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45 Plays for America’s First Ladies puts the wives (and nieces) in the spotlight

Time was when the future looked rather grim indeed for the latest Neos show, 45 Plays for America’s First Ladies, which opens October 8 in a streaming production. It’s the launch of the Neo-Futurists’ 32nd season. But back in 2016, the show was shelved indefinitely in the wake of a presidential election that nobody saw coming. 

“Then, we assumed we’d be creating something that would have been this beautiful capstone to the 2016 election and centuries of history, where the final play would be about the first woman president. Obviously, that didn’t happen,” says Bilal Dardai, who cowrote 45 Plays with fellow Neos Andy Bayiates, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Sharon Greene, and Chloe Johnston. “After the (2016) election, we put the project in a drawer because we were all, frankly, too stunned to work on it. We sometimes felt like, ‘What’s the point?’”

For a while, it seemed the play that was set to be a companion piece to 2012’s 44 Plays for 44 Presidents would go no further. The triumphant note of 44 Plays—which ended with a Neo salute to then-President Barack Obama, and which was itself an extension of the original 43 Plays for 43 Presidents from 2002 and the George W. Bush years—was difficult to muster after Obama’s successor took office, Dardai says. Yet in the intrepid Neo fashion that has sustained the collective through the tumult of more than three decades, the artists of 45 Plays found a point and used it to puncture any despair-induced stasis. 

“As a group, we eventually got up and dusted ourselves off. The stories we’d researched, the things we were hoping to tell—we realized they were still relevant and in some ways even more so in the context of the Trump presidency,” Dardai says. 

Directed by Denise Yvette Serna, 45 Plays is as it sounds: a series of playlets about the First Ladies of these United States, Martha to Melania. The six-person cast includes a pair of Neos from each coast and Chicago: Andie Patterson and Brenda Arellano from the Bay Area, Hilary Asare and Robin Virginie from New York City, and Vic Wynter and Ida Cuttler from Chicago.

They’re performing 30-second to four-minute playlets ranging from musical numbers (Barbara Bush gets a line dance, Edith Wilson an oompah-pah waltz), burlesque (Julia Dent Grant), haiku (Nellie Taft), horror puppets (widower Andrew Jackson and his “First Lady” niece, Emily Donelson), live painting (Lady Bird Johnson), dramatic scenes, monologues, interpretive dance, and audience participation bits. 

Some scenes will be prerecorded in and around the cast members’ homes, Serna says, while others will be streamed live from the Neo-Futurarium. In 1992, the company moved into this space above a onetime funeral parlor (now home to a concern that conducts clinical trials on various treatments for memory loss, pain management, and various mental health disorders, among other things). In the times of live performance, visitors moved through a “hall of presidents” (fanciful portraits of each POTUS through history) before entering the lobby. 

“Part of what got us moving again was the idea of telling the stories of the women who got pushed out of the spotlight, whether by their own desire, or by custom, or by their husbands. It’s a way of looking at women and how they’ve been perceived and treated here over the course of history. We want people to be thinking about this as we get closer to the election,” Serna says. 

Rehearsals have been a mix of typical Zoom frustrations (group choreography has been tricky) and ingenious breakthroughs. Serna is about five years ahead of the curve when it comes to rehearsing virtually. In 2015, she and Jack Paterson founded Global Hive Laboratories, a concern aiming at no less than creating an internationally shared practice among theater artists, where geography is not an insurmountable boundary and empathy among different global cultures could be fostered by technology. Global Hive’s current projects include an international call for testimonials about the emotional impact of COVID-19 and a devised piece started in Italy back in February. 

In some ways, Serna says the limitations wrought by COVID-19 have been freeing. “I think the artists are less precious about their work,” she says. “We’ve been upfront. We don’t have a lot of time. We’re going to make a shape together and fill it with your talent. I think that can make people more comfortable with leaving their comfort zone. Someone who wouldn’t necessarily audition for a rock musical can be like, ‘OK, I’ll wail in my living room because, well, why not?’”

Dardai’s deep dive into the lives of First Ladies yielded some historical gems not often found in textbooks. For example: We haven’t yet had our first female president, but mayhap we’ve had our first gay male president. Consider, if you will, confirmed bachelor James Buchanan, who campaigned hand-in-glove with his longtime companion, William King.

“Andrew Jackson referred to them as Aunt Nancy and Miss Fancy. He knew what he was implying, true or not,” says Dardai. It fell to Buchanan’s niece, Harriet, to fulfill First Lady duties. “When I think of mediocre men, I think of James Buchanan,” Serna adds. “It was Harriet who was in charge of seeing that this man who wasn’t really prepared to be president could survive in the office.” Harriet too, it seems, was not married to conventional 19th-century gender roles: she was known to thrash visiting dignitaries at bowling. 

As 45 Plays dives into the sweep of history, it becomes clear that several of the First Ladies were more odious than conventionally taught history implies. Sure, Martha Washington freed some of her slaves, but she did so only after George died and left a will declaring all his slaves would be free upon her death. “Martha saw that as an invitation to murder her. She freed them not because of morality, but because she thought it was a safety issue for her,” Serna says. 

While the budget for 45 Plays is close to the bone, Serna was adamant it cover three things: a top-notch professional editor to ensure the quality of the stream, a sound budget that allowed the show to have a uniquely memorable sonic identity, and funds to subtitle the entire production.

At its core, 45 Plays is upheld by the Neos’ founding principles, tenets that have survived 30 years of history. 

“We always lean in on speaking the truth and being ourselves,” Serna says. “As much as we’re playing characters and in a script, we have opinions. At the end of the show we drop the artifice. The actors talk to each other. They break the fourth wall.” She adds, “I hope the audience leaves with a better understanding of how subjective our history is. There will always be things we miss. There will always be things we need to educate ourselves about. We have to hold each other accountable. We have to.”  v

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