Can we be honest about our history and still be inspired by it?
A conversation with three of the women behind "Suffs," the pathbreaking hit musical exploring the suffrage movement's victories, failings, and unfinished business
Nikki James as Ida B. Wells in “Suffs.”
The other day, I asked Shaina Taub, the creator and star of the new musical “Suffs,” what she remembered learning about the women’s suffrage movement in school.
She doesn’t remember learning about it. And she’s probably not alone.
The story of how women gained the vote is given short shrift in many history texts. But, just as important, the tale that is told tends to be incomplete. For the story of the suffrage movement isn’t only a case study of an oppressed group of people organizing to claim their due; it is also the story of a movement whose mostly white leadership was especially alive to one form of inequality, that of gender, and largely blind to another, that of race. Women as a whole did not win the vote in 1920 with the passage of 19th Amendment. White women did. And it took until the 1960s, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, for that right to be realized in living practice for all races.
That is just one of the omissions in the Official American Narrative that “Suffs,” which is showing at the Public Theater in New York, seeks to correct. “Suffs” is a brilliant, moving, joyous, haunting, and honest account of the suffrage movement that is daring something bold: trying to tell honest history and trust that the audience can take it, can be inspired by a righteous struggle even if that struggle was full of wrongs.
At a time of book bans and a cynical backlash against critical race theory and other such revolts against candor about our past, “Suffs” makes a forceful contrary wager: it declares that you can still love a country and the struggles that made it while telling the truth about it. It is honest history as art.
I have now seen “Suffs” twice at the Public, which is a place where shows have a history of leaping to Broadway. Last week, I got to speak with three of the forces behind the production: the playwright, lyricist, and composer Shaina Taub, who stars as Alice Paul; the director, Leigh Silverman; and Nikki James, who plays Ida B. Wells.
Our conversation is below.
“We're making something for the present that hopefully will stand the test of time”: a conversation about “Suffs”
The company of “Suffs.”
ANAND: It's 2022, and we're living in the wake of intersecting movements challenging power structures, from #MeToo to Black Lives Matter to the anti-fascist movement against Trumpism. As a country, we're facing existential questions about whether or not we'll sustain liberal democracy and who gets to participate in it. What do you think the story of the fight for suffrage says about the moment in which “Suffs” lands?
LEIGH: While we've been working on the show, I've been struck by how history repeats itself. I'm moved by the reminder of what we take for granted today — certainly voting rights in this country. Hopefully, the show is giving people the opportunity to revisit and appreciate all of the struggles we've gone through and are continuing to go through for the sake of progress. That the fight is ongoing, long, and worthy of our time and attention.
ANAND: I want to get into the origin story of “Suffs.” Shaina, I read that you got a copy of Jailed for Freedom, and it set you on an eight-year journey to this moment. In many ways, I see the show as an effort to correct and deepen what we all learned about the women's suffrage movement in school. Do you remember learning about it growing up?
SHAINA: I don't remember learning about it in school. I grew up in Vermont and went to a public high school. Then I was lucky to get to go to college in New York at NYU. I had some awareness of Susan B. Anthony. I knew her face was on money, and I knew she existed. But if you would've asked me about the 19th Amendment and women's suffrage, I'm not sure I would've known about them through college, honestly — even though I was really hungry for this stuff.
In high school, I learned about the Vietnam anti-war movement through the musical "Hair." I was so fascinated with that. I asked my history teacher in high school to let me do an independent study on the movements of the 1960s for extra credit, just because I loved school and loved learning. So I did this whole study on all the various social movements of the 60s and the protest tactics. I learned what non-violent direct action was in past resistance and civil disobedience and all these incredible tactics from the 60s — especially from the civil rights movement, of course. Nowhere in that time did the teacher bring up women's suffrage. It was just missing. It wasn't until Rachel Sussman sat me down and gave me that book that I learned about it.
ANAND: I want to talk about the kind of fulcrum 2020 provided. How did the show develop from 2014 and what happened to the show when the country started convulsing over racial injustice in 2020?
SHAINA: In that first chunk of years, I was just inhaling research and taking it all in. The biggest challenge up until 2020 was getting any draft out at all. It was such a daunting, overwhelming task of, "How do I musicalize this? How do I dramatize this? How do I distill it?" The end of 2019 was the first time we did a full version of the show, beginning to end.
Then our final steps of development in 2020 got canceled. It was crushing to delay the project, but we tried to frame it more positively. We'd say, "Great, this is an opportunity. We now have time. How can we go deeper? How can we go farther?" We were able to bring on a collaborator, Ayanna Thompson, whom we had been eager to bring on from the beginning but hadn't gotten to yet.
She challenged us in such amazing ways on so many fronts, including rethinking our casting practice. I think that I made a lot of rules in my mind about how to cast because certain historical shows that don't reckon with race or racism directly in the text can do what we call "colorblind casting," with actors of any race playing any role. Then the audience takes that in and understands that the characters are white.
