Diverse voices take the stage with Gloria Steinem in ‘Gloria: A Life’
Creating a play about a second- wave feminist icon, even one as spectacular as Gloria Steinem, is an endeavor rife with pitfalls. The era of feminism when Steinem rose to fame is known for being exclusive to people of color and other minorities. But in Emily Mann’s “Gloria: A Life,” playing at American Repertory Theater through March 1, representation is the name of the game.
The biographical narrative pays heavy homage to the impact women of color had on Steinem’s feminist experience. “The truth is, I learned feminism from black women,” says Patricia Kalember, playing Steinem. The ensemble is made up of a diverse and incredibly talented group of actors. Though Kalember does a wonderful job playing Steinem, it’s the ensemble, bouncing from portrayals of civil rights lawyer Florynce Kennedy to Cherokee activist Wilma Mankiller and beyond, that bright the show to the next level.
Opening night of the show was further enhanced by the presence of Steinem herself. Still rocking leather pants at 85 years old, Steinem has all the fire and verve that she’s been noted for throughout her career. Not only was the renowned activist present, she moderated the entire second act, which is a dialogue among the audience and the actors.
Open dialogues like these can render questionable results, but in this context it was an incredible success, creating a safe space for open conversation about women’s experiences. One audience member spoke about her experience facing discrimination as a transgender person, another urged the audience to pass a current bill in Massachusetts that will allow undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers licenses. One attendee recently downsized but brought every issue of Ms. Magazine, which Steinem launched, with her. In this context, each response felt productive and personal.
Unfortunately Steinem won’t be moderating other shows, but the second half discussion will be conducted by a series of guest activists. Among them, Natalie Ann Sánchez, manager of Partnerships & Membership at Amplify Latinx and Claudine Gay, Wilbur A. Cowett professor of Government and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. Each performance will also donate proceeds to a local nonprofit benefiting women.
In a way, the run of “Gloria: A Life” at American Repertory Theater is the work coming full circle. Playwright Emily Mann studied at Harvard and on opening night told the audience that after earning her degree she was told she couldn’t, as a woman, direct professional theater, and perhaps she should try children’s theater. Mann was inspired by Steinem to go right ahead and direct professional theater anyway. And now her show is running on the same stage that once dismissed her.
“It shouldn’t take a play about a white feminist to introduce black feminists,” said Steinem at the show’s opening. But as a show about a white feminist, “Gloria: A Life” does a comprehensive job raising other voices in tandem with Steinem’s to illustrate an intersectional and ongoing fight for gender equality.