describes how Susan B. Anthony put on her stilettos, got in her Tesla, and tried to gather opposition to the 14th amendment. A 21st‑century conversation between two political figures, such as RBG and Sonya Sotomayor, for example, it would seem, would sound contemporary but retain the respectful tone appropriate to these figures.
Ms. Perkins’ presence is bright. She has a strong and expressive voice, which makes her a great narrator for this history. She is, quite simply, a great presenter. Her eye contact is powerful. Clear and direct facial expressions make the show engaging. Her confidence combines sincerity and an eager desire to connect, which she does. She brings a certain “aw shucks” vibe to her narration, which works for most of the story. When she brings up a serious moment, she mostly doesn’t linger in the shock or loss. She is quick to resume her story and smile after describing a particularly disappointing turn of events.
Ms. Perkins tells the parallel story of black women’s fight for equal rights, and she pointedly discusses how they were often overlooked and even outright rejected at these women’s rights conventions and gatherings. Ms. Perkins describes the prevalent views of the time, such as the fear that giving women the right to vote would lead to divorce, which would lead to the neglect of children, which would lead to kids going to jail. It was pervasive “domino logic,” says Ms. Perkins.
One major takeaway from the show is that the long fight for the vote spanned multiple generations. As Ms. Perkins notes, in 1865, the Civil War ended, slavery was declared illegal, and these women entered…menopause. Such attention to the human side of these activists is refreshing. “Digging in Their Heels” proves to be a feminist retelling, pointing out how the political fits into a woman’s personal life.
In the 1870s, the original suffragists were becoming grandmothers. They realized they needed the next generation. Or, as Ms. Perkins says, they needed the millennials. By playing upon our label for today’s young’uns, Ms. Perkins invokes today’s younger generation of activists. Thus, Ms. Perkins’ show is a valuable clarion call for today’s political climate.
In 1917, just before women finally receive the right to vote, the story gets more fraught. The activist Alice Paul was put in jail, into solitary confinement. She went on hunger strikes that led to tortuous force feedings. Such acts, fellow suffragist Carrie Catt argued, were bad optics. But that was precisely the point. People paid attention.
It is at the end that Ms. Perkins raises her show to its most powerful moment of impact. She asks the audience to find slips of paper on their seats. They contain the names of black and white female activists for women’s rights. As she notes, the struggle was not equal, and there was disparity between the two groups in the fight for equality. Ms. Perkins asks the audience to reach over and take the hand of the person sitting next to them. In this way, she invokes the need for all to come together to fight for women’s rights. The moment was honestly shiver‑inducing. In the show’s turning outward to connect history to the present day, we feel the true resounding effect of “Digging in Their Heels.”
“Digging in Their Heels”
Written and Performed by Sally J. Perkins
October 17 at 7:30 pm
Photo: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theatre Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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CYNTHIA DARLING is a writer and teacher living in Hell’s Kitchen. A writer for NAfME’s Teaching Music magazine for many years, she also wrote for New York Family magazine. She is currently working toward an MFA in Creative Writing with the Bluegrass Writers Studio. Her fiction and nonfiction appear in Louisiana Literature, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and Wanderlust Journal.