Before #MeToo, There Was Gloria
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Before #MeToo, There Was Gloria

New play charts Steinem’s activism and brings the audience into the conversation on gender and power.

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

Gloria Steinem in 1977: A life of “convening and listening.” Lynn Gilbert/Wikimedia Commons
Gloria Steinem in 1977: A life of “convening and listening.” Lynn Gilbert/Wikimedia Commons

Women protesting against the violation of their rights, their personal boundaries and their human dignity has become a daily occurrence in our society as the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements continue to gather steam in the wake of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. We may not always keep in mind, though, that the roots of this new wave of feminist outcry goes back to the 1970s, when a group of pioneering women, many of whom were Jewish, fought for the freedom of women from male oppression.

How timely, then, is “Gloria: A Life,” a new Off-Broadway play by Emily Mann about one of the most famous of those women, Gloria Steinem. “Gloria” opens this week starring Christine Lahti as the title character. It arrives Off-Broadway as two movies about Steinem are being made: Julie Taymor’s “My Life on the Road,” featuring Julianne Moore, and Dee Rees’ “An Uncivil War,” starring Carey Mulligan.

Directed by Diane Paulus (“Waitress,” “Pippin”), who is the artistic director of the A.R.T. (American Repertory Theater) at Harvard, “Gloria” traces the arc of its subject’s remarkable life and career, from her childhood in the 1940s as the daughter of an irresponsible Jewish father and an emotionally disturbed non-Jewish mother, through her path-breaking journalistic work (including, notably, going undercover as a Playboy Bunny to expose sexual harassment of the cocktail waitresses), to becoming a founding editor of New York magazine and then a co-founder Ms. magazine, while helping to lead the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Author and feminist activist Gloria Steinem participates in a roundtable discussion during a Women In Public Service event at the Department of State December 15, 2011 in Washington, DC. Getty Images

Six women of various ages, races and ethnicities — Joanna Glushak, Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Patrena Murray, DeLanna Studi and Liz Wisan — play all the subsidiary characters, both male and female, in the play. Built into the work is a concluding “Talking Circle,” in which members of the audience are given an opportunity to share their own experiences. The play incorporates photos, video footage and audio recordings of major figures with whom Steinem worked, from Bella Abzug to Coretta Scott King.

Mann, who is the long-time artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., has penned many highly regarded dramas, including her 1985 play, “Execution of Justice,” about Dan White, the killer of Harvey Milk, the openly gay, Jewish city supervisor in San Francisco. In an interview, she compared her new play to a “tapestry” in which “images, threads and colors are pulled through.”

In deciding how to distill Steinem’s long life and career into an 80-minute drama, she was aided by reading a biography of Steinem and by conducting interviews with her. Mann was particularly moved by learning about Steinem’s relationship with her mother, who also had ambitions of being a journalist, and by Steinem’s seeing her mother, in Mann’s words, “crushed by what women were not allowed to do and to be.” (Steinem’s father walked out when she was 11, leaving her to take care of a mother who was clinically depressed, addicted to medication and having hallucinations.)

Christine Lahti plays Steinem in “Gloria: A Life.” Wikimedia Commons

Steinem’s Jewishness does not loom large in the play. She talks much more about her affinity for indigenous culture and about her particular bond to Native American activist Wilma Mankiller, who officiated at Steinem’s 2000 marriage to David Bale (the father of actor Christian Bale), who died just three years later of brain lymphoma. Indeed, the play omits Steinem’s famous line, “Never in my life have I identified as a Christian, but wherever there is anti-Semitism I identify as a Jew.”

But there is no question that Steinem came to view her paternal grandmother, Pauline Perlmutter Steinem, who was a major figure in the women’s suffrage movement at the turn of the 20th century, as an important role model. In an essay she wrote about her grandmother for the Jewish Women’s Archive, Steinem credits the “liberal spirit” of Reform Judaism for her grandmother’s ability to receive a higher education and “perhaps” her later work as a suffragist. Mann also pointed out that Gloria Steinem has participated in a women’s seder in New York for decades with other Jewish feminists like Letty Cottin Pogrebin and the late Esther Broner. And as Steinem put it in a 1969 article in New York magazine, “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation,” the “Movement” would be advanced by women chanting phrases like “No more ‘Jewish mothers’ transferring ambition to children” along with “No more guilt,” “No more alimony,” and “No more women trying to be masculine because it’s a Man’s World.”

Paulus told The Jewish Week that working with Mann and Lahti on “Gloria” reminds her of the work of Wendy Wasserstein, whose plays, including “The Heidi Chronicles” (in which Lahti starred on Broadway in 1989, inheriting Joan Allen’s role as the title character), brought feminist women’s voices to the fore. But “Gloria” is different, she said, partly because of its non-fiction nature, and partly because “every day, it’s a new play, because the audience provides the second act.”

A young Gloria Steinem in 1966. Getty Images

The director recalled that while Steinem was originally supposed to star as herself, Steinem realized that she “isn’t an actor and doesn’t want to rehash her life every night in front of an audience.” But Steinem does periodically lead the talking circle. “Her life has always been about convening and listening,” Paulus said. In “Gloria,” the “community that is formed among the performers extends into the audience.” The experience of working on “Gloria,” she reflected, has been nothing less than “affirming and energizing.”

This communal bonding was very much in evidence at a recent preview performance, when, to the audience’s surprise and delight, Steinem did indeed appear to lead the talking circle. As it happened, the first person to rise and speak was Anat Hoffman, a founder of Women of the Wall, the Jerusalem-based organization that fights for women’s equality in prayer at the Kotel. Hoffman thanked Steinem for being such an inspiration to her and her fellow protestors.

Other audience members, many of whom likewise identified themselves as activists with various women’s and LGBT causes, reminded Steinem of times when they had met her at various marches and rallies. One was Sean Strub, the openly gay, HIV-positive mayor of the rural town of Milford, Pa., who recalled how moved he had been by hearing Steinem compare the overall situation of American women to those wives who are just on the verge of leaving their abusive husbands and striking out on their own.

One woman asked Steinem how women can survive the Trump era. Steinem responded that there is too much attention being paid to the president. “We need to stop looking up at him and look at each other,” she declared. “In my entire life I’ve never seen so much activism as I’m seeing now.”

“Gloria” opens on Thursday, Oct. 18 at 7 p.m. at the Daryl Roth Theatre, 101 E. 15th St. Performances are typically on Tuesday and Thursday evenings at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. Matinees are on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons at 2 p.m. and on Sunday afternoons at 3 p.m. For tickets, $55-$150, call (800) 745-3000 or visit ticketmaster.com.

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