In ‘45 Plays,’ Neo-Futurists just say no to mainstream views of the first ladies
The mini-dramas, staged on screens, illustrate that while the presidents’ wives often had it bad, others of that era had it much worse.
The job description of “first lady” has morphed between Martha and Melania, but in exploring the roles of the women who have held the title, several constants surface in the Neo-Futurists’ “45 Plays for America’s First Ladies.” First, they rarely have much agency over their lives. Second, they are usually eclipsed by their husbands. But those are broad-brush strokes, and there is a good deal of intricacy in “First Ladies,” a companion piece to 2004’s “43 Plays for 43 Presidents” and 2012’s “44 Plays for 44 Presidents.”
When: Through Nov. 2
Where: Livestream from the Neo-Futurists
Run time: One hours and 45 minutes, with no intermission
With “First Ladies,” the Neos explore the histories of the titular ladies (who have included nieces, granddaughters and daughters as well as wives) in a marvelously creative compendium of 45 playlets. Ranging in length from about 30 seconds to four minutes, the mini-plays are directed by Denise Yvette Serna and include a panoply of genres. In the script by Andy Bayiates, Bilal Dardai, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Sharon Greene and Chloe Johnston, you’ll find writhing numbers, raps, Haikus, emo-punk bangers, card tricks and break-the-fourth-wall confrontations. There is at least a year’s worth of tabloid fodder embedded in the script. Were the Buchanans the first gender-queer First Family? Was Sarah Polk the brains behind that “Manifest Destiny” marketing campaign? Did the Civil War actually give Lucy Hayes a bad case of the “Blue and Gray blues”? The circumstantial evidence is, if nothing else, fascinating.
Serna and the six-person cast rehearsed together, but apart: Andie Patterson in San Francisco, Brenda Arellano in Oakland, Hilary Asare and Robin Virginie in New York City and Vic Wynter and Ida Cuttler in Chicago. Portions of the opening-night stream were live from Chicago. Through Nov. 2, audiences can see a fully recorded version of the show.
Electronically isn’t the ideal way to see the Neos (or any staged performance), but the Neos’ energy feels like it’s radiating from the screen. “First Ladies” is as immediate as anything can be from a social distance. Moreover, the filming styles enrich the experience. By filming, the Neos can shape the direction of the audience, be it on Rachel Jackson’s wide-eyed, extreme-close-up admission that “I married a monster” or a shot of Mamie Eisenhower’s Pepto-Bismol-hued White House decor.
Anyone familiar with the Neos’ three-decade-old aesthetic knows to expect the opposite of a hagiographic pageant. From the start — when wobbly widow Martha Washington frets about whether to free her slaves — this is history as rebuke to mainstream textbooks. As Sarah Polk puts it, “From the beginning, we’ve been leaving people out.” As they unspool tales of how first ladies responded to slavery, the slaughter of Native Americans, women’s rights, civil rights and immigration, the Neos reveal a past that often seems to foreshadow the present.
While examining the likes of Jane Pierce (whose arguments with Franklin have a decidedly “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” vibe) and Edith Wilson (who delivers a waltz that’s almost part ventriloquist act), the script takes pains to address the grim realities these women faced: The countless dead children. The harsh privations of the frontier and life in the early years of the country. The inability to do much but follow in a man’s wake. The last is poignantly illustrated when we hear about the writings left behind by LouisaAdams, “Adventures of a Nobody.” But the script repeatedly zooms out for perspective. The first 16 first ladies owned roughly 1,000 slaves among them, we’re told. Of that thousand, we know the name of two.
Throughout, “First Ladies” tackles erasure on multiple levels, deftly depicting the often hair-raising lives of the first ladies, and then evoking the much harsher realities of the countless people who were erased by the first ladies themselves.
Once they hit presidents within the collective current memory, things really start popping. Nancy Reagan’s response — or lack thereof — to the AIDS crisis comes under a brutal microscope; Rosalynn Carter has million perfect and creative ways to say “why, bless your little heart,” which every child of the South knows is usually code for another sentiment entirely. When they get to Hillary Clinton, the screen goes full-on horror movie, every Neo bathed in ghoulish light and hissing like restless spirits. Poisoned cookies and the ghost of Eleanor Roosevelt play into the theme that ends in a note even Poe, or, say, anyone living through a pandemic might appreciate: “She peered into the chasm and screamed.”
“First Ladies” veers toward self-indulgence once the first lady scenes are over and the action moves into an epilogue that plays rather like a Zoom therapy session. That’s a quibble. It’s well worth that ticket price.
Catey Sullivan is a Chicago freelance writer.