In Four Women Talking About the Man Under the Sheet, a world premiere from Utah playwright Elaine Jarvik at Salt Lake Acting Company, a dead body literally upstages every other actor. In 1895, Helen Pitts Douglas (Susanna Florence) is mourning the death of her husband, the abolitionist icon (and man under the sheet) Frederick Douglass, when she receives an unexpected visitor. Susan B. Anthony, (Colleen Baum) who shared a tenuous friendship with Douglass, arrives after hearing the news and tries to comfort the cordial but cold Helen. When Rosetta Douglass (Yolanda Stange), an activist and Frederick’s daughter from a previous marriage, arrives at the house, she is much less restrained with her opinions than Helen. Rosetta feels suspicious of Helen and her role in Frederick’s life and criticizes Susan for abandoning Frederick, and the cause of racial justice more broadly, to advance her goal of women’s suffrage. As stepmother and stepdaughter quarrel, Susan is haunted by the imagined specter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Tamara Howell), an outspoken fellow suffragist who clashed with Susan on matters both political and personal.
Audiences think they are watching a traditional historical drama when, suddenly, a member of the audience stops the play. This moment reveals that Four Women Talking is actually a play-within-a-play, and the interrupting audience member is Zoe (Latoya Cameron), who is directing a play about Susan for a present-day theater company. Zoe and the actors are expecting a standard rehearsal, but Zoe keeps getting emails from the charitable foundation funding the production asking for changes to the script. The foundation’s director expresses discomfort at the play’s complicated, and often unflattering, portrayal of white feminist icons, and Zoe is torn between her artistic values and the need to please these benefactors.
Jarvik’s choice of subject matter is shrewd. In real life, Susan did stay with Helen for two days right after Frederick’s death, though few details about their interaction are known. Focusing on this specific moment in history allows Jarvik to imagine activists—some well-known, others relegated to footnotes in American history—in a more intimate context, decentering their historical mythologies and political accomplishments. Paradoxically, this narrow approach allows for a more nuanced portrayal of these characters than attempting to cram in multiple biographies into an 80 minute running time. Four Women Talking probes raw debates over race and gender that resonate more than 100 years later, and Jarvik allows audiences to sympathize with all four women without overlooking their genuine flaws. Helen, who is white, was disowned by family members for entering an interracial marriage, but Rosetta (played with intense effectiveness by Stange) still distrusts Helen’s attempts to shepherd Frederick’s legacy. Meanwhile, Jarvik does not shy away from uncomfortable truths about Anthony and Stanton’s real-life racism. Stanton often disparaged Black men and excluded Black women while arguing for women’s right to vote and Anthony disinvited Douglass, himself a committed suffragist, from a women’s convention in Atlanta, calculating that southern women would not accept a movement that embraced Black men.
The tensions between these 19th century characters is mirrored in the experiences of the 21st century actors. The play rehearsal is set on the night of the 2020 Election, and the characters bond over their anger and fear after living through the brazen misogyny of the Trump era. In other ways, though, the group struggles to find common ground. Helen’s present-day counterpart feels reluctant to call herself a feminist, and when discussing the play, she questions whether Susan B. Anthony’s least savory views should be emphasized onstage. Susan and Elizabeth’s counterparts are more willing to call out the racism of white feminist pioneers, but in private, Zoe and Rosetta, who are Black, roll their eyes at their colleagues’ self-centered, navel gazing politics. The format allows the play to comment on itself without feeling pretentious, and the cast gracefully toggles between the historical characters and the actors bringing them to life. At several points, Zoe pauses the rehearsal and offers suggestions, which noticeably alter the performances we see on stage. The actual directors of Four Women Talking, Jason Bowcutt and Martine Kei Green-Rogers, cleverly deconstruct their work with the same casualness as the actors taking off their period costumes (designed by Spencer Potter).
It’s difficult to dramatize political issues without pandering or turning didactic, and Jarvik mostly sticks the landing. Some of the script’s references to Mormonism felt shoehorned in to relate to local audiences. (Though Stanton and Anthony did actually form alliances with polygamist suffragists in Utah, the first state to allow women to vote.) And the play’s final climactic speech, though performed effectively, felt a touch on-the-nose for my taste. Still, Four Women Talking does not take the easy way out. In just 80 minutes, it tackles some of the most contentious issues of American history, embraces their complexity and finds that, for better and worse, some debates are never really over.
Four Women Talking About the Man Under the Sheet runs through Oct. 31 at Salt Lake Acting Company. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit SLAC’s website. Read more of Salt Lake magazine’s theater coverage.