Playwright Brian Golden honors Chicago’s extraordinary women in ‘Unwilling and Hostile Instruments’
By BRIAN GOLDEN October 10, 2013 11:24AM
Updated: October 18, 2013 2:26PM
Creating a single play that tells the entire story of how extraordinary Chicago women have influenced our city in the last century is an impossible task. Which is, of course, the best reason to do it anyway.
A bit of historical context: 100 years ago, as Chicago women battled for suffrage — eventually making Illinois the first state east of the Mississippi where women could vote for President — one opponent wrote that women were “merely the passive and often unwilling and hostile instruments by which humanity is created.”
When I first read this statement, almost breathtaking in its ignorance and disgust for womankind, I felt inspired to create a project for my company, Theatre Seven of Chicago, that would celebrate the contributions of Chicago women while also asking this question: Who are the real “‘unwilling and hostile instruments” that stand in the way of progress and equality?
We decided to tell stories from the lives of seven Chicago women — each penned by a different writer — that communicates the impact and legacy of great women for our city. This selection process was not easy. There are so many incredible, well-known women, along with the countless who live untold in the pages of history, to whom we owe some small part of the city we love.
As an artistic director, I often feel intimidated and overwhelmed by the responsibility of choosing which stories find their way to our stage and the context in which we tell them to our audience. But really, these aren’t just questions of artistry, but ones of citizenship: To whose stories are we going to pay attention? Which people’s experiences merit our focus and concern? Which questions about our city do we investigate and explore, and which do we leave as problems for others to tackle? And when we consider the lives of our fellow Chicagoans, do we see them as distinctly separate from ours, or as part of the same story of equality and community?
Ultimately, we chose Jane Addams and Ida Wells because they transformed how Chicago viewed its poor, immigrants and people of color. We chose Maurine Watkins because she walked into a cold jail cell and told a story that changed the way people saw Chicago forever. We chose Cora Strayer because she entered a male-dominated working world and carved a place for herself. We chose Ann Landers because she showed the world that the problems of ordinary women deserved its attention. We chose Myra Bradwell because she won legal rights for women that she didn’t live long enough to practice. We chose Mavis Staples because she uses her voice to imagine a world where people feel united, not divided.
We took great pride in selecting the Chicago stories we’re telling this October. Which one will you tell after you leave the theater? It’s up to you.
“Unwilling and Hostile Instruments: 100 Years of Extraordinary Chicago Women” runs through Oct. 27 at American Theater Company (1909 W. Byron). Get tickets and information at Theatreseven.org.