The production follows seven leaders of the women’s suffrage movement.
By Tyler Schneider
Tara Varney, a theater teacher at the Kansas City Academy, and Bryan Colley, a graphic designer with the American Academy of Family Physicians, have been writing and producing theatrical productions under their Fourth Wave Theatre company for the Kansas City Fringe Fest since 2008.
Their latest, On Account of Sex—a musical about the women’s suffrage movement—will premiere at Fringe Fest 2023 starting with a 9 p.m. opener on July 21, 2023. Its run will encompass five total showings, all taking place at the Center for Spiritual Living (1014 W 39th St.), with the latter four scheduled for Saturday, July 22 (6 p.m.), Sunday, July 23 (3 p.m.), Thursday, July 27 (9 p.m.), and Sunday, July 29 (7:30 p.m.).
Directed by Varney, the work features music performed by Tim Gillespie and stars Claudia Copping, Caroline Dawson, Rita Hanch, and Dianna Royer. The story follows seven leading figures in the suffrage movement: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Carrie Chapman Catt, Harriot Stanton Blatch, Alice Stone Blackwell, and Alice Paul.
“Those four actors will play the seven different women, and then they play multiple other characters, most of whom we call ‘naysayers’, who are all the people that are trying to prevent them [from gaining the right to vote],” Varney said.
The musical lineup includes hits from the time period the play covers, beginning with the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention and ending with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Some of these titles, which may be adjusted to fit the theme, include “The March of the Women,” “Let Us All Speak Our Minds,” “Daughters of Freedom,” “Keep Women in Her Sphere,” and “Song of the Harassed Man Voter.”
“I probably listened to over 100 different songs from the period trying to find ones that were relevant to the story we were telling and entertaining,” Colley said, in addition to the countless hours the duo had spent brushing up on historical texts.
Varney describes the play’s structure as something of a “TED Talk” from these leading women.
“They’re sort of telling the audience how it goes, but they’re also presenting it as it happened at the time,” Varney said. “So it’s not like a dramatization of these characters, but more like a presentation of the history. A part of it is a lecture to the audience, and then part of it is scenes, stories—and those play off each other.”
The play was originally intended to be released in 2020 in conjunction with the centennial anniversary of American women gaining the right to vote. COVID put a damper on those prospects, but the final product has been polished even further since then.
“We also took a trip to DC, a month or so ago, where we saw a lot of American history, museum artifacts. One of the things that really actually made a very profound impact on me—which I did not expect—was that they had the actual drafting table that Elizabeth Cady Stanton used to write up her Declaration of Sentiments,” Varney said.
These trailblazing feminists faced even greater scrutiny than many may know. While a number of them, dubbed the Silent Sentinels, had peacefully protested outside of Woodrow Wilson’s White House for years, the opposition often employed baseless propaganda—or much worse— to belittle the suffragist cause.
Some critics at the time thought voting would “masculinize” women, and, somehow, demasculinize men.
“They had this idea that suffragists are ugly, that they needed a man. And that if they don’t get mad and get married, everything would be fine,” Varney said. “I feel like I’m relatively well versed in women’s history. But once we started researching this, it was far uglier than I ever thought. I thought that people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who were giving speeches and all this kind of stuff, were mostly made fun of or ignored, but they were actively beaten.”
Some were even jailed, where peaceful employment of hunger strikes would be countered by jailers who would put a tube up the nose of a dissenting female prisoner to force feed them a mix of gruel synthesized from milk and raw eggs in order to keep them alive.
“We talk a lot about how many of these things still apply today,” Varney said. “I think one of the big points of the play is that anytime someone comes up with an idea and wants to do something, somebody else is just going to try to stop them. And they have no reason. They just got to stop them. They can’t let other people do what they want.”
Created to push “a radical feminist agenda” with provocative plays about women’s equality, empowerment, and intersectionality, Fourth Wave Theatre has produced such works as Khaaaaan! The Musical, Sexing Hitler, Red Death, Voyage to Voyager, and Fringeprov.
“I think politically active women, women interested in history are definitely going to be interested in this play. But I think the story we’re telling is one that probably needs to be heard by men specifically as well,” Varney said.