New Musical About Suffrage Aims To Be 'Hamilton' Of Women's History
Millicent Scarlett plays civil rights activist and suffragist Ida B. Wells in "19: The Musical."
The cast of "19: The Musical" is in the middle of a weeknight rehearsal at an Arlington community theater. It's crunch time: They're performing in the show's premiere next week at D.C.'s National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Most of the women wear the typical rehearsal gear of spandex and t-shirts, but their heeled footwear hearkens back to the 1910s, when the bulk of the show's action takes place.
Over the course of 2 hours and 15 minutes, under-appreciated players in the often-contentious fight for women's suffrage finally get their due. Alice Paul goes head-to-head with President Woodrow Wilson, who withheld his support for suffrage until the 11th hour. Carrie Chapman Catt argues for suffrage campaigns at the state level. Ida B. Wells sings about her devotion to both civil and women's rights.
But it isn't all a celebration.
Co-creators Jennifer Schwed and Doug Bradshaw have been writing, re-writing and workshopping the play for nearly three years. They've pulled together funding for the project from individual donations and family foundations, and found support from local institutions like the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument and the Library of Congress.
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Along with composer Charlie Barnett, they've crafted a story that highlights the suffrage movement's contention, rather than glosses over it.
"This is not going to be a rah-rah, cheerleading story," says Schwed. "Right out of the gate we said, 'this is going to be a story of race, too.' "
Suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, played by Maria Ciarrocchi (center, in red), is best known for founding the League of Women Voters in 1920.
Mikaela Lefrak /WAMU
Mikaela Lefrak /WAMU
During the decades-long campaign for voting rights, poor and African American women were consistently sidelined by their white, wealthy counterparts. Black women like Ida B. Wells were often asked by white suffragists to segregate themselves at marches and other protest events (they often pushed back or flat-out disagreed). Wells is played in "19" by Millicent Scarlett, a George Washington University adjunct music professor and Silver Spring resident.
"If I stand here with you, I won't be treated the same," she sings in one number. "Convicted by my color, but who will be to blame?" The other women of color in the cast then come to stand behind her and sing in harmony. Even in the small rehearsal room, Scarlett's voice soars as if she's on a Broadway stage.
Conflict does make for good theater. "It seems like almost every song that I've written in this show is an argument," says Barnett. (Most of the lyrics were written by Schwed and Bradshaw, while Barnett did the musical editing and arranging). "I don't think I've ever had so much fun writing songs."
He even got to arrange music for a ghost. Susan B. Anthony, arguably the most well-known suffragist today, died in 1906, and most of the play's action takes place after her death.
During their research process, Schwed and Bradshaw were both shocked by how little they knew about other suffragists outside of Anthony.
"I asked people who I think are well-read and really engaged, 'Do you know the name Alice Paul?' and I was met with blank stares," Schwed says. "Alice Paul was pretty much lost to history, and she had such an incredible role in this country's history," adds Bradshaw.
In one scene, Paul (played by Baltimore native Katie Ganem) tries to explain her controversial tactics to other suffragists. "We must remain ladylike, or the press will turn on us," she says. "Our weapon of choice will be silence." The suffragists around her grumble in protest but eventually agree to go along with her plan.
Congress passed the 19th Amendment in 1919 and it was officially adopted the next year. But it took decades for women of color to gain the same level of enfranchisement as white women. Though the play takes places a hundred years ago, modern audience members might see themselves in it, too.
"19: The Musical" runs from November 25-27 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Tickets are available here.