Playing an extended world-premiere Off-Broadway engagement at The Public Theater, the ambitious sung-through musical Suffs, with book, music, and lyrics by Shaina Taub, who also leads a large all-female ensemble cast of nineteen, presents a richly researched, entertaining, and engaging history lesson on the complicated background of the Suffragist Movement and the women who fought the long battle for the right to vote, with a call for equal rights that still resonates today.
Directed by Leigh Silverman, the informative and energetic narrative moves from 1913, with the planning of the Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, DC, held on the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, to the resurgence of the post-modern Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s and beyond. And the forthright production considers not only the sisterhood and accomplishments of the largely unsung real-life trailblazers, but also the struggles, conflicts, and divides – gender-based, generational, and racial – they faced from both outside and within the not always strategically like-minded coalition.
At the center of it all, and played with indefatigable strength and determination by Taub, is the unrelenting activist Alice Paul (1885-1977), who organized public protests, suffered police brutality and imprisonment, and went head-to-head with other leaders of the cause. Most notable among them was Carrie Chapman Catt, Susan B. Anthony’s chosen successor in the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and a representative of the more conciliatory old guard (an “Old Fogey”), portrayed with commanding resolve by Jenn Colella and sung in her ever-outstanding voice; and Civil Rights leader, writer, speaker, and co-founder of the NAACP Ida B. Wells, who was born into slavery, became a chief advocate for both the Black and female population, and, in a powerfully affecting performance by Nikki M. James, refused to disassociate the two, despite the expressed concerns of her cohorts.
In the roles of Paul’s closest associates are the consistently compelling Ally Bonino as Lucy Burns, Alice’s steadfast friend and co-founder of the National Woman’s Party; Hannah Cruz as the feisty Polish-American labor organizer and working-class proponent Ruza Wenclawska (who would go on to become a stage actress in NYC, appearing in the 1924 Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms); Nadia Dandashi as the committed young force of feminism Doris Stevens, hired by NAWSA as a secretary, organizer, and chronicler; and the sensational Phillipa Soo as the extravagantly wealthy, beautiful, and connected Inez Milholland – a prominent lawyer and speaker, who famously led the DC Woman Suffrage Procession with her signature dramatic visual rhetoric, riding a white horse and dressed in a long flowing robe and crown (a stunning scene that manifests the majesty of women).
Other featured roles (with both the male and female parts played and sung by the company of women) include Grace McLean’s sidesplitting satirical send-up of the unsupportive President; Tsilala Brock as the simpatico Dudley Malone, who served as an Assistant Secretary of State in the Wilson cabinet but resigned his post after converting to the Suffragist cause and eventually marrying Stevens; and Aisha de Haas as the multi-millionaire socialite Alva Belmont, a member who generously gave the Suffs her active and financial support.
Rounding out the terrific ensemble are Jenna Bainbridge, Amina Faye, Cassondra James, Jaygee Macapugay, Susan Oliveras, Mia Pak, Liz Pearce, J. Riley Jr., and Ada Westfall. All contribute effectively to the lively characterizations and themes, harmonies and movement (with music direction and supervision by Andrea Grody, orchestrations by Mike Brun, and choreography by Raja Feather Kelly). Along with the rest of the cast, they appear individually and in group scenes as taunting men, and as women united against oppression.
The performances are supported by a lavish array of period-style men’s and women’s costumes by Toni-Leslie James, and hair, wigs, mustaches, and make-up by Matthew Armentrout. Mimi Lien’s imposing architectural set of monumental columns, stairs, and doorway is enhanced with colorful lighting by Natasha Katz, sound by Sun Hee Kil, and sound effects by Daniel Kluger to suit the story’s changing moods.
Sadly, with the Supreme Court’s current initiative to overturn Roe v Wade, this production couldn’t be more urgent or timely than it is now. But the mood of Suffs isn’t sad; it’s impassioned, amusing, uplifting, and empowering, delivering the message that the work will never be done and future generations must continue the ongoing feminist fight.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes, including an intermission.
Suffs plays through Sunday, May 29, 2022, at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $125, plus fees), go online. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter the building and must wear a mask at all times when inside.