Hilary Asare

Hilary Asare in a play about Lady Bird Johnson, in the world premiere of '45 Plays for America's First Ladies.'

Just in time for the momentous 2020 presidential election, the Neo-Futurists have commissioned “45 Plays for America's First Ladies.” A companion piece of sorts to its earlier “43 Plays for 43 Presidents” — originally produced in 2004 and remounted in 2012 as “44 Plays for 44 Presidents” — this new anthology is virtual, unlike its predecessors. The world premiere of the 100-minute compilation of pre-recorded and live short plays streamed live for the Oct. 9-11 performances, but has been videotaped for viewing the rest of the run. 

The digital format, dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic, allows the Neo-Futurists to draw on the talents of ensemble members in New York and San Francisco, as well as in Chicago. The cast, under the direction of Denise Yvette Serna, includes Brenda Arellano, Hilar Asare, Ida Cuttler, Andie Patterson, Robin Virginie, and Vic Wynter. They all have multiple parts in the plays by Andy Bayiates, Bilal Dardai, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Sharon Greene, and Chloe Johnston, which range from solos and voice-overs to Zoom shorts and mini musicals (with music by sound designer Spencer Meeks and lyrics by the playwrights).

The individual plays vary in quality, as do skits for a comedy revue, which the fast-paced show resembles as it bops through history bashing mainstream assumptions. They also provide plenty of food for thought and should spark further research. Here are some personal observations.

*It's remarkable how little we know about most of the first ladies — especially those before Jackie Kennedy. Martha Washington and Eleanor Roosevelt may be the only ones the average person has even heard of. Many of them were amazing women, and if nothing else, “45 Plays for America's First Ladies” is a reminder of that.

*On the other hand, first lady isn't an official position and, as the title suggests, the women are seen through the lens of the presidents. There were 45 of these men, so we get 45 plays, even though there were several more first ladies. Four took on the role during the single term of tenth president John Tyler, for example: first wife Letitia, daughter-in-law Priscilla, daughter Letty, and second wife Julia. Playwright Bayiates gives them an apropos little operetta. Overall, eleven first ladies weren't wives; most of them were relatives of widowed presidents.

*While the plays are chronological, that's the only thing about them that's conventional. They're more meta-theatrical than biographical, and some are flights of fancy barely moored to scant facts. The sensibility is thoroughly contemporary, with a lot of gender-bending and emphasis on social justice in an effort to illuminate the importance — often unrecognized and undervalued — of women and other marginalized people in the development of America.

*Slavery, America's greatest sin, looms large from the beginning, with Martha Washington shouting “I loved slavery. LOVED IT!” We're reminded that the first sixteen first ladies owned roughly 1,000 slaves among them. Sally Hemings and Martha Jefferson spar over who is the rightful first lady. Julia Grant croons “Those Blue and Gray Blues” about her conflicting loyalties to her Union general husband and Confederate slave-owning father.

*The tone is satirical more often than not, but serious questions are also raised. Despite some leeway to embrace their wifely duties or become activists, the first ladies basically are powerless. To what extent can they be held accountable for the actions of the presidents and their administrations? The repeated implication is that they're damned no matter what they do. At least that's what Hillary Clinton's horror-movie montage suggests, as does the image of Bess Truman dancing with Harry to “Beginning to See the Light” as the bombing of Hiroshima unfolds behind them.

*The musical numbers are among the most pointed. My favorite is Edith Wilson waltzing with the empty suit of Woodrow to the tune of “Lead From Behind,” a reference to the stroke that left him incapacitated while still in office.

*A few of the playlets are baffling. Topping the list is a voice-over bit featuring a photo of Grace Coolidge and Rebecca, the raccoon she and Calvin kept as a pet after it was sent to them to serve as Thanksgiving dinner in 1926. They didn't have the heart to kill it. 

*Some group numbers, among them an audition to portray Mary “Molly” McElroy, who was White House hostess for her widowed brother Chester Arthur, fall flat. The same is true of the cast discussion after the image of Melania Trump as a blank screen.

*The acting first lady I most want to learn more about is Harriet Lane, who was hostess during the presidency of her bachelor uncle James Buchanan. Greene's play makes much of him being the first gay president (a subject of controversy)—and has the actor playing Harriet riding a bike, for no apparent reason—but her accomplishments were considerable. They ranged from promoting social causes, such as improving living conditions for Native Americans on reservations, to inviting artists and musicians to the White House.

*Two of the simplest plays — one hopeful, one sad — are the most powerful. A quiet film of Eleanor Roosevelt dangling from a rope over a lake crystallizes the incident that prompted her life of service. The account of Louisa Adams, John Quincy's wife, epitomizes the hardships and self-effacement of these women, culminating in the revelation that she wrote an autobiography called  “Adventures of a Nobody”—that was never published.

Visit neofuturists.org to purchase. Available through Nov 2. 

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