Women theater artists flying solo: One-woman productions probe the life of a famed Supreme Court justice and a forgotten chapter of U.S. history
|Published: 11-13-2023 9:23 AM
There’s no shortage of theater in the Valley. But how often can you catch two solo productions by women on the same weekend?
On Nov. 17, “All Things Equal: The Life & Trials of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” a solo show starring Michelle Azar as the late Supreme Court Justice and liberal icon, comes to the Academy of Music in Northampton.
And on Nov. 17-18 at CitySpace in Easthampton, theater artist Elisa Gonzales of Amherst will offer a staged reading of her solo show, “Olvidados: A Mexican American Corrido,” a work that examines a shameful and little-known chapter of 20th century U.S. history.
Here’s a look at both productions.
“All Things Equal” was written by Rupert Holmes, the Tony Award-winning playwright behind the musical “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and several other acclaimed works. Holmes, also a novelist, has written for film and TV as well, following a successful career in the 1970s/early 1980s as a pop musician, songwriter and producer. He had a No. 1 hit in 1979 with “Escape (The Piña Colada Song).”
His 90-minute play is designed to take audiences on a full tour of Ginsburg’s life, from losing her mother in high school, to raising a daughter and helping her ill husband all while studying law at Harvard University, to arguing seminal cases for human rights at the Supreme Court.
In a call from his home in the Hudson River Valley in New York, Holmes said he created his new play in part to try and rescue Ginsburg from the pop culture identity she’d developed even before her death in 2020, most notably as “The Notorious RBG” (a play on the rapper The Notorious B.I.G.).
“I wanted to capture her humanity and present a fully fleshed-out portrait of her,” he said. “I didn’t want to see her just become a caricature or a meme, like the feisty granny from ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’”
Part of his inspiration came simply from, like so many other artists, feeling marooned in 2020 when COVID-19 shut down theater and all the other performing arts.
“It wasn’t clear when live theater might resume,” Holmes said. And when it did, he imagined, theater artists and companies might have to ease their way back in with smaller shows, including solo performances.
“So I had the idea of writing a one-person play,” Holmes explained. “That can make for a wonderfully intimate show ... you feel like you’re having a conversation with” the performer.
He’d already written a successful one-man play, “Say Goodnight, Gracie,” about the comedian George Burns and his relationship with his wife and fellow comedian, Gracie Allen. When the pandemic arrived, Holmes said, “I thought, who would be a good subject for another play like that?”
Then Ginsburg died of cancer in September 2020 at age 87 — and Holmes had his subject.
He’d long admired Ginsburg for any number of reasons: her legal mind, her arguments for gender equality, and the arc of her personal life, from overcoming personal loss, economic hardship, and discrimination from men to become a successful attorney and then a Supreme Court justice.
It didn’t hurt that Holmes’ wife, Liza Holmes, had faced some similar circumstances in her life, including confronting entrenched opposition from many men in law when she first became an attorney herself in the 1970s.
Ginsburg “was a woman to whom I could definitely relate,” said Holmes.
His research for “All Things Equal” included reading and watching numerous interviews with Ginsburg, reading her speeches, and reviewing many of her court decisions, especially her dissents.
“She lost in an articulate way,” said Holmes. “She faced a lot of condescension when she was younger, and she’d learned how to hold her own … She was always coming up (in court) in front of a bunch of grumpy old men.”
Though alone on stage, Azar interacts with other characters who are presented through pre-recorded voice-overs. The late Justice Antonin Scalia, Ginsburg’s colleague and friend — and ideological polar opposite — is one. Opera, which Ginsburg and Scalia both loved and bonded over, is also part of the play’s soundtrack, notes Holmes.
In addition, “All Things Equal” uses screened projections to help move things along chronologically. For instance, there’s a clip of Bill Clinton speaking in 1993 when he nominated Ginsburg to the Supreme Court — just the second woman to win a seat on the panel.
“I needed to have (Ginsburg) interacting to other people and events,” Holmes said.
But the play is carried by Azar’s performance, he said: “She is nothing short of brilliant. I’ve worked with a lot of actors in my career, and I’ve never seen someone inhabit a role so well.”
Holmes says he has also considered the posthumous criticism Ginsburg faced after Republicans appointed conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett to Ginsburg’s seat on the top court, just days before the 2020 presidential election.
Some wondered why Ginsburg, who had dealt with a number of previous bouts of cancer, had not retired when Barack Obama was president, thereby allowing him to nominate her successor.
“I knew I had to address that head on,” said Holmes. He notes that in the play, Azar talks about the issue “in a way that is human and compelling and that I think audiences will understand.”
“All Things Equal” takes place Nov. 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy of Music. Tickets are available at aomtheatre.com.
“Olvidados: A Mexican American Corrido” is part family drama and part historical/cultural study, given it examines a grim chapter of U.S. history: the forced repatriation of Mexican Americans to Mexico during the early years of the Great Depression.
Elisa Gonzales, an actor, voice and dialect coach, and assistant professor of voice and acting at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, wrote “Olvidados” (The Forgotten) after learning of her own family’s connection to the story. She’ll do a staged reading of her work in the Blue Room at CitySpace at 7 p.m. on Nov. 17-18.
In a recent phone call, Gonzales noted that both the federal government and local governments in various parts of the country — including southern California, where she grew up — deported Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans in the early 1930s when the Great Depression hit.
Estimates for how many people were affected run as high as almost 2 million. Many of them — perhaps 60% — were American citizens, including Gonzales’ grandmother, Celia, who was born in California to parents who had emigrated from Mexico in the 1920s for better work opportunities.
The government “was looking for scapegoats,” said Gonzales. “They didn’t want Mexicans or other immigrants competing with whites for jobs.”
Gonzales’ great-grandfather, José, was able to stay in the U.S., she said, but her great-grandmother, Paula, “didn’t want to stay in this hostile climate” and took Celia and a younger son back to Mexico on her own. The family was later reunited with Gonzales’ great-grandfather in California, but Celia’s young brother died in Mexico.
“The journey to Mexico was hard, and the separation was hard,” said Gonzales, who first began to learn about the story as a teenager.
“There’s been a lot of silence around this issue, both in public and among families,” she said. “I wanted to bring it into the open and honor my own family’s story.”
She appears as three characters — her great-grandmother, her grandmother, and herself — to tell that story.
She also plays a fictional character as she sings — in Spanglish — to accompanying guitar music, in what’s known as corrido, a form of narrative storytelling that’s sung to folk music accompaniment and dates back some 200 years in Mexico.
Both performances of “Olvidados” will be followed by talk-back sessions, and Gonzales says she hopes audience members will offer their thoughts as she continues to develop the play for a full performance.
Tickets are $5 for students and seniors, $10 for general admission, and are available at CitySpaceEasthampton.org.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.