The In-Person Off-Broadway Review: Public Theater’s Suffs
The clowns roll in, vaudevillian style, with fake mustaches, top hats, and tails, singing a song of warning to the crowd. “Watch Out for the Suffragettes,” they haughtily implore, and we can’t help but be intrigued as they usher us most wonderfully into Shaina Taub’s miraculously engaging new musical, Suffs, premiering at The Public Theater. The opening engagement, choreographed deliciously by Raja Feather Kelly (Broadway/PH’s A Strange Loop), wisely sets us up, presenting a strong new approach to what’s at the top of the climb. Done with a wise wink and grin, the historical tale told is an inquisitive deep dive into the complex camaraderie that brought forth the 19th amendment to the United States and the courageous women who climbed those stairs.
With a strong skilled cast, made up entirely of talented women and non-binary performers, Suffs unpacks the somewhat shocking and difficult mountain these dedicated suffragists climbed in order to elicit change and enlightenment in the unfair world where women were not granted the right to vote. The imbalance is laid out throughout, but most beautifully, in one particularly tenacious love song played out wisely between a young determined woman, Doris Stevens, smartly portrayed by Nadia Dandash, and her somewhat confused male counterpart, Dudley Malone, portrayed strongly by Tsilala Brock (Public’s Parable of the Sower). The two, in a touching subtle flirtation, clarify the misogyny that the world is offering a woman within a marriage proposal. “Marriage is essentially a death trap for women,” Stevens informs the surprised Malone in a manner that is both tender and sweet, while also laying out the hard-truth imbalance for the unknowing to see. And it does the job, both within the man and the delightful production.
Malone, thanks to this interlude and as history and Suffs inform us, becomes a significant member of the movement, shifting his perspective and resigning from Woodrow Wilson’s administration for their failure to take up or support the Woman Suffrage Amendment to the Constitution. Although all of this is historically well known walking in, the way Taub (Public’s Twelfth Night) lays it out is beyond smart. She seems to intuitively know her knowledgeable audience and delivers forth that tricky balance of informing the informed without ever feeling that we are being lectured to.
Ayanna Thompson, the dramaturg for the production writes in the program that “These stories of conflict, however, are often only explored through male protagonists“, and although the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment involved men in all of the three branches of the U.S. government, headed by Wilson, played here most beautifully by Grace McLean (Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre…), Taub finds her focus within the complicated band of brave women who worked diligently together to secure the right for women to vote. Their female union is wonderfully displayed, but not without conflict, and Taub, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics for this new musical (while also taking on the force of nature at the center of the fight, Alice Paul), treats their interpersonal dynamics of the women with the utmost respect and complexity they deserve.
Their path is multi-dimensional, and not without conflict. The formulation of these core women; Alice Paul, her loyal friend, Lucy Burns, played heroically by the wonderful Ally Bonino (Off-Broadway’s Dogfight); the socialite warrior-queen, Inez Milholland, gloriously played by the formidable Phillipa Soo (Broadway’s Hamilton), the socialist worker-warrior, Ruza Wenclawska, deliciously portrayed by Hanna Cruz (Hamilton tour); and Dandashi’s steadfast Doris Stevens; discovers camaraderie in their internal fire and also within debate. Just as it should be. Each has their view, and although the consensus-building within the group is not neat or as easy as maybe history would like to portray, Suffs succeeds in its mission; of climbing up the steep stairs to equality with a clarity of vision and an astute air of conviction that does the movement proud, mainly because it holds tight to the individuals at the center, and the conflicts that reside within. That resolve makes it more pure and authentically dynamic.
Inside the stirring music and wise lyrics, the sung-through musical, lead with grace by the music director Andrea Grody (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit), never loses its steam, finding its clear footing within the narrative of the progressive firecracker, Alice Paul (Taub). This powerhouse woman exudes a passionate understanding of what is needed, and doesn’t have the patience to wait it out politely like the old guard of the movement would like her to do. She strides forward without ever really looking down, even when stymied and sidelined by the formidable Carrie Chapman Catt, played to perfection by Jenn Colella (Broadway’s Come From Away), the strongly liked president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the founder of the League of Women Voters and the International Woman Suffrage Alliance.
