If you’re in need of a little inspiration, some reassurance that the world is not the total dumpster fire that Fox News would have us believe, confirmation that, as the title character says, “you’re not crazy—the system is crazy—and you’re not alone,” Gloria: A Life is just the ticket.
“Humans are communal animals,” says Gloria Steinem (played by a dynamic Christine Lahti in spot-on Steinem style: aviator glasses, a swingy ash blond ’do with perfect curtain bangs, and ’70s-chic hip huggers topped by a low-slung chunky silver belt). “We’re meant to be sitting around campfires telling our stories—learning from each other—we’ve been doing it for millennia.” That’s why the stage of the Daryl Roth Theatre is covered in welcoming Persian rugs, fabric-covered cubes, and stacks of books; the in-the-round seating is made comfier by cushy throw pillows. (Was Pier 1 having a sale?) I suspect if they could, director Diane Paulus and playwright Emily Mann would invite the whole audience down into the playing space to sit cross-legged and listen to Lahti and her costars—Joanna Glushak, Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Patrena Murray, DeLanna Studi, and Liz Wisan—tell Steinem’s story.
Except it’s not entirely Steinem’s story. Gloria: A Life definitely hits the highlights: Smith College, where Steinem emerged, unlike most of her classmates, sans sparkle on her left ring finger; the infamous “A Bunny’s Tale” exposé, which she dubs “an assignment that’s haunted me an entire life” (not-so-fun fact: to get the job, Bunnies were subjected to a mandatory gynecological exam); her abortion, which she was able to obtain legally in London thanks to a forward-thinking doctor; her mother’s nervous breakdown and sodium pentothal addiction (as a teenager, Steinem had to be her caretaker); her foray into the women’s movement; her “near pathological fear of public speaking”; the backlash (“Yeah, I’m dismissed by the media…as if I slept my way to the top—but listen, if women could sleep their way to the top, there would be way more women at the top.”); the founding of Ms. magazine, which ticked off even then-president Richard Nixon; more backlash (during a TV interview, a caller tells Steinem she’s “one of the primary causes of the downfall of our beautiful American family and society today”); her friendship with Wilma Mankiller, Chief of the Cherokee Nation; her too-brief marriage at age 66 to South Africa–born David Bale, who died of brain lymphoma.
But Gloria is less a bioplay and more a crash course in feminism. Not that it’s didactic in any way—Mann (Having Our Say) never makes it feel like we’re getting a history lesson. Honestly, we need a history lesson. “The truth is, I learned feminism from black women,” says Steinem. Because how many of these names do you recognize? Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Florynce Kennedy, Pauli Murray, Aileen Hernandez, Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm, Audre Lorde, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Margaret Sloan, Barbara Smith, Alice Walker. All their names—and photos, thanks to Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections—are in the show; a couple even appear as characters. That’s just scratching the surface.
And who’s heard of the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston? I certainly hadn’t until a couple nights ago. Jacquet calls it “nothing less than a constitutional convention for the female half of the country.” Coretta Scott King spoke. Phyllis Schlafly railed against it, of course. Rep. Bella Abzug got it funded by Congress! Can you imagine that happening today? I mean, let’s imagine…because that’s as close as we’ll get to it actually happening today.
Using so many voices to tell Steinem’s (and feminism’s) story does have its pitfalls. There’s really no way to reenact an event like the 2007 Women’s March, reportedly the largest single-day demonstration in recorded U.S. history; a handful of placard-waving women in pink knit hats feels almost sad, especially against a big-screen projection of the real thing. And the portrayal of Gloria’s mother, Ruth, borders on caricature—a shame, since Gloria’s (or should I say Mann’s) retelling of her tale is so captivating. And I personally could have done without the hand-holding “We Shall Overcome” singalong.
But without an ensemble cast, it would be tough to facilitate a talking circle—aka Act 2. That’s right. After the story comes to a rather satisfying conclusion, there’s a 20-minute discussion. Thankfully, participation isn’t compulsory; you can just sit and listen. Whether the show needs this particular portion probably depends on your personal taste—or on the boldface name leading the circle. Past guests have included trailblazing marathon runner Kathrine Switzer, size-inclusive swimwear designer Malia Mills, Ms. founding editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin. I kind of lucked out. We had Gloria Steinem herself. (Looking, it must be said, dynamite, and nowhere near 84 years old. I demand to see her ID.) “I’m not sure I can follow myself,” she quipped. People asked great questions, but mostly, they wanted to thank her. As one theatergoer said: “I just needed this.”
Gloria: A Life opened Oct. 18, 2018, at the Daryl Roth Theatre. Tickets and information: gloriatheplay.com