Extraordinary Acts of Intersectional Feminism: “Gloria: A Life”

Presented by American Repertory Theatre
By Emily Mann
Directed by Diane Paulus
The cast includes Patricia Kalember as Gloria Steinem with Gabrielle Beckford, Joanna Glushak, Patrena Murray, Erika Stone, Brenda Withers, and Eunice Wong. Rachel Cognata is the swing.

January 24 – March 1, 2020
Loeb Drama Center
Cambridge, MA 
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Critique by Kitty Drexel

People say ‘beware!’
But I don’t care
The words are just
Rules and regulations to me, me”
 “Gloria” by Patti Smith

Cambridge, MA — Gloria Steinem is creating the world she wants to see. She is a multi-generational, intersectional feminist activist, an unflinching journalist, and a courageous journalist. Steinem is kind, compassionate, persistent, patient, and she wants a better world for all of us. The human population is damn lucky to have her fighting on our side. She is one of my personal heroes. 

Gloria: A Life by Emily Mann invites us to participate in the events of Steinem’s life as the unfold onstage. A performance feels like watching the text of Steinem’s My Life On the Road leap off the page. (The book is great! I highly recommend it.) Both are about Steinem’s personal life and career. The greatest difference between Mann’s play and the book is that the play invites the audience into Steinem’s head. Steinem is no longer at a distance. We’re allowed to celebrate and grieve with her in realtime.   

Gloria: A Life plays out on the stage like a 90-minute monologue intercut with anecdotal vignettes and historical multimedia projections that emphasize a scene’s importance. The stage is in-the-round; the audience surrounds it on all sides. Projections shine onto large, white canvases hung over the audience. Historians, dramaturgs, journalists and bibliophiles will be greatly pleased to note that all images, quotes, and videos are cited. Gloria: A Life is based on factual as well as emotional truth. This truth is documented and verifiable. 

Patricia Kalember as the character Gloria is Steinem’s spitting image. Kalember captures the essence of Steinem’s public persona. The actress personifies exactly who we imagine Steinem to be. Kalember is charismatic and generous of spirit in her role just like Steinem is on camera. She delivers monologues with such emotional intimacy that it’s difficult to separate her from the real Steinem. Even when giving the stage to her co-actors, Kalember embodies the same calm presence as her role model. While the general public cannot truly know Steinem is, this production takes us closer than mere TV interviews.  

Gloria: A Life is as intersectional as My Life On the Road as Steinem herself. This play lifts up the voices of the women of color who showed Steinem how the work of feminism is done. Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Shirley Chisholm, and Wilma Mankiller are only three of the women of color who appear in this story. There are only three white women in the cast (including Kalember). 

Everyone in the cast is doing excellent work. Only Brenda Withers could be considered a local actor. Local favorite Rachel Cognata is a swing. Audience members who prefer to support local actors when attending performances should consider this when purchasing tickets. 

Because Gloria: A Life is based on fact, women of color play the majority of supporting roles in the play. People of color do the majority of work within the intersectional feminism movement. Maybe this will change when the majority of white women stop voting for Trump and start believing people of color even when it’s inconvenient. If change was convenient, it would have happened already.   

Act II of all performances is a talking circle with the cast and a guest star. Gloria Steinem was the guest on Thursday, January 30, 2020. I was already overcome with emotion by watching Gloria: A Life. I lost my composure when Steinem took the stage. I cried like a little girl seeing a rainbow for the first time. To say I lost my shit is an understatement. I lost it so hard it took me a solid 12 hours to get it back again. 

Steinem graciously answered questions from the audience. The first person to take a mic handed out by the cast was a straight, white, cis man who asked a question that could easily be answered by an internet search. It is not the job of women to teach unless they specifically say that they are there to teach. Steinem was not in the room to teach. She was there as a guest. Audiences should please remember what room they’re in before taking a microphone. 

Steinem’s last words to us were a charge to practice acts of feminism in the world. Small acts performed together can make big, lasting change. 

Here is my act of feminism for today: a story.  This my Planned Parenthood story.

In 2005, I had a pregnancy scare. I was casually seeing a guy at my temp job whose comedic timing made me laugh so hard that I fell into his bed without any pants on. We slept together. Two weeks later I was late. My flow had been like clockwork for years. I feared pregnancy. So, I told him I was late and he decided that it wasn’t his problem. He was so convinced that it wasn’t his problem that he refused to discuss my problem with me. 

I had no money, no insurance, and no friends who didn’t blame me for my predicament. Planned Parenthood gave me respite. The kind phone representative told me my options, made me an appointment and explained how payment worked.

Planned Parenthood offered relief without conditions. They respected me when no one else would. They respected me so much that when I began menstruating a week later, they canceled the appointment without mentioning the 24-hour cancelation policy. I was relieved. Planned Parenthood assured me their services were always available should I need them.  

“Regular” menstruation is different for everybody that menstruates. I was 24 and naive. Planned Parenthood explained the basics to me. It was okay that I was scared. It wasn’t okay that my friend abandoned me. They were professional and kind. 

Abortion is normal. Menstruation is normal. It is abnormal that we don’t openly talk about either when 52% of the population experiences both. If women are responsible for the realities of sex, men should be too.  

Go see Gloria: A Life. Practice extraordinary acts of feminism. Let the world be better by sharing your stories. 

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