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Artistic Collaboration, Activism, and the Classical Singer:

The Creation of “A Women’s Suffrage Splendiferous Extravaganza!” with The Pleiades Project

Oct. 26, 2021 | by Noelle McMurtry


On November 5th and 6th, The Pleiades Project presents staged readings of a new musical, A Women’s Suffrage Splendiferous Extravaganza! (AWSSE!), at Alchemical Studios in New York City. For us and for our collaborators, it has been a considerable personal and creative journey to arrive at this moment; it feels like both a poignant end and an exhilarating beginning.

Founded in 2015 by Caroline Miller and Elizabeth Van Os, The Pleiades Project is a NYC-based organization that produces new performance opportunities for female-identifying creatives to express the unique vision, strength, and individuality of their art. As interdisciplinary vocalists in the classical music realm, we are passionate about bringing our art form to wide and diverse audiences. To that end, The Pleiades Project produces short films and video series, collaborative concerts, and live theater experiences, all filtered through the lens of classical vocal repertoire. Inspired by the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades constellation, we are devoted to building a more vibrant and inclusive classical music community – by developing music-theater works and film projects that highlight the stories and creative contributions of women.

As the 2020-2021 season approached, we recalled the upcoming centennial celebration of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. While this landmark victory in 1920 led to the largest act of enfranchisement in U.S. history, it tragically did not include all American women. Voter suppression laws and legal acts that denied citizenship remained intact, fueled by racist and classist ideology. Through poll taxes, literacy tests, voter registration laws, and threats of violence, Black Americans were explicitly prohibited from exercising their right to vote. In 1924, Indigenous people were finally granted citizenship and suffrage, while Asian American immigrants were denied their citizenship and the vote until 1952.

With a mission to approach the women’s suffrage movement from an intersectional perspective, The Pleiades Project team decided to create and produce a new music-theater work, exploring the successes and failures of this milestone event in American history. After being awarded a generous Community Engagement Grant from Lower Manhattan Cultural Council in April of 2020, A Women’s Suffrage Splendiferous Extravaganza! (AWSSE!) was born. With the addition of November Christine (Co-Creator, Writer, Lyricist, and Composer) to our creative team, we tackled the initial stages of developing new a music-theater work. How do we transform AWSSE! from an enthusiastic idea into its upcoming realization as a live staged reading? We then proposed a simple, but crucial beginning that would anchor all of our subsequent work –what stories do we want to tell about women’s suffrage, and how do we want to tell them? After much discussion, we centered the narrative arc of AWSSE! around three aspects of the women’s suffrage movement:

  1. The essential stories and contributions of BIPOC suffrage activists who were marginalized due to the racist ideology of white leaders in the movement 
  2. The historical “textbook” narrative we had been taught in school, and subsequently never questioned about the ratification journey of the 19th Amendment 
  3. The enduring connection of the women’s suffrage movement to our current struggle for racial justice, women’s rights, and equal political representation in the United States  

Due to the breadth and diversity of the women’s suffrage movement, we agreed that we could not simply tell one story about one individual. Instead, we needed to employ a narrative structure that was flexible enough to showcase multiple perspectives, most importantly from suffragists of color that have been continually erased from our collective historical memory. Ultimately, we decided that a musical revue, or better yet, a turn-of-the-20th-Century-inspired vaudeville revue, would be the most compelling option.

To refine which historical figures would be starring in AWSSE!, we researched and drafted a list of important activists. We made some difficult decisions, but guided by our three aims, we finalized a list of suffragists. We were shocked and humbled to realize how little we knew about so many of these remarkable women and their legacies, which included:

  • Ida B. Wells (1862-1931): the eminent Black investigative journalist, anti-lynching activist, and leader in the civil rights movement;
  • Mabel Ping-Hua Lee (1897-1966): the Chinese American community activist and suffragist, education advocate for Chinese women and girls, and the first woman to receive a PhD in economics in the United States;
  • Rose Schneiderman (1882-1972): the influential Jewish American labor activist, founder of the Women’s Trade Union League, and the first woman to serve on the National Labor Advisory Board;
  • Maria Guadalupe Evangelina de Lopez (1881-1977): the Mexican American suffragist, teacher, and translator, World War I ambulance driver, and the first Latina hired on faculty at the University of California Los Angeles;
  • Zitkala-Ša (1876-1938): member of the Yankton Dakota Sioux, the respected writer, orator, and composer of The Sun Dance Opera, and the powerful activist for the enfranchisement and civil rights of Indigenous people.

