by Alexis Greene
Hrotsvitha and Alice Childress; Rachilde and Zora Neale Hurston; Ana Caro and Mrs. Harlow Phibbs. They lived centuries and continents apart, but they shared two enticing characteristics: they were women and they were playwrights.
And now they are among the 250 dramatists who constitute “ON HER SHOULDERS: Celebrating 1,000 Years of Women Writing Plays,” a remarkable Database assembled by New Perspectives Theatre Company (NPTC), which, come June, will also be celebrating three decades of making theater.
Created over the course of two years, and launched on March 4, 2022, the ON HER SHOULDERS Database provides biographical essays about these enterprising women, along with titles of plays each woman wrote and references for further research. And most significantly the Database deepens our knowledge of women’s contributions to the world’s theater.
“The point of this Database,” said NPTC’s artistic director Melody Brooks, during a conversation with me in her office, “is to make it known that these women and these plays existed.” Perhaps even more importantly, she added, “We need a paradigm shift here in Western society in terms of how we see society’s development. In most people’s minds the first 5,000 years had no women in it. Women did nothing. And in fact that’s not true.”
“If we can shift what people think the past looks like, then it changes how we go forward.”
Founded by Brooks and a team of colleagues in 1991, according to its website, as “a multi-racial ensemble dedicated to using theater as an agent for positive social change,” NPTC’s mission is multifaceted:
—to develop and produce new plays and encourage new playwrights, especially women and people of color;
—to present classic plays in a style that addresses contemporary issues and restores forgotten female theater artists to the canon;
—and to bring theater to young people and to communities that rarely have access to the performing arts. In 2018, Brooks and NPTC received the Trailblazing Women and Arts Institutions Award from RHYTHMCOLOR Associates, an organization that encourages communities to participate in the creative process and develop and educate new audiences.
ON HER SHOULDERS (OHS) was born as a staged reading series in 2013, emerging in response to the grassroots movement called 50/50 in 2020, which aimed, among other goals, to bring to the fore women’s historical contributions to the theater.
OHS was conceived initially by the playwright Andrea Lepcio, the actor Lillian Rodriguez, and the dramaturg Susan Jonas, but Brooks, who had hosted the 50/50 in 2020 meetings, soon joined the OHS project, and eventually NPTC took it over.
For a few years, NPTC presented the readings at a space provided by the New School, but when that quasi-partnership evaporated, in 2019 NPTC began staging the readings at its home at 456 West 37th Street, for live audiences initially and then, come 2020 and the pandemic, virtually. And OHS continued to delve into the often hidden records of the world’s theater, to find female playwrights whom theater historians and contemporary theater people either had not known or ignored.
As Brooks recalls, in 2019 the playwright Lynn Marie Macy joined OHS as an associate producer and “initiated the research that came to be the Database.”
Reading from a brief paper at New Perspectives’ launch party for the Database, on the evening of March 8, Macy described how she “became obsessed with the history of women playwrights.”
“I started seriously researching and began creating a list which has never stopped growing,” said Macy, speaking to the group of celebrants who had gathered at NPTC on International Women’s Day. “I was taken by surprise at such a wealth of plays and scripts by women – women whose work had long been derided, ignored and silenced. I experienced an incredible range of emotions (excitement, anger, sadness, confusion) while exploring the history and complexity of these remarkable women and their work in theater….”
“I wished for a time when women’s voices would no longer be disregarded, erased or buried. I wondered how can I, as a playwright myself, move forward without reclaiming such an extraordinary, varied and fascinating history?”
Macy was assisted by various interns, notably Ashley Hajimirsadeghi, a writer and a multimedia artist who is now a NPTC Program Assistant. And out of their work emerged the idea for a database that would provide a physical image of each playwright; a biographical essay situating her in the context of her historical and literary times; and references for further exploration.
The women in the Database would all be playwrights whose body of work was largely completed before 1970, because, according to Melody Brooks, female playwrights of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are somewhat better known than their theatrical ancestors.
Like many women of the theater who studied theater history, I had read about Hrotsvitha, a German noblewoman who was born around 930 C.E. and died, according to the ON HER SHOULDERS Database, in 1002 C.E. A member of a Benedictine order in Gandersheim, in the north of Germany (but not a nun), Hrotsvitha wrote six plays in Latin and is considered the first woman known to be a dramatist, as well as the first Western dramatist of post-classical times. Indeed, while her plays are based on the style of the Roman comic playwright Terence, she wanted to counter what she deemed Terence’s pagan outlook by writing plays that bolstered Christianity.
