‘Extraordinary Chicago Women’ at Theatre Seven a labor of love
BY MARY HOULIHAN For Sun-Times Media September 29, 2013 8:59PM
Marsha Harman (from left), Jaclyn Hennell, Tracey Kaplan, Brittney Love Smith, Jessica London-Shields, Adithi Chandrashekar and Echaka Agba are part of Theatre Seven's "Unwilling and Hostile Instruments." | Michael R. Schmidt~For Sun-Times Media
‘Unwilling and Hostile Instruments: 100 Years of Extraordinary Chicago Women’
When: Through Oct. 27
Where: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron
Info: (773) 853-3158;
Updated: November 1, 2013 6:07AM
On the 100th anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement, Theatre Seven has decided to honor that historic event by starting a conversation via an intriguing new work “Unwilling and Hostile Instruments: 100 Years of Extraordinary Chicago Women.”
Each of Theatre Seven’s 16 ensemble members threw names of accomplished Chicagoans into the hat; a working list of 25 was whittled down to seven. The goal was to make the collection of short plays broader than just the suffrage movement.
“We were really committed to having a lineup that was diverse in every way,” artistic director Brian Golden says. “Diverse in race and diverse in time period. We wanted women coming from different angles in terms of age and background, race and perspective.
The plays that make up “Unwilling and Hostile Instruments” were written by a collection of local and national playwrights. The writers and their subjects are Seth Bockley (Maurine Watkins), Ike Holter (Jane Addams, modern day), Elaine Romero (Jane Addams, 1889), Emily Schwartz (Cora Strayer), Carla Stillwell (Ida B. Wells), Nick Ward (Myra Bradwell), Travis Williams (Mavis Staples) and Lauren Yee (Ann Landers). Golden wrote the connecting tissue that binds the short pieces into a whole, and Elly Green directs.
Golden admits it was tough to choose the final seven women; many name were left on the cutting room floor. “You could do this project many times over with different women,” he says. “It would tell different stories but lose nothing in terms of its great storytelling.”
Some of the chosen women are Chicago icons — Addams, Wells, Staples, Landers. Others are less-known but with equally intriguing life stories — Watkins (a journalist and crime reporter in the 1920s who wrote the play the musical “Chicago” is based on), Bradwell (one of America’s first female lawyers in the late 1800s) and Stayer (an independent spirit who worked as a private detective in the early 1900s).
Strayer’s life story reads “like an old fashioned magazine serial,” says Schwartz. “That’s what drew me to her… detective work, car chases, a series of dead husbands, etc. She’s a hoot, and honestly it was hard to pull just a piece of her life for a 10-minute scene because there were so many fantastically ridiculous elements.”
Staples isn’t actually a character in Williams’ play. Instead, he focuses on how her music brought a group of people together at a difficult time during the Civil Rights era in 1965 Chicago. As for Bradwell— a political activist and advocate for women — who attempted to be the first woman lawyer to be admitted to the Illinois bar, Ward’s piece has her ghost visiting the office of a woman working to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1980s.
With two interesting pitches from two writers, the creative team felt Addams, the pioneer social worker and founder of Hull House, deserved two plays about her life. Holter’s piece looks at her legacy in today’s world and includes a bit of a lesson.
“Many young activists pretend they’re the first people to pioneer, but I wanted this piece to remind people that there’s always going to be someone after you,” Holter explains, “just like there was someone before you who put this whole journey into motion.”
Yee, who writes about Landers, the queen of newspaper advice columnists, hopes the play as a whole gets people thinking more broadly about what the lives of 19th and 20th century women would have been like.
“Today we seem to think that only in the past 50 years have women come out of the home and into a variety of different fields, but these women show that that isn’t the case,” Yee says. “Their stories are so much more diverse and fascinating than we imagine.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.