Our next task was to tie these historical figures and their biographies to the landscape of a vaudeville revue. While tongue-in-cheek “acts” were much encouraged, the substance of the special talents on display needed to amplify each activist’s unique contribution to the women’s suffrage movement. We envisioned each suffragist on a flashing marquee: Ida B. Wells as the Tallest Woman in the World, Mabel Ping-Hua Lee as The Teen Tamer of Fire! As our line-up took shape, we also solidified the make-up of our ensemble: Maestra Impresaria, her dynamic troupe of five women players, and their intrepid pianist.

To further construct our revue framework, we prioritized sourcing music and texts from both historical and contemporary women’s perspectives. Drawing from the Library of Congress: Women’s Suffrage in Sheet Music archive, we chose popular suffrage songs, circa 1880 to 1920, that celebrate and satirize women of the early 20th-Century. We also commissioned three new songs from NYC-based composers Lacy Rose and November Christine. Each composer brought their unique compositional aesthetic to the project: Rose found inspiration in Baroque and Jazz traditions, while Christine drew from 20th-Century musical theater, like Ragtime and Chicago, as well as her roots in spoken word and Hip-Hop. AWSSE!’s script includes adaptations of scenes from A Pageant of Great Women (1910), a British suffrage play by author Cecily Hamilton, as well as primary source excerpts from debates, speeches, and articles by Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Rose Schneiderman, and Maria Guadalupe Evangelina de Lopez. While the actual words of our suffragists were essential, we also sought to incorporate our own perspectives as contemporary women, interacting with the same socio-cultural issues of racism, sexism, and voting rights as these women of the past.

With a working draft of the script and score now finished, we have transitioned into music and staging rehearsals throughout the last three weeks of October. After brainstorms galore, a few painful setbacks, and many a late-night Zoom meeting, we are steps away from bringing AWSSE! to life. Join us on November 5th and 6th as we embark on an exhilarating jaunt to celebrate, explore, and problematize this historic fight to win women the vote! By examining the intersection of the voices of American women of the past and women of today, we ask ourselves and our audience – how does the fight for equality continue in our quest for the enfranchisement of all citizens in this democracy?

BEHIND-THE-SCENES PREVIEW VIDEO

SHOW DETAILS 
November 5th, 2021; 7 PM 
November 6th, 2021; 7 PM

The Lab at Alchemical Studios 
104 West 14th Street, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10011 

TICKETS: http://www.purplepass.com/awsse 

COVID-19 Safety Information: 
All staff and performers associated with The Pleiades Project, as well as staff at Alchemical Studios, are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Vaccines are required to attend AWSSE!, and proof of vaccination must be provided prior to entering the performance space. Masks must be worn at all times in Alchemical Studios.  

LIVE STREAM DETAILS 
November 6th; 7:00 PM – December 6th; 11:00 PM EST 

TICKETS: https://www.sparrowlive.com/event-details/awsse 

Note: AWWSE! will stream for one month on Sparrow Live. For the price of a $15 ticket, the show can be viewed an unlimited number of times on one device. 

Check out our website for more project and fundraising details, as well as up-to-date ticket and live streaming information. Also, be sure to follow us on social media, and watch our video and film projects on YouTube and Vimeo

Instagram: @thepleiadesproject 
Twitter: @thepleiadesproj 

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Noelle McMurtry (she/her/hers) 

VOCAL PERFORMANCE / DMA 2022; MUSICOLOGY

MM 2022

Noelle McMurtry is a versatile vocalist, concert curator, researcher, and writer, who employs her interdisciplinary background in the service of inclusive storytelling. She engages with genre-bending music-theater projects that explore diverse and underrepresented feminist perspectives to question and re-contextualize the classical music canon.