ANAND: In the past, that has been considered very progressive, even though, frankly, it's not that progressive.
SHAINA: Yes. It's always been my intention — something I'm not done working on — to reckon with the racism in the movement and the racist choices these white women made. To have incredible Black characters, like Ida B. Wells, played by Nikki, and Mary Church Terrell and her daughter Phyllis. We knew Black women would play those characters to honor the reality of who they were. But then it became a question about how we could be honest about the racist compromises and failures of the white women in this movement and honor the Black women, even though they're not the main characters I've chosen. How could we create a production in 2022 that reflects the values we hold as theater-makers today?
The answer was to have as inclusive, diverse, and open-door of casting as possible to represent what we believe feminism to be today: as many people as possible, all being welcome.
How do you thread that needle? How do you have a scene in which Ida B. Wells, played by a Black woman, is confronting Alice Paul, played by a white woman? Ayanna encouraged us to embrace the complexity of not choosing a colorblind casting approach or a historical accuracy approach. Instead, we embraced something in between where we could both feature virtuosity of actors of all backgrounds and tell the story about race that we were hoping to tell. It's challenging to invite an audience to view the show with those layers of complexity.
I realized at some point that, as a dramatist, I'd been so focused on my main character, Alice, and her journey that it came at the detriment of the development of supporting characters, including Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, both Black women.
The pause we got in 2020 was really an opportunity to deepen those characters. I'm so grateful to have been in collaboration and conversation with Nikki, Leigh, and Ayanna about how to do that effectively. I realized that in musicals we really want the inner life and the inner emotional life of a character, which has been a challenge for some of these women because many of them didn't leave much behind. In my initial draft, an inner life for Ida specifically was missing.
We had these great conversations about how we can honor her and make it the most substantive role possible, even though she's not at the show's center. I also had to own the fact that's the choice that I made.
ANAND: Nikki, I want to ask you about Ida. Some have called her the conscience of the show, and she has an interesting position relative to the movement. She's both in it and out of it. She believes in it and simultaneously despises it. She has complicated feelings that are incredibly relatable for anyone following social movements today. Can you talk about that duality?
NIKKI: I think it's so human. With everything you 100 percent believe in, there's the part of you that has doubts. Even with your marriage, partnerships, friendships, career, and relationship with the country you live in, it's complicated. That's what I love about Ida. When you read what Ida wrote, it's very clear that she's trying hard to be unflinching. Her anger is evident, but she is specifically trying to tell a story with a clear narrative.
It's often like this cap that she puts on the emotion. That's how you exist in a world when you're in opposition to something, right? You can't come in guns blazing all the time. There's a little bit of a smile to it, and it's all negotiated.
The duality you mentioned is something I feel strongly as a person of color in this country and the child of two immigrants — a deep love and simultaneous hurt and distrust of so many aspects of my life as an American. It's very James Baldwin. I think that's such a beautiful, complex, and relatable counterpart to the earnestness of the young suffs.
Shaina is doing a beautiful job portraying that, and it's very easy to play. That's not to say it's not challenging, but I don't have to twist myself in knots to make it feel real to me. All I have to do is allow it to feel real and then send that out to the audience. There's no leap that I have to make to tell the story. It's an amazing experience as an actor, honestly. As someone who wants the art that I do to be in line with who I am as a person, this project feels like it's on that razor's edge.
ANAND: There's something I think about a lot in my work writing about politics. It struck me that maybe you all had to deal with it in a different form. It's easy to do what the right wing does and tell a singular, monochromatic story of America. There are not a lot of storylines to braid together. There are not a lot of perspectives to complicate.
In recent years, there's been an effort to tell different kinds of stories — stories that are intersectional and show different perspectives.
And while it's worthy and correct, it's artistically and narratively complicated. What was the challenge of wanting to tell an honest and intersectional story while remembering that this is still art? It can't be tedious or too complicated, and at some point, a show like this requires a degree of narrative simplification.
LEIGH: There would be a lot of faster ways to make a show, for sure. It takes a lot of time.
We were walking right into a piece of history that is thorny, racist, complicated, where there were a lot of ways that we could have told the story that, frankly, would've been an easier way to go.
For example, we could have decided to wrap up the story in a pleasurable way. One of the beautiful moments in the show was that we spent the whole time fighting for this moment when the 19th Amendment gets passed. Then the moment is delivered, and there's a brief celebration. But it really means that only white women win the right to vote. And the show denies us a celebration that the audience wants.
It's followed up by a song called "I Wasn't There," where all of the characters stand on stage and essentially say, "The amendment passed in the middle of the night. Some man signed a paper behind a closed door. And all of the people that you met that you spent two hours with are here to tell you that we were not there. We were not given a chance to celebrate."
