“Susan B.” Goes Behind the Scenes and Behind the Masks
by Daphne White
“Susan B,”, the play, is a no-holds-barred exploration of the epic battles, lies and betrayals that took place between the early suffragists and the male power brokers of their time. And in a brief flash-forward to the present, the play also asks: How much has really changed in the power dynamic between men and women?
“Susan B.” is a finalist in the 2020 Julie Harris Playwright Award Competition, and is available for readings and productions during the Suffrage Centennial.
While the play is a work of historical fiction, it is based on two years of my painstaking research. Some of the scenes are taken from condensed transcripts of actual events — Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech; Stanton’s appeal to the New York State constitutional committee; the contentious 1869 American Equal Rights Association meeting; and Anthony’s 1873 “voting while female” trial. But other scenes are imagined, showing highly personal interactions that were never recorded.
In addition to well-known figures such as Sojourner Truth, Lucy Stone and Frederick Douglass, the play introduces Phoebe Harris Phellps, the abused wife of a famous Boston abolitionist and state Senator. Phellps was a “fugitive wife” who came to Anthony for help, after her husband imprisoned her in a mental institution for two years. The play also explores Anthony’s little-known relationship with Anna Dickinson, one of the most famous lecturers of her day, who was known as “America’s Joan of Arc.”
Frederick Douglass had a complicated and contentious history with Anthony, and that is also explored in the play. Douglass was no fan of Sojourner Truth, either, and she had her own issues with Douglass. Everything was fraught; nothing was simple or straightforward. This story is both messy, and eerily contemporary. Like today’s women, the suffragists were forced to make difficult decisions under incredibly harsh conditions. They were far from perfect, yet they never looked back, and they rarely apologized.
“Failure is impossible,” Anthony said in her last public speech. Yet she knew, even as she lay dying, that she would not succeed in her lifetime. And as the play suggests in its last few minutes, women have still not reached the “success” part of their story.
A special appeal from Daphne White: If you would like to stage a reading or production of Susan B. please contact me at Daphne@DaphneWhite.com. And if you know anyone at all in the theater world, I would very much appreciate a connection. I hope to see this play produced in as many cities as possible during the 2020 centennial celebrations.
NEWS FLASH: On March 2, 2020 at 7 pm, there will be a reading of Susan B. at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre in downtown Berkeley, California. The reading will open the Bay Area Women’s Theatre Festival. This will be a three-month event (several shows per weekend). “Susan B” will be the opening event, along with a reception. None of the actual event dates have been released yet, but once tickets are available, the information will be available on SuffrageCentennials.com