(Fourth Wave Theater)
Politics, generally speaking, often walks the exasperating line of being both extremely important and infuriatingly tedious. That dichotomy is the entire foundation of On Account of Sex, which traces the seventy-year-long fight to gain women the right to vote.
No one could possibly deny that this battle was of the utmost importance—least of all the women at its center. The musical from Fourth Wave Theater, currently running at the KC Fringe Festival, features a small cast of four actors (Claudia Copping, Caroline Dawson, Rita Hanch, and Dianna Royer) playing famous suffragists of the early 20th century—largely well-known names including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Lucy Stone. These women dedicated their lives to their cause, risking alienation, personal safety, and so much more.
At the same time, we can share the frustration at the tedious bureaucracy they were up against. The women are forced to deal with nit-picking semantics and political practices (lobbying, votes, and the like) that move at an extreme crawl. The timeline of their fight to add four maddeningly simple words to the constitution is also represented visually onstage via a literal clothesline—just one of many inventive set design elements mixing women’s domestic lives with their political battles—that serves to let the audience know throughout just how very far there is left to go in this fight.
Written by Bryan Colley and Tara Varney and directed by Varney, On Account of Sex is a competent and largely engaging retelling of a momentous part of history, aided by some jaunty songs—mostly period music (arranged by Tim Gillespie, performed live onstage by Gillespie and Sandy Weidman) with relevant, often humorous lyrics reflecting the women’s fervor and their frustrations.
My biggest fear going in was that the show would erase the more complicated, less heroic elements of the suffragist movement—namely, the ways in which it frequently found itself in opposition to the abolitionist movement. To its credit, the show did not that. It did not gloss over the ways in which the country’s ur-white feminists were largely in direct conflict with Black Americans, but rather discussed the conflict at some length.
Still, the actual Black women involved in this movement are mostly relegated to a footnote via an end-of-show shout-out. Legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass makes a few appearances, played by one of the core white (or white-presenting) actresses, which is an odd enough choice to make one wonder if it would have been best to leave him out entirely. (I think it’s clear that neither option is ideal, and that the cast—and cast of characters depicted—is simply in deep need of some diversity.)
Ultimately, there’s a lot of fun, drama, and historical information to be gleaned from this show for all Fringe audiences but On Account of Sex seems best designed for—and has the potential to be extremely successful as—a school tour. There is a rudimentariness to the story and structure (including having the audience read constitutional amendments aloud in unison) that young children would likely appreciate and absorb well, to the point that it makes me wish the Fringe Festival had more matinee showings for younger audiences.
“On Account of Sex,” part of the KC Fringe Festival, runs at The Center for Spiritual Living (1014 E 39th Street) through July 29. For more information, visit kcfringe.org.