The history books are incomplete. We know this all too well, especially with the current discourse around Black History and Juneteenth. But people of color have too often also been excluded from the stories we tell about the Women’s Movement, even though, as far back as the 1800s, women of all colors have been fighting for equal rights.
Ahead of Women’s Equality Day on August 26, which marks 100 years since the passage of women’s right to vote (and Playbill’s Women in Theatre special) The New York Times presents Finish the Fight on August 18, a new play by Ming Peiffer (Usual Girls), directed by Whitney White (Our Dear Dead Drug Lord), and adapted from the book of the same name about the women of color in the Suffrage movement. Though the book contains the stories of numerous historical figures, Peiffer and White focus on five: Mary McLeod Bethune, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Zitkála-Šá, Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, and Jovita Idár (played by Harriet D. Foy, Zora Howard, Q'orianka Kilcher, Leah Lewis, and Chelsea Rendon, respectively). The play streams as five chapters, giving each their due, while also playing with the dramatic form. RSVP here to attend.
“We've created a liminal theatrical space that allows these women to interact, to question each other, and most importantly, cheer each other on in their respective and collective journeys,” says Peiffer. “Ultimately, all the women carry us forward into our current political moment where the voices of then blend with the voices of now, ending with a call to action to speak up, vote, and fight for women's rights.”
Here, Peiffer and White take us behind the adaptation and what it was like to create a new work for a streaming platform in honor of Women’s Equality.
Finish the Fight was specifically conceived to recognize the contributions of BIPOC women who fought for suffrage but were left out of the victory in 1920. What was the most important emotion that you wanted to capture in these women through the play?
Ming Peiffer: Power, drive, strength, bravery and tenacity. These women were faced with what many would deem insurmountable forces, and yet, with no guarantee of victory in sight, they continued to lobby for equality and for better lives for their communities and for all women. I was in awe of the bravery and sheer force of will that danced like a fire inside each and every one of these powerful figures. And so it was important for me to capture that unyielding tenacity of spirit in all its glory.
Whitney White: Representation and visibility are key in any movement— if you don't consider yourself a part of the picture, or if no one told you that you are part of the picture and that your voice matters, it can be hard to get motivated and involved. I wanted to show that women of all colors and backgrounds were part of the suffrage movement then, now, and will need to be in the future for us to succeed.
Since the play is adapted from a non-fiction book about many women, how did you choose the five women you feature?
Peiffer: It was difficult to choose! But it was very important for the piece to showcase the diversity of these women. Not just cultural diversity, but diversity of thought, action, and practice. So it was incredible to be able to feature Black women, Native women, LatinX women, and Asian women who all shared common goals but who took different avenues and approaches in achieving those goals.
What are some things you learned and loved from the book, but just didn’t fit into the narrative you’re telling at this time?
White: Honestly, what we couldn’t fit into this format is all of the incredible women chronicled in the book! We had to focus on a smaller group so that we could learn more about them and fall deeper into their stories. That is part of the reason we took a leap with the ending of the piece to include a larger perspective, but that is a surprise!
Had you two worked together before? Ming, what did Whitney bring out in your writing? Whitney, what did Ming bring out in your direction?
Peiffer: We worked together doing a 24 hour play festival! Whitney has an incredible understanding of language and poetry and, as a writer who tends to be floral and lyrical, Whitney's deftness with sound and rhythm was essential to unlocking the cadence and energy of the piece. She's also amazing with actors, so to be able to get these women to really connect with these figures from history, and at times utilize antiquated language in a way that feels fresh, really made the script work.
White: Prior to this I was a huge fan of Ming’s work. Her play Usual Girls at the Roundabout was such a triumph. We also got to spend some time together though the 2050 Fellowship at New York Theatre Workshop. Ming has an incredibly lyrical sensibility and her poetry is beautiful, yet at the same time the language is fresh, bold, and contemporary.
What was the feeling in the “room” being a cast and creative team of all BIPOC women?
White: Because of the collaborative nature of the piece and the fact that we had to come up with a totally original way to rehearse, capture footage and edit, I consider our “team” to include all of the producers, editors, sound team, animator, and more. So when you look at that larger group it was not all BIPOC women. But what I would like to say is that it was incredible to be in a “room” at all during this time. It was a gift and reminder that we have to keep finding ways to share our stories even in this difficult time.
What makes you proudest about Finish the Fight?
Peiffer: I feel proud that these women came before me, and simply honored that I had the opportunity to bring their stories into the light.
White: I feel proud that the piece is widely accessible in this new digital format. It will likely reach a much larger audience then it would have had we been doing it in a traditional theatrical format.