Ayanna Thompson helped create a diverse cast for ‘Suffs’
Ayanna Thompson is not a fan of musicals.
So you can guess his reaction when the visionaries behind “enougha musical about the women’s suffrage movement in the early 1900s, asked her to become a playwright and consultant to help it choose the cast.
“I mean, I have no expertise in musicals, and I made that very clear,” said Thompson, Regents Professor of English at Arizona State University and director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. “I was like, ‘Doesn’t that sound like the worst idea ever?'”
But Thompson had become a scholar-in-residence at Shakespeare’s Public Initiative in 2020 – ‘Suffs’ is playing at the Public Theater until May 15 – and she was intrigued by what she called the suffrage movement’s intergenerational and interracial battles, and how some of the movement’s goals resonate still today.
As Women’s History Month draws to a close, ASU News spoke with Thompson about “Suffs,” and why, more than 100 years later, women still have social barriers to overcome.
Question: How did your involvement with “Suffs” come about?
To respond: Normally I just work on their Shakespearean productions, but I specialize in race and casting. I had a series of conversations with their management team about how to think about race and casting, how to be intentional. And so, when the creative team of (creator) Shaina Taub and (director) Lee Silverman brought me in to talk about what a casting approach would look like, I was really excited.
Q: But you don’t like musicals.
A: Yes, I was very skeptical. But he has such a big arc in how he tackles intergenerational and interracial battles, and what takes priority and what gets put on the back burner when you’re married to a principle. I think it’s quite a complex narrative, and the music is incredibly beautiful.
Q: What intergenerational and interracial battles are you talking about?
A: The story is about Alice Paul (a vocal leader of the suffrage movement), who has this sense of self and urgency that she’s going to be the one to win women’s suffrage. And, of course, the struggle for suffrage had already been going on for several generations with Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt, who is Susan B. Anthony’s protege. So it’s the tension between Carrie Kat’s approach, which is slow and gradual, and Alice’s approach, which becomes a bit like, burn it all out. That’s part of it.
And then you have Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, who are two famous black suffrage fighters. Alice basically tells them, “We’ll only talk about women. We’re not going to talk about the rights of women of color because we can’t get the Southern vote on board. So you just have to wait your turn.” It’s one of the main songs in the musical. It’s called “Wait My Turn.” And Ida says, “Why do white women have to say do I have to wait my turn? Why can’t it be both? Why can’t we work together?” That’s pretty powerful.
So I think all of these complexities lend themselves to what I’ve called Shakespearean in structure.
Q: You’ve written a lot about running and performance. Why was it important for you to redesign the cast and have white male characters played by female and non-binary actors of different races and ethnicities?
A: It wasn’t just my idea. Shaina had always said she wanted a female cast, but then who counts as a female? Of course, this has recently been criticized. I want transgender women, I want people who identify as women, but I also want women who see themselves as non-binary to feel like they have a place in this production. Thus, the roles of male characters would be played by this cast of women. It was fantastic.
The other part that I was really interested in helping them be intentional was if you have this group, and there are black characters and there are white characters and there are Latino characters and Asian characters, can we are we making sure that women of color play those good parts so that we’re not encouraging some type of blackface, but signaling that it’s OK for black women, Latino women, and Asian women to play white roles?
Q: What about the suffrage movement that still resonates with you today?
A: Alice Paul, at the end of the play, says, “Well, we have to fight for the equal rights amendment.” I remember as a child canvassing my mother to try to get the ERA through in the 1980s. It still hasn’t passed. So, yes, a lot of the fights they were fighting in the 1910s, we’re still fighting them a hundred years later.
We have made tremendous progress. But we still haven’t had a female president. We still have virtually no women in the Senate. And watch the fight Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson faces for the Supreme Court.
Q: These equality issues are even more important for women of color, aren’t they?
A: Absolutely. It’s disturbing, disturbing and moving to see that we still have the same conversations and that it’s still so difficult for indigenous women, black women and Latin women. We have a lot of work to do, but I think this musical gives us a way to kickstart those conversations. It offers another door to open to say, “OK, maybe we can walk through it now with these amazing songs ringing in our head.”
Top photo: St. Louis Equal Suffrage League traveling through Missiouri in 1916. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons