To vote, or not to vote – that is the question in Catherine Stewart’s new play “She Will Lead” at the West End Studio Theatre in Portsmouth. NHPR’s Sean Hurley attended the show and hoped to find the answer to a second question: Can a play about the 2016 Presidential Election change minds about the election?
Moments before the opening of her new play, Catherine Stewart can’t decide where to sit. Should a playwright sit in the front row or the back? she wonders. “There's just something so magical about this moment right now just before a live performance,” Stewart says, and settles into the back row.
Stewart relocated to New Hampshire from Scotland in 2012 – She Will Lead is the third play she’s written and staged in Portsmouth. Most playwrights hope their work will live on after successful premieres.
But not Stewart, at least not this play. “People have asked, ‘Where will it go after this or what do you want to do with it?’” she says, “and I'm like, ‘Oh I think it just makes sense to see it the weekend before and after this particular election.’”
This tight focus doesn’t mean that Stewart has written a propaganda piece – in fact there’s not a single mention in the play, or even allusion, to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
Rather than change her audience’s vote, Stewart is hoping to change the way they think. “I think all theater has the power to change our thoughts about what we believe in society,” she says, “and that would be kind of cool if that happens.”
As the play begins, we meet 29 year old Claire, as she comes home to her small apartment after work– it’s the eve of the 2016 Presidential election and she’s decided she’s not going to vote.
“I’m that generation,” Claire says, speaking directly to the audience. “At 11, I watched the President lie. I sat on the rug eating a bowl of ice cream as my parents watched the news. I knew he was lying. I remember he called her ‘that woman.’ At 11 I don’t really care what he did, but I can see a lie. I don’t think the President should lie.”
The list of traumas that follows – Columbine, 9/11, the war in Iraq – has left her – and her millennial generation - fearful and living in a world that seems broken beyond repair.
“And it feels like this is all on our shoulders,” Claire says. “You screwed it up and now we have to fix it. So what do I do? I don’t want to be mobilized. I don’t want to be energized. I don’t want to be reminded that I’m disenfranchised. Just leave me alone.”
A Christmas Carol-like shift then follows as Claire is visited by three ghosts of Presidential Elections past. Victoria Woodhull, who ran for President in 1872, Margaret Chase Smith who ran in 1964 - and Shirley Chisholm who ran in 1972.
Whether they can persuade Claire to vote is the abiding drama of the play. Here, Claire, played by Jordan Formichelli, argues her decision not to vote with Margaret Chase Smith, played by Dominique Salvacion.
Smith: So you excuse yourself?
Claire: Well it’s my right.
Smith: It’s your obligation to exercise that right.
Claire: That’s you putting the blame on me. It’s not my fault. And abstaining is a form of exercising that right.
Smith: A complete disregard is not abstaining. Ignoring is not participation.
Claire: Well who says I’m ignoring? I’m letting you into my house on a Tuesday night. I could be watching Game of Thrones.
Smith: You’ve already seen all the episodes.
Claire: I could watch them again.
The play ends with a sweet twist that shifts the nature of the will-she/won’t-she debate. But did the play change minds?
In a Q&A with the playwright that followed, Judith Rubenstein from Portsmouth said the play helped her see something she hadn’t before. “I have to say that this is the first time I have understood or had any respect for a decision not to vote,” Rubenstein says.
15 year old Avery Mitchell says that she’s been hearing terrible things about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at school, but that She Will Lead, “made me drop those views and perspectives from the back of my mind and actually get a more realistic perspective and stop conforming to other people's ideas and start forming my own.”
“Watching this made me gain a lot more respect for my generation politically,” Portsmouth High Senior Ella McGrail says. “I kind of realized my own egotisticalness - that's not a word - watching this and being like, OK…what they feel is not just apathy. They're meeting the system where it meets them - which is nowhere.”
We tend to think that confessing to lapses in judgment – or confronting how limited our own understanding is or can be –leads inevitably to gloomy self-recrimination. But what I hear in these voices is the joy of discovery, the pleasure of expansion. Learning as an affirmation.
As the audience makes their way to the door, playwright Catherine Stewart looks pleased – not just because the performance went well, but more so because of a conversation that followed it.
“Well hearing someone saying that they now want to vote? That they're now going to vote given that they maybe weren't going to? That is - that's it!” she says and laughs. “That's the point, right? And it's also not the point. But if they've seen something in this play that's made them realize the importance of that right that we have and there are plenty of people around the world who do not have that right. That's really amazing.”
Also amazing is the fact that Stewart is one of those people who can’t vote. She’s not a citizen. But with She Will Lead, she has, at least, been heard.