First Lady Louisa Adams (Virginie) was wife to John Quincy Adams, the president from 1825 – 1829. When her scene begins, we simply see an open notebook on a desk. As the actor starts to turn the pages, we see that the notebook is full of direct quotes from Louisa describing her time in office. We do not see the actor’s face, but simply the action of allowing the page to sit, and then ripping out the page to present the next – all with quotes much like the following:
“Every preparation was made without the slightest consultation with me and even the disposal of my children at my side.”
The entire scene is portrayed without words – simply the sounds of pages ripping out of a notebook, further describing this woman’s life without a voice. Towards the end of her scene, we see a page mention that she wrote a memoir entitled Adventures of No One so that her son would realize all she had done. However, the book was never published. Though minimalistic, the scene carries such power. You may find, like this writer, that the silence carries immense weight, and invites you to physically feel the tension through the screen.
This is one of many vignettes—45!—in The Neo-Futurists 45 Plays for American’s First Ladies. Written by Chloe Johnston, Sharon Greene, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Bilal Dardai, and Andy Bayiates, this streaming production takes us through all 45 of the country’s first ladies – beginning with Martha Washington, and ending with Melania Trump. Some stories are shared through song, others through monologues, and some even through puppets. Every woman has her moment to help the audience gain a slightly deeper understanding of her experience, and some accounts are certainly more hopeful than others.
Directed by Dennis Yvette Serna, all of the roles are split amongst a six-person cast – Brenda Arellano, Hilary Asare, Ida Cuttler, Andie Patterson, Robin Virginie, and Vic Wynter. In true Neo-Futurist fashion, the live-streamed performances over Opening weekend even involved audience participation. Given distancing procedures and the virtual platform, most of the scenes feature an individual actor portraying a First Lady. Locations vary from actors’ apartments, to outdoor venues, and some even in the Neo-Futurist theatre. However, regardless of the location, Serna allows the emphasis to rest on words and history.
Intimate Relationship with Audience
Through the use of Zoom, Serna and team are able to incorporate elements of audience participation in the live-steam, and quite effectively in this writer’s view. When we meet Mary Todd Lincoln’ we are in a Game Show – with Mary Todd Lincoln (Cuttler) as the host, and the audience members as the contestants. The rules are simple: Mary was institutionalized in her life time, and as she walks us through the reasons why, the participants simply have to raise their hand if they feel the mental institution was justified.
The scene begins with some dark humor; however, as the context begins to land, the tone changes dramatically. Mary describes how her brother in law was killed in action when she was 45-years-old, then her brother died when she was 46, her husband died on that fateful night at Ford’s Theatre when she was 47, and she lost her third son at age 53. As the tragic realities continue to settle, we can see discomfort and pain on the faces of the participating audience members. None raised their hands, but at the same time, the game was far from over. You too may find that the performance by Cuttler alone brings Mary’s heartbreaking journey alive, with the use of t audience participation carring her truth right into today.
In a program note, Director Dennis Yvette Serna says--
“The first ladies laughed, gave birth, read books, got drunk, cried themselves to sleep, had bad breath, and had incredible influence. Some owned human beings, other advocated for human rights. Some did not have the right to vote, others used it to oppress. Some of them ignored politics entirely. The majority of them were millionaires.
You haven’t heard the whole story. About the first ladies, about the United State of America, about what’s happening outside your window right now. Listen. Learn something new. Lead us somewhere better.”
Whether you are a longtime supporter of The Neo-Futurists or this is your first experience, this writer recommends you take a moment to read Serna’s thoughts. These women are known first and foremost for the presidents to whom they were married, but this play reveals so much more. The performance compels us to listen, observe, and reflect. We learn something not only about this nation’s history, but more, about the very real injustices continuing to exist today.
Stellar ensemble and poignant storytelling make 45 Plays for American’s First Ladies a must-see. Given the close proximity to the election, the play brings to light histories that are more important than ever. Much as Serna explains in her program note, our work is not done, and this writer certainly appreciated the experience of learning, laughing, and feeling alongside the performers in this piece.
Brenda Arellano // Performer
Hilary Asare // Performer
Ida Cuttler // Performer
Andie Patterson // Performer
Robin Virginie // Performer
Vic Wynter // Performer
Denise Yvette Serna... Director
Chloe Johnston... Playwright
Sharon Greene... Playwright
Genevra Gallo-Bayiates... Playwright
Andy Bayiates... Playwright
Bilal Dardai... Playwright
Zoe Lesser... Assistant Director/Dramaturg
Ben Maroney... Sound Designer
Alex Casillas... Production Designer
Will Sonheim... Video Editor
Pat Fries... Associate Producer
Jorge Silva... Production Manager
Spencer Meeks... Composer
Offered virtually through November 2, 2020
Online via video link.
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.
Click here to read more Picture this Post stories by Lauren Katz.