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We the People: Forward Theater Co. presents 46 Plays for America’s First Ladies


Special promotional content provided by Forward Theater Company.

By Mike Fischer

In an early version of 46 Plays for America’s First Ladies – closing Forward Theater’s season in a production streaming now until May 23 – the ensemble surrounding Martha Washington presents her with a series of ceremonial laurels “that symbolize all her many sacrifices.”  

A fed-up Martha is having none of it.  “Keep ‘em,” she says at the end of the first play.  “They tell your story.  Not mine.”

During a pandemic year in which we’ve rightly placed so much emphasis on who gets to tell what stories, these 46 plays from Chicago’s Neo-Futurists question whether any story ever comes close to telling the whole story.  

Because each of these 46 plays is so short – collectively, they clock in at under two hours – they underscore the Neos’ long-held belief that no story is ever truly comprehensive or complete.   

One can’t summarize anyone’s life in just a few pages of script.  By highlighting the inevitable marginalization at the center of every story, the Neos challenge us to think about what’s allowed to remain – and why.  About how we frame every story – and why.  About what gets left out – and why. 

“I was really interested in the idea of how we learn about history,” wrote Neo ensemble member Chloe Johnston, one of five playwrights who collaborated on 46 Plays.  “A set of facts can be twisted, or selected, to make any case you choose,” Johnston continued.

Hidden Figures

In the case of America’s First Ladies – in the case of every American woman, stretching backward from Martha Washington and forward into our own moment – there’s an especially pronounced disconnect between one’s inner life and the way one’s life is projected, recorded, and remembered.

“We are so much more complex than the roles they assign us,” says one of the First Ladies in 46 Plays.  “Everyone always underestimates the lady,” laments another.  “There’s a life beyond this brief parade,” insist four more, a quartet of women playing First Lady to a single man. 

Even when the women in 46 Plays seem to be dutifully marching along in time, they offer glimpses of that “life beyond” the pomp and circumstance.  46 Plays includes brilliant scholars and onetime slaves, shadow presidents and renowned diplomats, charismatic socialites and forgotten writers.  46 Plays will teach you things you’ve never imagined about forgotten women you never knew.  You’ll learn their names.  

But 46 Plays isn’t just a reprise of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, cataloging all the ways various women weren’t allowed to be fully themselves before so many of them were consigned to the dustbin of history.  

It’s also an inspiring and liberating confirmation that because every story is necessarily incomplete, there’s room for us to reshape and revise them.  To tell better stories.  To forge more inclusive history, while building a world in which all of us can play roles allowing each of us to be fully ourselves.

46+ Stage Managers

Precisely because the role of First Lady still remains so undefined, the women holding that position have necessarily had a great deal to say about its texture and shape.  Inheriting a nebulous and continually evolving role, they’ve had to dress it up and fill it out.  

Bottom line: because their role is ostensibly symbolic rather than substantive, the First Ladies in 46 Plays are often preternaturally aware that they’re not only male politicians’ confidantes and lovers but also stage managers and prop masters, ensuring that the show goes on and looks good.  (And since this is a play showcasing amazing and often unsung women, it’s worth noting that Forward’s structurally challenging and props-heavy show couldn’t have happened without three of the best in the biz: Forward Stage Manager Sarah Deming-Henes, Assistant Stage Manager Abbi Hess, and Props Master Pamela Miles).

As these First Ladies don and doff various accessories, they perform in a broad spectrum of genres and styles: Cabaret and vaudeville.  Mockumentaries and reenactments.  Realism and surrealism.  Agitprop and melodrama.  Poetry and prose. Tragedy and farce.  

Gleefully imploding genre distinctions and deconstructing any notion of a unified and comprehensive history, 46 Plays flaunts its status as a variety show that’s as messy and conflicted as the nation within which it unfolds.  And that’s the point.  If no story dominates, the meaning of every story is up for grabs.   

United Stories of America

Which, of course, means every member of the audience has a role to play in writing the next chapter in that sprawling tale of we the people, still struggling to form a more perfect union.   

“Instead of suspending disbelief or building a fourth wall,” the playwrights urge in an introductory note, “be as honest as possible about the experience of being in a room together.”  “Non-illusory, interactive performance,” insist the Neo-Futurists in their mission statement, can inspire “thought, feeling, and action.” 

Because an audience sees each of these stories being built, because each story is patently partial and incomplete, and because the stories are presented in so many styles, audience members can more readily see themselves as active storytellers – challenged to choose which stories they like, while imagining how they might tell the stories of themselves, their community, and their country.  

True to its title, 46 Plays closes the Forward season by challenging us to embrace our multiplicity, recognizing that there are many ways to tell our American story – while suggesting that we’ll be most united in the years to come if we learn to love and embrace each and every one of them, in all the power and the glory of their magnificent difference.

Explore what a difference this play might make in how you see your country and yourself.  For tickets ($10-$40) to Forward’s rolling world premiere production of 46 Plays for America’s First Ladies, go to https://forwardtheater.com/show/46-plays-for-americas-first-ladies.