First Ladies

Cast members in The Neo-Futurists theater troupe perform in a new production called "45 Plays for America's First Ladies."

Martha Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt and other former First Ladies are given new life in a new online production by The Neo-Futurists that examines the multifaceted roles of the women of the White House, with a particular focus on how race and gender have shaped their lives and experiences. 

Created as a companion piece to the theater troupe's 2004 production of "43 Plays for 43 Presidents," the new show, "45 Plays for America's First Ladies," debuted online Oct. 8 and 9, and an additional live version of the production will stream at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 11. The digital recording will be available for viewing online from Oct. 13 through Nov. 2. Tickets can be purchased at neofuturists.org.

The program is directed by Denise Yvette Serna, and six actors from around the country star in the production's nearly four dozen plays, written by Andy Bayiates, Bilal Dardai, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Sharon Greene and Chloe Johnston.

Through a series of pre-recorded vignettes and live performances, the program takes an interactive, innovative approach to chronicling the women who have helped shape the American presidency for more than two centuries. The plays incorporate storytelling methods such as puppetry, song and dance alongside more traditional scenes, creating performances that span a variety of theatrical styles and genres. Among the highlights: Abigail Adams performs a lively musical number based on her famous quote "remember the ladies," a paper Jacquelyn Kennedy doll gives viewers a philosophical critique of the White House's former occupants and Michelle Obama performs push-ups while detailing the societal obstacles she endured and overcame on her path to success. 

A complete picture of a First Lady requires an in-depth understanding of her background, her values and her choices. The show does not hesitate to tackle thought-provoking questions about how much responsibility a First Lady holds for condoning a president's policies, how gender roles have shaped First Ladies' places in history and how a First Lady's legacy should be viewed in light of slave ownership. 

In one particularly moving scene, actors Hilary Asare and Andie Patterson  cast as Sally Hemings and Martha Jefferson, respectively  discuss the dramatically different lives the two historical figures led as the Jeffersons' slave and First Lady. When Martha states she provided instructions in her will for Sally to be freed upon her death, later apologizing for the fact Sally ultimately died first, Sally points out, "Well, that may be true, but I doubt it mattered to Sally then, and it certainly doesn't matter now." It's a sobering reminder of the ways the horrors of the past continue to send ripples through the future. 

History books often have relatively little to say about the women of the White House when compared to the men who have held the nation's highest office, and the actors of "45 Plays for America's First Ladies" note the difficulty of tracking down information about their characters in many scenes. But as the production demonstrates, the First Ladies deserve to be known for more than just their roles as a president's spouse  they are endlessly more fascinating and complicated individuals than they may appear at first glance. 

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