NextStop Theatre’s 46 Plays for America’s First Ladies is herstory in the wildest sense, full of song, dance, and nonstop creative energy. It is a companion piece to 45 Plays for 45 Presidents, which had a successful run at NextStop in 2018. Director Megan Behm keeps the pace breathless during an astonishing variety of short one-acts. The female and nonbinary cast — Morganne Chu, Sydney Johnson, Brittany Martz, Nicole Ruthmarie, and Emily Sucher — are talented, enthusiastic, and ready for anything.
The play’s Neo-Futurist aesthetic emphasizes the abolishment of the fourth wall and a strong connection between the actors and the audience. Roles are not gender-specific; the First Lady Mantle passes from one to another, and the presidents sport a Presidential Coat. Among the strongest episodes are those featuring audience participation. One audience member is asked to join the cast in deciding whether the claim that Mary Todd Lincoln was mentally ill is “Fair” or “Unfair.” Another plays a shell game with Lou Hoover. When Pat Nixon’s turn comes, a questionnaire is produced, during which the audience member is prompted to answer either “Yes” or “God Bless America” to such questions as “Are you a good person?” and “Do you hate democracy or just kittens?”
A catchy clapping game marks the tenure of Barbara Bush. Nellie Taft gets her very own haiku.
Brittany Martz shines in her cabaret number “Those Blue & Gray Blues” as Julia Grant, and as a surprisingly demonic Martha Washington. Sydney Johnson is affecting as an actress in both comic and poignant moments, and, remarkably, able to provide balancing acts when called for as Dolley Madison. Emily Sucher stands out as bachelor James Buchanan’s adopted daughter, Harriet Lane. Morganne Chu excels in her scene as Rachel Jackson, which features puppets. Nicole Ruthmarie is memorable throughout.
The one-acts — by Chloe Johnston, Sharon Greene, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Bilal Dardal, and Andy Bayiates (of Chicago-based theater collective Neo-Futurists) — are somewhat uneven. Some First Ladies of necessity get less attention than others. Some endure suffering; many lose children. Some, sadly, are pro-slavery and/or anti–women’s rights.
The pain and unfairness of slavery are often present. In one especially moving scene, Sally Hemings and Martha, Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, discuss their very different roles in history. Sally is melancholy and realistic; Martha is an archetypical example of white fragility.
Some of our First Ladies have been political partners like Eleanor Roosevelt. Others are social butterflies like Dolley Madison. And there are inspirational figures like Michelle Obama, who famously said: “When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, When they go low, we go high.”
All come in for their fair share of criticism. Rachel Jackson is called a whore, for being not quite divorced from her first husband when she marries Andrew. Mary Todd Lincoln is said to be insane and was in fact committed to Bellevue by her son. And then of course there is Hillary Clinton, who as we all know is a monster in human form bent on destroying life as we know it.
The emphasis is not on historical accuracy, or even the verdict of history. It becomes clear toward the end that the real subject is the power of women.
Taylor Verrett’s projections are especially evocative, and direct quotes from the First Ladies are indicated by signs on either side of the stage. Costumes (Imari Pyles) include patriotic elements such as the Stars and Stripes, and a dizzying array of styles. Scenic design by Megan Holden is simple and effective. Choreography by Janine Baumgardner is clever and invariably fun to watch. Music and sound are a pleasure to listen to. Sound designer is Delaney Bray and music director is Elisa Rosman. Musical arrangements/orchestrations are by Jordan Friend.
Despite its length, the evening goes by swiftly. Does America need her First Ladies? The answer seems to be yes. And one day, perhaps, sooner than you think, a First Gentleman.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
46 Plays for 46 First Ladies plays through February 19, 2023, at NextStop Theatre Company, located at 269 Sunset Park Drive, Herndon, VA. Tickets ($47 including fee) are available online or by calling the box office at 703-481-5930.
The program for 46 Plays for 46 First Ladies is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are required for all patrons inside the building unless actively eating or drinking. If a patron does not have a mask, disposable masks will be available for any and all guests upon request. Patrons who do not comply with these policies will not be admitted or asked to leave the theater. NextStop’s complete COVID-19 Health & Safety Measures are here.
46 Plays for 46 First Ladies
By Chloe Johnston, Sharon Greene, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Bilal Dardal, and Andy Bayiates,
Directed by Megan Behm
Brooke Kemph (Understudy)
Director: Megan Behm
Choreographer: Janine Baumgardner
Scenic Designer: Megan Holden
Lighting Designer: Hailey LaRoe
Costume Designer: Imari Pyles
Projections/Media Designer: Taylor Verrett
Sound Designer: Delaney Bray
Stage Manager: Sam Rollin
Asst. Stage Manager: Hanna Smaglis
Musical Arrangements/Orchestrations: Jordan Friend
Music Director: Elisa Rosman
Master Electrician: Cassandra Saulski
Lead Carpenter: Tom O’Reilly
Paint Charge: Caroline Austin