It is high time for the creation of “Gloria: A Life.” The remarkable new play, making its debut in the Off-Broadway Daryl Roth Theater, not only recounts the feminist icon’s life and experiences but recreates, in colorful multimedia fashion, what the contemporary feminist movement has felt like for participants, from the 1960s (though earlier history is referred to) to the present day. It’s both a history lesson and, at least for those who were there for some of it, a visceral connection to the anger, the excitement and the hope of the movement
The play is particularly striking remarkable because during the last 20 minutes or so, Christine Lahti, who portrays Steinem, and the six other actors, who portray multiple characters, drop their theatrical personas and become themselves (more or less, since some of what they say is scripted). They are joined by a discussion leader for a “talking circle.” Audience members, who are seated in tiers surrounding the oval stage, are encouraged to share their own stories, comments or feelings. The night I attended, Steinem herself appeared as the leader. (She is likely to drop in occasionally, I was told, but she or other special guests won’t be announced.)
At 84, Steinem was as charming, modest and well-spoken as ever. She reiterated a phrase that Lahti had spoken in the play’s opening scene, that she is a “hope-aholic.” Her optimism was comforting to hear at the beginning and the end.
The play starts with projections on screens that can be seen from anywhere in the theater. They include short clips of the 1970 March down Fifth Avenue, Steinem announcing “This is a revolution, not just a reform,” and the 2017 women’s march on Washington.
Lahti–the Oscar and Emmy winner and frequent Broadway actor–is a friend of Steinem’s and resembles her in looks and demeanor. She convinces us early on that she is Steinem, confiding that she took to wearing her famous aviator glasses for “protection,” though they were prescription. Then she explains that she is optimistic “because I remember when it was so much worse.” The video screens come alive with bits of “Father Knows Best” and 1950s commercials in which women caress their washing machines. Yes, it was worse then, and it’s jolting to be reminded how far we’ve come. that the play reminds us hat equal pay “wasn’t even a concept” then, and that “476 women ran in primaries for Congress this year.”
Very little of this comes across as didactic, though there is a certain pep rally vibe (and, alas, a preaching to the choir element that probably no amount of marketing to anti-feminists could overcome). Playwright Emily Mann and director Diane Paulus have crafted a warm, seamless, fast-paced and entertaining show. They are part of a nearly all-female behind-the-scenes ensemble, including the owner of the namesake Daryl Roth Theater, the lead producer.
The play touches lightly but indelibly on biographical facts, many drawn from Steinem’s 2015 memoir, “My Life on the Road.” She grew up in working-class Toledo, Ohio, where “my biggest dream was to become a Rockette.” She went to Smith College, where the goal of many of her classmates was to snag an engagement ring. She moved to New York to become a political writer but finds herself ignored or insulted. Gay Talese described her as “this year’s pretty girl” to Saul Bellow, while she was sitting quietly between them in a taxi. At first she is inclined to excuse the behavior. Only later did she think, “Why didn’t I say something, get out of the taxi, and slam the door?”
One scene, both amusing and horrifying, delves into how Steinem came to get a job at a Playboy Club and write “A Bunny’s Tale,” the article that put her on the map as a journalist. (The other talented actors, intense and energetic, play bunnies and, later in the show, protesters and also several specific feminist leaders.)
“Fame gave me a voice, but I didn’t know how to use it yet,” Steinem says in the play. Even after covering feminist events, including a speak-out about abortion, she is reluctant to make a personal connection and doesn’t write about her own abortion until much later. In a scene, well-meaning male colleagues advise her not get involved with “these crazy women.”
She turns to the audience: “But it’s too late—I am one of these crazy women.” Painfully, she realizes that she has been complicit “in all the humiliations. It’s not just that we live in a patriarchy. It’s that the patriarchy lives in us, right?” Many audience members nodded. That’s still going on.
The play explores the complicated relationship that Steinem had with her mother, Ruth, who was smart and loving but also a prescription drug-addicted invalid whom Steinem had to care for starting when she was 11, after her feckless father left and her sister went to college.
Though it isn’t mentioned in the play, Steinem’s father, Leo, was Jewish. She wasn’t raised as a Jew but is often identified as one by anti-Semites (and has identified herself as Jewish when faced with anti-Semitism). Her Christian mother, Steinem said in one interview, “was always very clear about the importance of the Jewish tradition and respect for the Jewish tradition.” Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a co-founder of Ms. Magazine along with Steinem, has written that Steinem “considers herself an outsider and sees Jews as the quintessential out-group” and also “feels drawn to the spirituality and social justice agenda of Jewish feminism.”
Steinem has been criticized in some quarters as the ultimate mainstream white feminist. Yet the play showcases the many women of color who, as Steinem has often acknowleged, helped found the feminist movement along with her without getting the same media attention. They include Dorothy Pitman Hughes, another co-founder of the highly successful and influential Ms. magazine, and Florynce (Flo) Kennedy, an attorney and an activist who had a outsized personality and is revered by feminists who know about her. Bella Abzug, the Jewish Congresswoman, lawyer and feminist leader, is another vividly-portrayed character, as is Wilma Mankiller, Chief of the Cherokee Nation.
One of the unexpected impacts of the play is that it makes audience members (which included some men) feel better about the state of the world today by focusing on the strides that have been made in the last few decades. Reacting to women who expressed frustration and fatigue, Steinem said that the Golden Rule, fashioned by men, needs to be turned inside-out for women–that we need to learn to “treat ourselves as well as we treat other people.” Good advice.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.