Catt, one of the best-known women in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century for her role in the movement, finds Alice Paul a bitter and troublesome pill to swallow, one she can’t seem to control like the rest of them. Colella grabs hold of the part and delivers her solidly, epitomized by her magnificent rendition of “This Girl.” Her road to equality is to not “antagonize, irritate, enervate” the men, but to play nice, and make an appointment with dignity and politeness. But Alice doesn’t see it that way at all. The young woman is tired of waiting and playing by Catt’s old-school rule book. She wants to progress, to organize a protest march on Washington and shake the movement from the ground up. “We need to stand up and demand our rights,” she states with a wide-eyed conviction. And the only way forward for her is to fight the big fight without hesitation.
Directed by the thoughtful and wise Leigh Silverman (Broadway’s Grand Horizons), the contentious origins of the women’s rights movement drives forward with determination. There is a lot of history to cover here, and the piece tries to occupy as much of the historical space as possible, bringing forth the delicate issues of race and racism to the mix most beautifully. As the dynamic and outspoken investigative journalist, educator, and early leader in the civil rights movement Ida B. Wells, the magnetic Nikki M. James (Broadway’s The Book of Mormon) delivers one of the most powerfully engaging declarations of the movement with her commanding “Wait My Turn.” It’s a full-on showstopper, catapulting the moment and the song into something beyond great, wisely stating the obvious, yet unstoppable “Do you not realize you’re not free until I’m free?” The demand and the statement ring hard, strong, and true, even as we uncomfortably watch Alice try to sideline Ida for what she believes to be for the greater good, but in reality, she is undeniably and historically wrong. And in that hardheadedness, the imperfectness of Alice begins to show, which, in all honesty, serves the musical very well indeed. None of these women are without their flaws, and in that arena, Taub does them all justice.
On the simplistic and effective set, designed with a clear intuitive vision by Mimi Lien (TFANA’s Fairview) with strong lighting by Natasha Katz (Broadway’s The Prom), costuming by Toni-Leslie James (Broadway’s Bernhardt/Hamlet), and sound design by Sun Hee Kil (Public’s The Visitor), Suffs sounds the charge with inspiring and persuasive songs like “Finish the Fight” and “Find a Way.” They each ignite the fire that is Alice, who has set aside all ladylike manners espoused by Catt to find her voice and her fight even when it gets dangerous and downright dirty. It’s a powerful, very full story Taub wants to tell, and even with the almost three hours that you will have to set aside for this musical voyage, the history almost demands more. Through the silent protests and acts of civil disobedience that land the women in jail, the horrors inflicted elevate the musical to new heights of enlightenment, adding unforeseen power and connection to the eventual outcome song “I Wasn’t There“.
“How long must women wait for liberty?” they sing, rightfully and majestically as these dynamic and talented women climb those hard-earned stairs so beautifully with such faith and passion. The Public Theater‘s Suffs wisely and wonderfully delivers it all with an ironic punch to the gut in the end, as Taub reminds us quite truthfully that “the work is never over” and it “can’t be done alone.”
The complete ensemble cast of SUFFS features Jenna Bainbridge (Harry T. Burn/Ensemble), Ally Bonino (Lucy Burns), Tsilala Brock (Dudley Malone), Jenn Colella (Carrie Catt), Hannah Cruz (Ruza Wenclawska), Nadia Dandashi (Doris Stevens), Aisha de Haas (Alva Belmont/Phoebe Burn), Stephanie Everett (Understudy), Amina Faye (Robin/Ensemble), Holly Gould (Alice Paul Standby), Cassondra James (Mary Church Terrell), Nikki M. James (Ida B. Wells), Jaygee Macapugay (Mollie Hay/Ensemble), Grace McLean (Woodrow Wilson), Susan Oliveras (Nina Otero-Warren/Ensemble), Mia Pak (Mrs. Wu/Ensemble), Liz Pearce (Warden Whittaker/Ensemble), Monica Tulia Ramirez (Understudy), J. Riley Jr. (Phyllis Terrell/Ensemble), Phillipa Soo (Inez Milholland), Shaina Taub (Alice Paul), Angela Travino (Understudy), Ada Westfall (Mrs. Herndon/Ensemble), and Aurelia Williams (Understudy).