In January 2020, Virginia became ostensibly the last state needed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, a change to the U.S. Constitution intended to assure equality between the sexes. But don’t kick yourself for missing the public celebrations on the White House lawn; there weren’t any. As of now, the amendment, approved by Congress in 1972, is held up in legal limbo, because five decades far exceeded the intentionally self-defeating time limit negotiated for its inclusion in our nation’s founding document.
Of course, the campaign for the ERA actually extends back twice as long, to 1923, when the Quaker suffragist and first-wave feminist Alice Paul co-wrote the freedom-expanding article and first began advocating for its passage in Congress. Although this effort spanned most of Paul’s life, it only receives epilogue attention in composer, lyricist, and book writer Shaina Taub’s sung-through musical Suffs, which tries to correct historical elisions by creating some of its own. Taking on the role of Paul herself, Taub focuses the majority of the show on the last battles leading up to the crowning achievement of the Progressive Era: ratification of the 19th amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote, though not in places where the Jim Crow South’s racist rule of law took precedence.
Not wanting to paint the past too rosily, Taub smartly teases out some of the contradictions between myth and reality, particularly when it comes to internecine conflicts within the women’s movement over race and class. The former is highlighted through the experiences of Ida B. Wells (Nikki M. James), a co-founder of the NAACP and perhaps the most famous Black American woman in the early 20th century. But, despite her prominence as an activist and educator, Wells had to fight against the white leadership of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to integrate its 1913 protest march in Washington, D.C.
Unfortunately, while Wells and Mary Church Terrell (Cassondra James), another renowned Black suffragist, occasionally pop up to offer intersectional insights, they mostly come across as an addendum to the all-female and nonbinary musical’s Paul-centric narrative. Taub knows Wells and Terrell obviously belong in the story she’s trying to tell, but she hasn’t figured out how to dramatize their inclusion yet. Other suffragists whose names should be much more well known today also receive paper-thin characterizations: Lucy Burns (Ally Bonino); Doris Stevens (Nadia Dandashi); Ruza Wenclawska (Hannah Cruz); Inez Milholland (Phillippa Soo).
Reductively, these formidable women are largely depicted as acolytes of Paul rather than as boundary-pushers in their own right, while their complicated, and sometimes divergent, convictions fail to receive even a cursory airing. On this score, Taub does the greatest disservice to Milholland who led the 1913 protest march on horseback while wearing a crown and cape. It was a powerful example of street theater, and Taub never lets Milholland escape its symbolism. Throughout Suffs, Milholland is forever Paul’s guiding light and rarely more than that.
Leaning heavily on rhetorical flourishes, Taub’s score is filled with lots of well-meaning exhortations to “finish the fight,” earnest appeals that quickly lose emotional resonance through a lack of lyrical variance and depth. The only song that strikes a deeper chord is the late-show “I Wasn’t There,” a plaintive rejoinder to Lin-Manual Miranda’s “The Room Where It Happens” from Hamilton, which acknowledges with bitter irony that none of the extraordinary women responsible for the 19th amendment were present when it was signed into law. That meant the absence of both militants like Paul and practitioners of respectability politics like NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt (Jenn Colella).
After collaborating with Catt on the 1913 protest march, Paul broke away from NAWSA to form the National Woman’s Party (NWP). Taub simplifies the split into a generational conflict between the youthful Paul and decades-older Catt that doesn’t examine the more interesting philosophical differences between the two women when it came to utilizing direct action versus glad-handing one’s beliefs through the legal system. Taub also reduces Woodrow Wilson (Grace McLean), the suffrage movement’s most powerful antagonist, to a vaudeville-inspired caricature with accompanying theme song. Though a patently mocking portrayal, this treatment is still kinder than the Georgia-born president infamous for wearing his racism and misogyny like a Southern badge of honor deserves.
Director Leigh Silverman is much too dutiful in bringing Taub’s vision to the stage, refusing to edit any of the elements that make the musical unfold like a stilted term paper from a very committed student. When it comes to loosening things up a bit, Mimi Lien’s monumental staircase also doesn’t help matters, making for some awkward blocking and severely restricting Raja Feather Kelly’s choreography, which judging by his past work, needed more physical, as well as creative, space. Though, even if Taub and Silverman had attempted to provide the latter, Natasha Katz’s murky lighting design wouldn’t have made it easy to see.
Suffs (through May 29, 2022)
The Public Theater
Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette Street in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-539-8500 or visit http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: two hours and 50 minutes with one intermission