The fourteen brief, dark and alluring scenes of Dulcitius, for instance, focus on three young Christian women — Agape, Chionia and Irena — who are threatened with death by the Emperor Diocletian and by Dulcitius, the Governor of Thessalonica, unless the women “give up this silly new Christian superstition” and betake themselves to a brothel. The three women are killed, but as Irena says at the end,“To me my death means joy, but to you calamity. For your cruelty you will be damned…. But I shall receive the martyr’s palm, and adorned with the crown of virginity, I shall enter the azure palace of the Eternal King, to Whom be glory and honour for ever and ever!”
A number of the playwrights in the Database are comparatively well-known to those who have studied theater history and literature, or worked in the theater as actors, directors and producers: Alice Childress and Shelagh Delaney, Zora Neale Hurston and Lorraine Hansberry, among others. But to the credit of the ON HER SHOULDERS research team, the majority of the playwrights in the Database will be women whom we have rarely, if ever, heard about. The Database introduced me to Ana Caro de Mallén (1590-1646,) a poet and playwright of the Spanish Golden Age and to the French Symbolist author Marguerite Vallette-Eymery (1860-1953), who wrote under the pen name Rachilde and, according to the Database, is credited with inventing the term “absurd” for what became a unique form of avant-garde theater.
From the Database I learned about Efua Theodora Sutherland (1924-1996), the earliest Ghanian playwright-director, who founded the Ghana Experimental Theatre and was particularly dedicated to inspiring the creativity of children. I learned about Adalet Ağaoğlu (1929-2020) of Turkey, a human rights activist and novelist who wrote radio dramas as well as stage plays and was revered as a preeminent interpreter of modern Turkish life.
And then there is the poet and playwright Lesya Ukrainka (1871-1913), who, as her name (a pseudonym) suggests, was Ukrainian.
Living at a time when Ukraine was still part of the Tsarist Russian empire, Lesya Ukrainka was fiercely against the Tsarist regime and became a Marxist (she translated the Communist Manifesto into Ukrainian.) She was staunchly dedicated to Ukrainian history, culture and literature. A skilled pianist, she also, sadly, suffered from tuberculosis, which attacked her bones. Unable to play the piano, she devoted herself to writing. Her 1912 three-act verse play The Forest Song, a love story involving a human man and a woman of the forest, has been adapted for ballets, operas and films. In 1994, the Yara Arts Group, collaborating with the Kurbas Theatre in Lviv, Ukraine, created Yara’s Forest Song, a performance piece based on Ukrainka’s play and presented at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre in NYC.
Most recently, and presciently, in August 2021 Yara Arts Group used fragments of the play for its outdoor production A Thousand Suns, in which a human man enters a primeval forest, and nature, in the form of a forest nymph and the trees she considers her family, responds to this unsought intrusion.
Melody Brooks at New Perspectives is scanning the academic horizon for a college or university theater department that will collaborate with NPTC as the ON HER SHOULDERS Database goes forward.
Currently the Database contains 250 playwrights, but Brooks reports that her team has the names of an additional 300 women who have written plays over the centuries, and an academic department would be the ideal partner to continue researching these women’s biographies and spread the word to other academic institutions. One of the preeminent values of the Database, Brooks believes, is to enlighten theater historians and students about the true history of women in world theater.
“I’ve been longing for a real relationship with a college for years,” said Brooks. She noted the reactions of the young women who work at NPTD and have come in contact with the Database after having recently completed college theater programs. “They are really angry. Because this history is not taught. It’s not in their curriculum. But that’s the target audience.”
The other significant use of the Database is to encourage theater companies to look beyond their usual suspects when mounting a season of plays. NPTC has shared some of the ON HER SHOULDERS research with the Brooklyn-based Hedgepig Ensemble Theatre, whose Cornerstone Program aims to “Expand the Canon.” Hedgepig, as its website notes, has curated a list of “classic plays by women & underrepresented genders” and provides an annual guide, complete with scripts and information for producing them.
But whether you’re a teacher of theater or a student, a theatrical producer or simply a lover of theater, the ON HER SHOULDERS Database, celebrating 1,000 years of women writing plays, is a glorious thing to behold.
And easy to access. “Google” New Perspectives Theatre Company, click on “Global Database of Women,” scroll down, and you will see the beauteous images of an array of 250 remarkable playwrights. As Melody Brooks likes to say, “The real effort is to educate the world. This is the beginning.”
Alexis Greene is an author, biographer and arts journalist. Her most recent biography is Emily Mann: Rebel Artist of the American Theater, about the pioneering playwright and stage director, who became the first woman to be artistic director of the McCarter Theatre Center (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books). Greene lives in New York City with her husband, Gordon R. Hough. www.alexisgreene.com