That anticlimax is ballsy. That is a bold thing to do. To me, that is the guiding principle of the whole show. This is not a show about an optimistic American moment. This is a depiction of flawed, difficult people who worked relentlessly. That was the mandate of the show.
(From left to right) Ally Bonino, Phillipa Soo, Shaina Taub, Hannah Cruz, and Nadia Dandashi in “Suffs” at the Public Theater
ANAND: Shaina, I want to ask you about a fight that broke out in our friend group when we saw the show. Several people wanted to make comparisons to "Hamilton." Others thought it was wrong to compare these two things. I can understand the basis for people making connections. It's political, and it's a historical musical that is progressive. Hamilton loomed large in the nation's consciousness during the years you developed the show. But I also understand "Suffs" takes an entirely different approach from Hamilton. Is there a connection in any of your minds?
SHAINA: I love and adore Lin, Tommy, Alex, and all of the people that made that show. They've been incredibly supportive and wonderful to me. I love the show as much as the next person. But, yes, it's sort of a superficial comparison. Sure, it’s a historical musical with a big cast, and it's ambitious. But, to me, it's a fundamentally different enterprise.
Part of the genius of "Hamilton" is that it says, "Here is our founding myth that we all know and love. We know these figures — except maybe the women, per usual — but let's tell it in this fresh way with hip hop and a juxtaposing vernacular smashing up against the history." When George Washington walks on stage, played by Christopher Jackson, rapping, there's an immediate dialectic because every person in that audience knows precisely who George Washington is. They get a lot of that exposition for free. I'm envious of that. But I'm trying to introduce you to these women who most of the audience has never heard of.
There's no script in their minds to flip. Early on, I thought I would do more of a contemporary pop-rock score. But the more I got into it, I thought it might be a disservice to smash up a genre against it like "Hamilton" or "Spring Awakening" does. It's an incredibly effective musical tool, but I knew I needed to ground us in this time and place so we can understand what the suffs are trying to create.
I also think we're in a different American moment. It's not the Obama years that were so full of that optimism and possibility — that maybe we're coming around the corner in that moral arc towards justice. Now, we're questioning all of these founding myths, what we are built on, and how we want to see change made in this country.
I also think there's a lack of imagination by comparing the show to “Hamilton.” Our show intentionally interrogates the American obsession with individual genius, with the individual one who gets it done, that one person without whom it wouldn't have happened. That's not how social movements work.
ANAND: Nikki, you brought up James Baldwin earlier. So much of Baldwin’s work is about facing history, however ugly, because there's something better on the other side. The show you all have built is about that kind of honesty, but it lands at a time in this country of book bans, critical race theory backlash, and a movement against honestly facing history. There's a project going on in the Baldwin tradition and a strong counter-reaction to it.
How do you reflect on the show landing in a moment when middle schoolers are having their textbooks banned because they're honest about history, in some of the same honest ways that you all are daring?
NIKKI: We have to remember that the show that we're making is not just going to be for the time we're living in. There will be people who won't be able to see it now. There are kids whose parents won't let them and who will discover it in 10 years when they get to college or when they're looking. That is a responsibility, too. We're making something for the present that hopefully will stand the test of time.
ANAND: Shaina, there's this sense of despair many young people feel about the world their elders have left for them, whether it's climate change or inequality. Many wonder whether we live in an unchangeable society.
This show is about a constitutional amendment. Many people don't think the American constitution will be amended ever again. What do you think are the specific lessons for young people in this show about how to create change when it feels impossible?
SHAINA: Many people in the development years of this would be like, "Isn't it so depressing? Nothing's changed. Is that the main takeaway?" I would say, "Yes, there's so much more to do."
The big takeaway for me is that they were in a far worse position. I would much rather be a woman in 2022 than in 1912. These women were able to do the impossible-seeming task of changing the U.S. Constitution one hundred years ago, before Twitter, the internet, and all of these platforms that we have to organize today. They did a Western campaign tour by train, automobile, and foot. They created the notion of women as a voting bloc before all of the tools we have today. That's inspiring to me.
Another backbone of the show is the idea from the Talmud that you are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. I put it at the top of my script and in the program. A lot of these activist slogans like "Never again," "Enough,” or "It ends today" lead us to think we can complete these fights in our lifetime. And yet, of course, that never happens.
How can we not let that defeat us? How can we understand that we're not going to get to the last day? We're not going to get to "Enough is enough" in our lifetime, but that doesn't let us off the hook. We have to push it forward as much as we can. I hope that it galvanizes us to realize the victories.
That's why this show, at the end, says, "Don't forget our failure. Don't forget our fight.” Don't forget all of the ways that we messed up and of the ways these fights are not over. Don't forget all the things we won. Look what we did. You can, too.
“Suffs” runs until May 29 at The Public Theater, with book, music, and lyrics by Shaina Taub, music direction and music supervision by Andrea Grody, choreography by Raja Feather Kelly, and direction by Leigh Silverman.