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Glenda Frank



Written by Erica Fae and Directed by Jill A. Samuels
59 E 59 St. Theatre, NYC. May 3-27, 2012.
Tue, Wed and Thu 7:15, Fri 8:15 Sat 2:15 and 8:15, Sun 3:15.
Tickets $12.60-35.00 at tickets@59e59.org or (212) 753-5959.
Reviewed by Glenda Frank May 17, 2012

Susan B. Anthony has become a household name, and thousands of school children can recite the contributions of Elizabeth Cady Stanton to the women’s suffrage movement. But there are few bells and whistles when someone mentions Alice Paul although she and Lucy Stone led the winning battle for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to determine their representatives in Congress and the White House. The first battle began 72 years earlier, with the Seneca Fall Convention of 1848 and the drafting of The Declaration of Sentiments.

Alice Paul’s story is inspiring, frightening, and highly dramatic, especially in “Take What is Yours,” a well-researched and beautifully performed docudrama by Erica Fae and Jill A. Samuels. It opens with Paul in jail in July 1917 for picketing Woodrow Wilson’s White House. The official charge was “obstructing traffic.” In jail are other “Silent Sentinels,” protesters who picketed and held banners demanding the vote. In their seven-month non-violent vigil, they contended with hecklers and physical hostility from onlookers and the police. In the winter the women were so cold that they could continue only by standing on heated bricks.

In solitary confinement, Paul (Erica Fae) is visited by an unnamed man (Wayne Maugans), who refers to her as The Case. He probes her motives, tests her sanity, threatens and cajoles her to obey prison regulations, and brings her news – much of it false. The staging of these confrontations by director Jill A. Samuels is inspired. Paul and her interrogator are seen through a small opening in the multi-paneled curtain. As they talk the stage spins slowly on a turntable. The bars of the headboard of Paul’s prison bed become prison bars, creating a powerful icon of the feminist struggle. The changing perspectives and the narrowed view provide a highly affecting frame.

Stymied by the women’s stubborn refusal to cooperate, the prison officials have been playing power games. Because the suffragists have been arrested for political activism, the women refuse to wear prison uniforms and at one point, Paul’s only clothing is a sheet –another humiliation. After the women complain about the rats and the lack of fresh air, Paul’s windows are not only closed but nailed shut.

When the women begin a hunger strike, we see Paul repeatedly held down and subjected to forced feeds, a torturous procedure designed as much to terrify as to nurture. She is consigned to a mental hospital, but she trained with the radical Pankhursts in Britain, so she remains calm, articulate, and dedicated to the cause even when she feels like screaming. Despite the hostile environment , she presses her arguments. Of course we will talk to you, she tells the man. That is our business.

At one point, she recites a reactionary stance about women’s inherent inferiority and need for male protection. With a straight face, she toys with her interrogator -- and the audience. That surprising and delightful playfulness is very welcome in an evening that at times seems a little heavy handed, like preaching to the converts.

Through flashbacks and flash forwards we learn that Paul was reared a Quaker, believing that men and woman are equal. She earned her doctorate in social work but she wanted to do more so she turned to suffrage work. She became a leader in 1912, and worked tirelessly with The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the more militant National Woman’s Party, that she created in 1916, organizing marches that made headlines and newsreels.

Some of the most exciting moments are the actual stills and newsreels of the women's parades with hundreds of protesters in white dresses, children’s marches, and Inez Milholland, dressed in Greek robes or astride a white horse, leading the procession. The women tried everything to gain sympathy, to win over hearts, even to bully the amendment through, but in the end they won by one vote when Senator Harry Burn, wearing the red rose of opposition, changed sides after received a telegram from his mother advising him to do the right thing.

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