Lauraine Leblanc: Wham, Bam, Thank You Ma’am – October 19, 2012

Friday, October 19, 2012

Reviewer votes for Women at the Playhouse

Lauraine Leblanc

Eye Arts Scrutinizer

CREAMERY DISTRICT – Elta Cartwright, HSU’s 73 year old homecoming queen (1981), strides into the spotlight. In her youth, “Cinder-Elta” ran at Eureka High, the first high school to allow female athletes to wear shorts (did you know that?), which probably helped her set a broad jump record that stands to this day (or that?), which in turn ushered her into the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam (and that?).

It’s the story of Elta Cartwright (energetically played by Ali Freedlund) that catapults the audience into the world of Women of the Northwest, currently at the Arcata Playhouse. The multimedia spectacle hits the ground running, with women’s stories, pictures, dances and songs quickly succeeding each other, each as compelling than the last.

Jackie Dandeneau, Siena Nelson and Laura Munoz as prostitutes. LL | Eye

Women of the Northwest is billed as “mostly true tales of life behind the redwood curtain.” The play was written by an ensemble following a process that included story circles, archival research and oral history. There was also, admittedly, a little dramatization, but with such rich resources, not much was required. Playhouse Executive Director Jackie Dandeneau began by attempting to write the play herself, then, awed by the scope of the endeavor, opened up the process to the ensemble, including Siena Nelson, Laura Munoz and Freedlund, all of whom are the principals in the piece and play multiple roles. The ensemble that is credited with the writing is further enhanced by over a dozen other actors, singers, musicians and dancers, including the local Native Women’s Collective, who perform a Flower Dance and explain its history.

Over the course of two acts and against an effectively minimalist backdrop, Women of the Northwest unfolds the life histories of some notable women of the region including Eureka mayor Emily Jones (first female mayor west of the Mississippi), poet Margaret Cobb and globetrotter Antoinette Chartin. Storyteller Charlene Storr appears, to tell the story of her grandmother, Sadie Gorbet, a Native American delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention. The cast also gives voice to unnamed women as prostitutes and immigrants and to women’s experiences with food, suffrage, motherhood and loneliness. The cast transitions seamlessly from historical reenactments to musical numbers to interpretive dance.

All this might seem pedantic, but Women of the Northwest is anything but dry. The material is clearly deeply personal for all the performers, and they imbue each character with pathos that wrung tears, and humor that drew belly laughs from the audience. Witness, for example, Dandeneau and Nelson’s “I Ride a Lie,” a song about women passing as men so as to live free, in which the impact of the historical moment is not at all diluted by Nelson’s dancing gangnam-style.

The second wave of feminism maintained that the personal is political. Given the current political context in which candidates display a shocking ignorance of female reproduction while expounding on the legitimacy of rape and a female legislator is barred from the floor of a state legislature  for saying “vagina,” the personal narratives of Women of the Northwest are inextricable from the political.

Hence, a rejoicing band of victorious suffragettes takes the stage in act 2, singing “Hurrah!” and distributing “Votes of Women” buttons, reminding us that the battles fought for women’s franchise took place here too, and not so long ago. It’s tempting to forget that it is within living memory that women could not vote, were utterly dependent on men, could only earn menial wages, often died in childbirth and lost children to disease. Women of the Northwest reminds us how far we have come together and how much further we must still go.

Women of the Northwest is at the Arcata Playhouse until Sunday, Oct. 21, then embarks on a tour of the North Coast, stopping at at the Petrolia Community Center Saturday, Oct. 27 and at Beginnings in Briceland, Sunday, Oct. 28.