In a charged period of American history, activists fight for radical social change and marginalized groups struggle to be heard. As leaders and everyday people struggle for progress, fractious debates emerge—between idealism and compromise, gender and race, political necessity and moral purity. Sound familiar? In a new play at Salt Lake Acting Company, the women’s rights movement in 1895 feels a lot like the calls for social justice in 2021, and the work of inspiring real change is as messy and unfinished as ever.
Opening SLAC’s 50th season, Four Women Talking About the Man Under the Sheet is a world premiere from Utah playwright Elaine Jarvik. A play about a turbulent moment in American history, Four Women Talking has its own turbulent history at SLAC. It was originally set to debut in March 2020, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. You probably see where this is going: the production was shut down after only one dress rehearsal and the premiere was rescheduled several times—to May 2020, then July 2020, then August 2021—before finally kicking off SLAC’s 2021-22 season.
Jarvik’s play is inspired by a real-life meeting between Susan B. Anthony and Helen Douglass, another suffragist married to the abolitionist activist and writer Frederick Douglass. (He’s the titular man under the sheet.) When Frederick Douglass died in 1895, Anthony met with Helen for two full days, though no historical record of their conversations exists. Jarvik imagined the dynamic between these two women and added Rosetta Douglass, founder of the National Association for Colored Women and Frederick’s daughter, and the radical women’s rights leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton to the cast of characters. For Jarvik, this particular moment in history was a perfect launching pad to examine race, gender and the fight for equality at the end of the 19th century.
Though the play two features both widely-known and less famous feminist figures, don’t expect reverential hagiographies. In fact, Jarvik’s play explicitly asks audiences to consider how American history can be sanitized and oversimplified. In a metatextual subplot, Four Women Talking shifts to the 21st century as a director struggles to maintain her integrity while staging a play with nuanced, sometimes unflattering portrayals of suffragist icons. SLAC’s Artistic Director Cynthia Fleming says this additional framing “helps us see who we are and where we need to go and maybe how we really haven’t changed that much.”
As the play kept getting postponed, Jarvik continued to make changes to the script. Fleming says the play’s shifting focus reflects contemporary political debates and social issues. In March 2020, Fleming notes the play was supposed to debut just as Elizabeth Warren, the last woman in the Democratic presidential primary, dropped out of the race, officially squandering hopes for electing the country’s first female president. After widespread Black Lives Matter protests in summer 2020, Jarvik sharpened her focus on the play’s racial dynamics. In 2020, Read and Rant, a book club hosted by the Athena Project that focuses on female playwrights, discussed the play and offered critiques. They suggested that Jarvik discuss possible edits with the play’s Black actors, and Jarvik also consulted other Black artists in the community as she adjusted the script.
Like many of SLAC’s productions, Four Women Talking does not shy away from hot-button issues. “I always hope that, in an entertaining way, the social issues that we bring up connects us and binds us in a deeper way,” explains. (Though it deals with weighty themes, Fleming doesn’t want the play to sound like a homework assignment. “It’s also incredibly entertaining,” she says.) Fleming is confident that though the play’s characters died more than a century ago, Four Women Talking will be relevant to 21st-century audiences. “Looking at history through a window helps us to see our present much more clearly,” Fleming says. In fact, Fleming believes the play feels even more of-the-moment many months after its initial dress rehearsals. “This play talks a lot about history and how history has been rewritten to make people feel comfortable,” Fleming says. “Will we ever know the truth of our American history? Will we ever know what really happened?”
Four Women Talking About the Man Under the Sheet will be at Salt Lake Acting Company from Sept. 29-Oct. 31. A digital production will stream from Oct. 17-31. Tickets and more information are available on their website. Read more arts stories from Salt Lake magazine.