CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — Five decades after Gloria Steinem emerged on the public scene as the most recognizable face of America’s burgeoning women’s movement, the daring journalist turned outspoken and hugely influential women’s rights activist continues to inspire.
“Gloria: A Life,” a theatrical production that tells her story, and the parallel history of the women’s movement she helped lead, is selling out at the American Repertory Theater (ART) in the heart of Harvard Square, where it’s in a limited run through March 1.
Written by Tony nominated playwright Emily Mann, the play is directed by Tony award winner Diane Paulus, the artistic director of the ART, who also directed the original 2018 off-Broadway production. The play was then re-staged at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, where Mann is the artistic director.
In this time of the #MeToo movement, women’s marches, and lingering gender wage disparity, the production is striking a chord with audiences of all ages.
“Feminism is finally getting attention for being an influential social movement, whose work is not yet finished,” said Judith Rosenbaum, CEO of the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA), the Boston-based national educational organization that collects and promotes the stories of Jewish women throughout history.
JWA was a community partner for the February 1 performance, bringing along some 30 of the organization’s friends, including Rosenbaum’s teenage daughter Ma’ayan Rosenbaum, who enthusiastically hoped Steinem might make an appearance, as she had on opening night a few days earlier.
“There are many aspects of [Steinem’s] story that are not well known and a generation of people who don’t know who she is,” Judith Rosenbaum said.
She pointed to the little known story of Steinem’s paternal Jewish grandmother, Pauline Perlmutter Steinem, a trailblazing women’s rights activist, suffragist, and the first woman to be elected to Toledo’s board of education. Steinem only learned this chapter of her grandmother’s life years after she died, and the discovery was deeply meaningful, she told Rosenbaum when they met some 15 years ago when Rosenbaum was curating an exhibit that included Steinem.
Despite the fact that Steinem didn’t make another appearance, Ma’ayan really enjoyed the play.
“I thought that they portrayed the story in a way that was very relevant and felt applicable to my life, even though I’m only 13,” she told The Times of Israel via email.
Mann’s lively and engaging play is staged as a two-act production. Act I is the theatrical narrative that draws from Steinem’s most recent memoir, “My Life on the Road,” and the playwright’s extensive interviews with Steinem, who at one time considered playing herself in an early one-woman version of the play.
Actress Patricia Kalember, who also played Steinem in the original off-Broadway production, embodied Steinem with such authenticity that the audience could be forgiven for believing it was Steinem herself on center stage.
The Mann/Paulus team brings the full story to life with a stellar ensemble of supporting performers who portray characters central to Steinem’s story.
After each performance, the audience is invited to take part in a 20-minute conversation reflecting on the play and its relevance today. Framed as Act II, it evokes the talking circles that Steinem first encountered in her post-college travels in India and that have remained a core of her activism.
The play traces the trajectory of Steinem’s life, from her unusual early years growing up in Toledo, Ohio, to Smith College in the 1950s, to extended travels in India. In New York City, where Steinem battled to gain a meaningful career as a political journalist, she faced the harsh reality that women got assigned the “lighter” stories about families, food and fashion.
Kalember captured Steinem’s spunk as she went on an undercover assignment in 1963 as a waitress in New York’s Playboy Club, leading to her hard hitting expose, “A Bunny’s Tale,” for Show magazine, Steinem’s breakthrough article.
By 1970, an emboldened Steinem embraced a new role, emerging as a women’s rights activist, speaking out across the country. Kalember and ensemble play out the 1972 creation of Ms. Magazine, which Steinem co-founded with Lettie Cottin Pogrebin and others.
For director Paulus, who grew up in the 1980s in New York, Steinem was a feminist superhero, she told The Times of Israel over the phone. The play demystifies that iconic image, she said.
“Gloria Steinem wasn’t born a feminist… There was a process by which she understood her rights, her voice and the path to that through other women,” Paulus said in a video posted on the theater’s website.
The play’s most poignant moments are the most personal. Among them are how caring for her mother both as young girl and later in life, Steinem comes to understand the societal constraints that squelched her mother’s ambitions and took a toll on her well being.
At its most potent, the play shines light on the sisterhood that Steinem cherished: at every turn, Steinem has partnered and collaborated with other women, notably African American women and other women of color whose stories were often overlooked in mainstream media: Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Florynce Kennedy, and Cherokee chief Wilma Mankiller.
And the play highlights the pivotal role of Jewish women activists including US congresswoman Bella Abzug, who in 1977 chaired the first national women’s convention in Houston, a landmark gathering on women’s rights.
Rosenbaum understands there may be various reasons why the play did not include Steinem’s Jewish identity, but she sees it as a missed opportunity.
“Too often, Jewishness isn’t included in conversations about intersectionality, and that’s a problem,” Rosenbaum wrote in a follow up email.
Nancy Kaufman, the recently retired director of the National Council of Jewish Women, was not as concerned. This wasn’t Steinem’s identity in the women’s movement, which was the focus of the play, said Kaufman, who has met Steinem at the Women’s Passover seders led by mutual friends and colleagues, including Cottin Pogrebin.
Both Kaufman and Rosenbaum had high praise for the play and said it gave great credit to women of color.
Today, a younger generation of feminists are quick to dismiss the 1970s second wave feminism, Rosenbaum has found. It wasn’t intersectional enough; it was too white; too old fashioned, some believe.
This play goes a long way in broadening that perspective, she said.
“Night after night, audiences of all ages, women, men, gender non-binary, all representations are saying they were grateful to hear about these amazing women,” Paulus said. “That is hugely inspiring.”