Tennessee Women for the Vote at the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center

The Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center observed Women’s History Month through a dramatic exploration of the debate over suffrage. Reprising a play the company performed to honor the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, Director Catherine LaMoreaux adapted it for the Zoom and Facebook screens. The company both entertained theatrical fans and history buffs through Dr. B. Ayne Cantrell’s Tennessee Women for the Vote.  

            The playwright set her piece in the summer of 1920. Both pro and anti-suffrage leaders gathered to express their views. Dr. Cantrell included actual speeches delivered by the characters. As attendees advocated their positions, Tennessee legislators prepared to vote on whether to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. 35 states had already affirmed it. If one more approved, women’s suffrage would become enshrined in the Constitution. Would the Volunteer State become the needed 36th?

             Your correspondent watched the Facebook presentation of Tennessee Women for the Vote from Cinnaminson, NJ. A Quaker graveyard in town is the final resting place of suffragist and author of the Equal Rights Amendment Alice Paul.   

            The performers used authentic period costuming. In addition to large brim hats, the women wore the traditional white apparel that symbolized the women’s rights movement. Susan Roberts even adopted the same color for the opposing Heckler’s attire. She accentuated with a large American flag over her left lapel. The lone male in the cast, Barry Leonard, dressed like a 1920s lawyer. He wore a hat, tan jacket and black bow tie.

            The playwright included historical figures from the Tennessee suffrage movement as characters. The actors delivered performances that captured their conviction and, in some cases their misguided, passion.

            Anna Paone portrayed Catherine Talty Kenny the Chair of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage League. The character served the gathering’s emcee. Ms. Paone delivered her lines advocating the suffrage with authority. Through subtle nodding and pursed lips, she displayed attentiveness while showing her agreement with those supporting the cause.

            Shauni Ramai played the Chair of the National Women’s Party, Sue Shelton White; the only Tennessee woman arrested for her suffrage work. She explained her reaction to President Woodrow Wilson’s duplicity. While advancing national self-determination abroad, Wilson became reticent on allowing woman’s suffrage in the US. With the deceptively mellifluous voice of a Southern belle, she described a bonfire in front of the White House. Ms. Ramai discussed how she “burned the President’s hypocritical words.” Later, she placed an effigy of Wilson into the flames.

            The playwright took poetic license with Lide Smith Merriweather. The real Merriweather passed away seven years before the events in the play. Dr. Cantrell made a solid artistic choice including the legendary suffragist in the story. The Memphis News-Scimitar eulogized Merriweather as “the prime mover in the cause of suffrage in Tennessee.”

            Emily Niemeyer brought out this principled figure’s personality. She delivered an emphatic oration listing all those permitted to vote. Being included with those who could not demeaned females. Ms. Niemeyer decried how women must “protest legal classification with the idiot.”

            Dr. Cantrell’s play showed how the suffrage movement intersected with the advancement of civil rights. The rally included two African American leaders: the physician Matte E. Coleman (played by Tyechia Smith) and educator J. Frankie Pierce (Mimi B. Francis). They asked that in return for their contributions to the women’s suffrage movement, that women voters support improvements for their community.

             Other figures who spoke to affirm the suffrage included the President of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association and Vice President of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, Ann Dallas Dudley (Justine D’Souza). Ms. D’Souza delivered the powerful line, “Give women the vote to clean up the ballot box.” Sheema Sahane gave another stirring oration as Martha Elizabeth Allen. The show’s director, Catherine LaMoreaux, portrayed one of the suffragist leaders in the crowd.

            Not all the characters who attended this gathering shared the suffragists’ views. Three participants opposed women’s right to vote.

            Barry Leonard portrayed Tennessee attorney John Jacob Vertrees. Mr. Leonard’s not-so-subtle head shaking and dour countenance showed his disagreement. He declared it with the tone and rationality of a skilled counselor. Mr. Leonard voiced the belief that “only those who bear arms” in the military should be allowed to vote. He added the chauvinistic tripe of the time that “women are too emotional” to choose candidates for office. He concluded by declaring that Tennessee women didn’t want to vote.

            A female speaker followed him. The President of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage and the Southern Women’s League for the Rejection of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment Josephine Anderson Pearson (Laura Paone) stated her opposition. Ms. Paone declared that she performed “God’s will” by opposing women’s suffrage. She could have stopped there. Then she said, “Women wanting the vote are modern Eves.” Once again, she made her point. But there was more. With a Southern accent, Ms. Paone implored people to reject the amendment on racial grounds. It would “destroy the Southern way of life” by “enfranchising Negros.” Interesting choice of words from someone who believed, “Suffrage will lower women by allowing them to take part in politics.”

            As the Heckler, Susan Roberts’ character advanced the antediluvian argument that voting would take women away from their families.

Tennessee Women included an authentic soundtrack. Mimi B. Francis sang a stirring a capella rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” with suffragist lyrics. Director LaMoreaux used recordings of songs from the era at the beginning and end of the program.  

            The director included professional ending credits. Ms. LaMoreaux included photos of both the actors and the real-life figures they played during the evening.

The virtual setting allowed Dr. Cantrell to witness the live broadcast. In addition to commending the performance, she gave viewers insights into the play. She told the audience that she wrote Tennessee Women for the Vote during the late 1980s for what was then Women’s History Week.

            Dragonfly presented the show through permission of the Tennessee Women’s Project. They also received a Grant from the from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.

             “Women’s votes are human rights,” became the show’s theme. Although the event in the story occurred over a century ago, the message regarding voting rights maintains its relevance today.

            Dragonfly will present a special program for its next Wednesday night reading. Incorporating both Women’s History Month and St. Patrick’s Day, they will perform Spreading the News by Lady Gregory. The show will be streamed live on Facebook and Zoom at 8:00 PM on March 17th.

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