Foreword From Gloria: A Life

DEC 26, 2019

by Gloria Steinem

This play has a story of its own. It begins with Kathy Najimy, actor and activist, telling me that I should turn my life into a one-woman play and that I should be in it. Kathy often helps women tell their stories, and sharing them is what feminism is all about, but the word “play” was beyond me. I’ve never conquered my fear of public speaking, much less faced it every night and twice on matinee days. Altogether, this idea seemed about as likely as a one-person trip to Mars.

Then Kathy took her idea to Daryl Roth, a woman we both admired for her success in the risky and masculine world of producing plays. Years before, Kathy had directed an Off-Broadway musical Daryl produced, and since then, she had not only produced more Broadway plays, but established two Off-Broadway theaters of her own.

To my serious surprise, Daryl also thought this was a good idea. Not only that, but she brought the project to André Bishop, Artistic Director of Lincoln Center, and together, they took the first step of commissioning Emily Mann, an award-winning playwright and director, to write the script. Emily had written Having Our Say, a play about two elderly sisters living in Harlem, whose kitchen talk over the years somehow embodies the entire civil rights movement. It was a play I loved. Clearly, she understood that our personal lives are part of movements—and vice versa.

Now, three smart women were saying this play was possible. More importantly, they were women I trusted, and nothing but nothing replaces trust.

Though Emily had a busy life as Artistic Director of the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, she read, researched, and asked questions. My only job was to answer as honestly as I could, and to conjure up feminists like Flo Kennedy, Bella Abzug, and Wilma Mankiller who were ahead of me on an activist path. Because living in the future is an occupational hazard of organizers, this look at the past was new to me. I got help from Kathy and also from my colleague and co-conspirator, Amy Richards, who knows everything or where to find it—she could be the smartest person on earth.

Emily created drafts of scenes and more drafts, then a first script. André Bishop and Daryl arranged a workshop in the basement of Lincoln Center where I and a couple of professional actors would read and do walk-throughs. At the end of a week, a few friends and relatives would be invited to watch and respond.

For me, those days were a revelation. Never having been part of creating a play, I didn’t know that what we in the audience experience as spontaneous emotion is planned down to the last light cue. Also as a freelance writer and organizer, I never had to show up at the same time and place every day, much less create magic on demand. I could do talks in groups, but only because they were spontaneous. My respect for actors soared. My belief that I could do this plummeted.

Clearly, I had to tell Daryl Roth. Not only had she brought us all together, and invested in this play, but she had involved André Bishop, who gave us time and rehearsal space. I’ve never felt so guilty about anything. I got up the courage to invite them both to lunch.

After listening kindly and patiently to my recital of why I couldn’t do this, Daryl said, “I understand, don’t worry, someone else can play you.”

With those magical words, this play acquired a life of its own.

What I had been dreading turned out to be a turning point I will never forget.

Amy Richards, a creative consultant on this play, had been suggesting Diane Paulus as a director from the beginning. Her communal way of working seemed just right for a movement play…

Emily and Diane looked for actors to play such larger-than-life figures as Florynce Kennedy, the civil rights lawyer and feminist activist who was my speaking partner; and Bella Abzug, a force of nature and a legendary member of Congress. Some actors were called upon to play more than one role. For instance, one talented woman performed the miracle of becoming both my mother and Bella, two very different people…

Then and now, people ask me about my experience of this play. I explain that the closest analogy was like describing symptoms to a group of wise and kind physicians. I had no idea what the diagnosis might be, but I had faith in it.

My suggestions were more about form than content. As an organizer, I had discovered what a difference it makes to be in a circle—not a hierarchy—and I asked if the audience could surround the stage. Diane Paulus also breaks the invisible wall in the plays she directs… and she made the stage friendly with rugs and cushions and piles of books. Emily knew that I turned lectures into talking circles, and she had the idea of doing this in the theater, too. Act One was the play itself, and Act Two became a talking circle; not a traditional talk-back, but a space for people to tell their own stories and to respond to each other…

For millennia, human beings have been sitting around campfires, telling and listening to each other’s stories. Books and computers help us to learn, but only being together with all five senses allows us to empathize, to understand and to act.

This is the magic of both a movement and a play. Like a pebble tossed in a pond, the ripples keep changing lives.


Gloria Steinem at the 2017 Women's March.

“Foreword” by Gloria Steinem from Gloria: A Life by Emily Mann, © 2019. Used by permission of Theatre Communications Group. All rights reserved.


Image credits
Gloria Steinem at the 2017 Women’s March © Jenny Warburg

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