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It’s hard to ground a project that’s ready to fly.
Nancy Hill Cobb of Hiawatha and Cavan Hallman of Cedar Rapids intended to premiere “The Suffragist” in 2020, to mark the 100th anniversary of women receiving the right to vote in the United States.
Instead, their musical will debut this weekend, with four performances Friday through Sunday, July 16 to 18, at Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center in Cedar Falls.
The cast of 30 features Broadway performers Nancy Opel (Tony nominee for best actress in “Urinetown”), Cathryn Wake and Joel Waggoner, as well as Waterloo native and opera performer MaKayla McDonald. Director is Rachel Klein, who is based in New York and has a string of off-Broadway, New York and regional credits.
Many Eastern Iowans, including well-known performer Karla Goettel of Cedar Rapids, also will help bring the show to life, either on stage or behind the scenes.
It’s the story of Alice Paul (Wake), Carrie Chapman Catt (Opel), Ida B. Wells (McDonald) and other crusaders, some of whom kept fighting for the right to vote despite facing abject discrimination, imprisonment, torture and even death. Wells, a journalist and social activist, brings the Black perspective into play.
“Ida B. Wells is so many things,” McDonald said. “She was really a force to be reckoned with.”
Quoting from the script, McDonald noted that in this show, Wells represents “the disproportionately disenfranchised minority of people.”
“I.e. all Black people — all Black women,” McDonald added, “and how our struggle as Black women certainly parallels the white suffragist movement, but comes with a gamut of issues that were not experienced by the other characters in the show, simply because they didn’t have to deal with race first.”
Their stories weave through the parades, rallies and protests they waged, including the first protests outside the White House, staged by the National Woman’s Party. Paul founded the organization in 1916 to lobby for a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote.
Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, took a more conservative approach to the suffrage movement than the younger, more militant Paul, who was ready to physically suffer for the cause.
“They disagreed every step of the way,” Opel said. “ … Pretty much all they do is clash.”
In the end, however, they won.
But the suffrage movement is a chapter Cobb feared would be lost to history, so she set out to cast light through the shadows.
She and Hallman were on the verge of signing contracts with major players for the 2020 production when the COVID-19 pandemic shelved the project for a year.
That was “devastating” for Cobb, 69, who orchestrated the show’s idea and composed the music. But it gave Hallman, 42, who wrote the lyrics and script, the chance to fold in the racial strife that unfolded during the pandemic, as well as the movement afoot to enact new voting restrictions.
Tying the past to the present was always part of the collaborators’ plan.
“Even though we’re talking about events that are a hundred years in the past, it’s important to illuminate the connections to our present,” Hallman said.
“And so when I jumped back into the libretto in January, it became pretty clear pretty quickly how current events needed to inform the script,” he said. “There were some developments I thought were really exciting in terms of just making sure that it’s relevant and that it’s connecting — that it’s not a piece of history, but it’s a contemporary piece of theater that is based on history.”
Cobb, who also serves as the show’s executive producer, was well on her way formulating her ideas for the project when three events about five years ago sealed the deal.
1. She found the right playwright to give voice to her vision in 2016, when she traveled to New Orleans, where Hallman and his wife, Katie, were living. There, she saw his play about Marilyn Monroe’s journey from being exploited in Hollywood to becoming the first woman to helm her own production company.
“I knew he was an excellent playwright, and when they moved to Cedar Rapids in 2017, the collaboration became possible,” Cobb said. Close family connections further brought their lives in proximity to one another, so with the move, the timing was perfect for the collaboration, she added.
Hallman is a nationally recognized playwright and director, and Cobb is an award-winning composer who has served on music faculties and in administration at universities across the United States, including the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.
2. Speaking with a UNI colleague who was writing an academic book on voting rights for women stirred Cobb to dig even deeper into the subject.
“I learned a lot of things that I had never heard before, and decided that somebody had denied me some history,” Cobb said. “As I read, I got more and more inspired that the stories needed to be told in an artistic way.”
3. And seeing a female political candidate being held to a different moral standard than her male opponent further fueled her fire.
Cobb and Hallman struck their agreement in June 2017, taking them on a two-year odyssey. Hallman began giving Cobb the story and lyrics in sections, then she would begin writing the music.
“As we kind of traded the work back and forth,” Hallman said, “I would create full scenes that were both book and lyrics then hand it off to Nancy. And we’d just keep tinkering away until we're getting to the place where we're both feeling like it's accomplishing what we were looking for.”
It took about six months to shape the first draft. To hear and refine their work, the team held living room readings and workshops, including a table reading in April 2019 at Cry Havoc Company in New York City, where Hallman is a resident artist. The following July, a 10-hour workshop of the entire piece was conducted at Theatre Cedar Rapids, where Hallman’s wife serves as executive director.
But within months, the pandemic shut down that momentum.
Opel, 64, of New York, was more than happy to sign on for the show as the country began to reopen this year.
In January 2020, she had stepped out of playing Madame Morrible in “Wicked” on Broadway, then went on a monthlong vacation in Europe, returning March 9, 2020, “with COVID nipping at my heels,” she said.
When it became obvious that “The Suffragist” would be delayed, Cobb asked if she’d be willing to consider the role in 2021. Opel said, “Absolutely, I’d consider doing it next year.”
“It has been the thing that I’ve been looking forward to for a year-plus,” she said. “ … We were most eager to do it last year, because historically, it made so much sense. But then having a year to sit with the idea, and also, watching how voting rights are challenged even still, it seems to be very pertinent right now that we understand that these rights that we all kind of take for granted were hard won.”
Her character, Carrie Chapman Catt, has deep Iowa connections. She grew up near Charles City and was the only woman in her 1880 graduating class from what is now Iowa State University in Ames. Opel also is a Midwesterner, having grown up in a suburb of Kansas City, Kan.
As with any role, she has to embrace Catt’s mindset to perform it honestly.
“In these kind of stories, especially when you’re playing something historically based, you have to feel your position is the right one,” she said.
“In certain respects, Carrie’s slow and steady wins the race view of how to make it happen made a lot of sense,” Opel said, noting that Catt didn’t want to rock the boat so hard that their efforts would sink.
“When you think of it from that perspective, and just go, ‘How could you possibly have been so conservative?’ Because the world was conservative,” Opel said, adding that it still is.
Musical theater was McDonald’s first love in her youth — until she discovered opera while studying at UNI. There, she developed a connection with Cobb as a composer, as well as with Rebecca Burkhardt, music director for “The Suffragist,” who had been her music theory professor. When they spoke with her about this project in early 2020, she knew she “immediately wanted to say yes.”
“The story is such an important one,” said McDonald, 28, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. “When I come back to Iowa, I, as a queer Black woman, have such a specific experience of growing up that was not always in my favor — a lot of the time it wasn’t in my favor.
“I decided that as an adult who is working very hard toward her goals, that when I come back to Iowa, when I’m doing anything here as MaKayla McDonald, soprano, that I need my artistry and my work to be very Black, I need it to be very loud, I need it to be queer, I need it to be something that people who are in my position when I lived here can see that, and see themselves on the stage.
“That was also part of the reason I took on this project, because I have a goal of just making sure young Black people, young Black women, young queer people, young people of color see themselves reflected in a light I wish I could have seen when I was a young person.”
And even with what she called the show’s “semi-happy ending,” the struggles have continued through the Civil Rights movement, the war on drugs and the protests sparked across the country last summer.
“The struggle was not only for the right to vote but for the right to live, the right to exist,” McDonald said.
“ … I’m so incredibly excited to be creating this kind of art in the Cedar Valley.”
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