Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Now Showing: "Brightly Dawning Day: Celebrating the Centennial of Women's Suffrage in Oregon"

If you're in or around Oregon during the next couple of days, make it a goal to hie yourself over to Willamette University's Pelton Theater and catch a showing of Brightly Dawning Day: Celebrating the Centennial of Women's Suffrage in Oregon—an experimental, group-written and provocative play to which P&PC managed to score opening-night tickets on February 15, a date nicely timed to coincide with Susan B. Anthony's birthday as well as the date of the first woman to register to vote in Oregon, Anthony's friend and leading Oregon suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway. (The play's title, btw, comes from lyrics to Duniway's "Campaign Song," written around 1871.)

P&PC has been pretty close to this production for a long time now, serving as an unofficial dramaturge because the play started with—and incorporates in a bunch of very funky ways—a collection of poems and songs sourced from The New Northwest, a suffragist newspaper that was started and edited by Duniway, that regularly featured poetry (oftentimes on the front page), and that was published out of Portland from 1871-1887. (If you're a regular P&PC reader, you might remember our four-part "Remembering The New Northwest" series here, here, here, and here.)

So, here's the story. Back in January of 2012, seeking some way to motivate and bring back to public life part of this otherwise largely forgotten archive of suffragist poetry written in the Willamette Valley, which two different instantiations of a "Poetry of the Pacific Northwest" class helped to comb through and edit, P&PC met with director and WU Theatre professor Jon Cole, who was seeking material for the development of a devised script in conjunction with a scriptwriting class he was slated to teach. P&PC proposed starting with the New Northwest's poetry as a way of linking the show to statewide efforts to commemorate 2012 as the one hundredth anniversary of Oregon women's suffrage, but also as a way to experiment with how archival materials might be tied to the present day and made, well, less archival.

Cole agreed— with one caveat. Due to the nature of devised theater pieces, he explained, which are collaboratively written and oftentimes experimental in development and final product, he warned that the eventual script might not leave the original poems intact; they might be cut up, sampled, collaged, quoted, juxtaposed with other material, and the like. No worries, we responded: the age in which the poems were written was a great age of American scrapbooking where readers themselves cut out poems and articles from papers like the New Northwest and sampled, collaged, and juxtaposed them in albums. In fact, Duniway herself kept scrapbooks that are now in the Knight Library at the University of Oregon. How more appropriate a compositional model could one get? (Check out the show's awesome stage floor employing this scrapbook motif, designed by Chris Harris and lighted by Rachel Steck.)

So, during the Spring of 2012, P&PC's "Poetry of the Pacific Northwest" class assembled about eighty pages of poetry published by the New Northwest—poems of various styles, lengths, and performance possibilities, and representing maybe ten different arguments being made at the time for why women should have the right to vote—and presented it all to Cole's scriptwriting class. We followed up with a couple of joint class workshops to explore the material and the dynamics of collaborative script development, one of which featured a skit juxtaposing a sincere performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" ("Oh, say can you see...") with a rapping, hip-hop Duniway response:
My name is Abigail—I go by AJD—
and I'm here to tell you all what it is I see.
I see the men on the floor but the ladies aren't here
'cause they all back at home in the "women’s sphere."
Come on people—it's Eighteen Seventy-One.
Is this really how we think the dance of democracy's done?
I wanna bust a move, but I can't break out.
What I need more than anything's an angel in the house!
Needless to say, that skit didn't make the final cut. But during the Summer and Fall of 2012, Cole and his cast of student and faculty collaborators put together an energetic, funky show in which impressionistic, sometimes dance-like scenes loosely based on points in Duniway's life are juxtaposed with projected interviews featuring current women students remembering their first time voting. The contrast between the two is pretty provocative. On one hand, you've got an idealistic, highly-interpretive narrative about the women's suffrage movement (idealistic because it omits many of the movement's complications and/or contradictions including the temperance movement [which Duniway supported] and the racism that divided many American suffragists). On the other hand, you've got what is presented, in documentary fashion, as the real responses of today's young women voters (all WU students). So, the imagined (almost fictional) past contrasts with the "real," video-recorded present; highly stylized interpretations of history are juxtaposed with actual voices; scenes bringing together dance, lots of sound and movement, dreamlike tableaux, and multi-media components are set against the rather austere format of the video interview.

Meant to provoke discussion (and even anger), the play doesn't resolve the relation- ship between these two ways of engaging and recording history—neither of which is or can be a completely "accurate" representation of women's voting history in the U.S.—but leaves them there as points of comparison. The telling of all history, it implies, is a political endeavor insofar it is always-already interpretive: some things are included, some are left out, some embellished, some selectively remembered, some quoted, some taken out of context, and very little of it, no matter how ambitious, can be representative of all voters' experiences—an irony made all the more inflammatory by the play's subject matter of voting, a political activity in which everyone's voice is supposed to "count."

So what of the eighty pages of poetry that our "Poetry of the Pacific Northwest" provided? Not a lot of it remained, as Cole had promised, but it was certainly there, especially if you knew what you were looking for as P&PC did. Sometimes, the text of a poem was projected onto the screens set up on two sides of the 360-degree stage. One poem ("Woman vs. Horse") was turned into a folk song. The actors sang a suffragist song. In a great scene dramatizing the emotional content of "The Perplexed Housekeeper" (written by Mrs. F.D. Gage and published in the New Northwest on June 2, 1871), the actor—overwhelmed by domestic burdens symbolized by an ever-growing duffel bag repeatedly thrust at her—"recited" the entirety of the poem via a series of moans, groans, mumbles, and other vocal expressions decipherable only because the poem's words were on screen in the background.

Then, in a move that P&PC did not even remotely anticipate but absolutely loved, the opening and closing scenes—both first-person accounts of students' responses to voting for the first time—took the form of contemporary, spoken-word or slam poetry. In these two moments, the play's fairly well-policed divide between the imagined, stylistically presented past and the "documentary" interviews with present-day women voters broke down. What linked the play's women voters, as a result, was not just a history of voting rights as a form of political expression, but a history of voting rights as a history of poetic expression, as well, as the voices of forgotten Willamette Valley women from the 1870s joined with the voices of Willamette Valley women in 2013. How better to motivate and make meaningful a 150 year-old archive of poetry than that?

We hope you get a chance to see the play soon. Brightly Dawning Day: Celebrating the Centennial of Women's Suffrage in Oregon only runs until February 23, so get your tickets today!