Jenni Werner moved to Rochester 10 years ago. She certainly knew the stories of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. Everyone who has sat through a junior history class has encountered those two.
Yet there is so much more to be found here, in widely diverse ways that often depart from standard definitions of history-making.
“The stories are incredible,” Werner says. “Some of the most progressive movements in the country have come from this part of New York state. Both historically, and now.”
“Hundreds and hundreds of plays can be written about this area.”
For now, she is limiting it to 25. “Tenacious Women: Shaping Change in Rochester and Beyond” is being called the most ambitious commission project in the history of Geva Theatre Center. Eleven local playwrights, including some still in school, and 14 others from around the country, are creating five to 15-minute-long plays about change-making women with local ties.
Werner is Geva’s resident dramaturg, its literary director. Susan B. Anthony, she says, is among “the stories that we already know.” So the women’s suffrage leader didn’t make the cut. But Civil War surgeon Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, 1913 Rochester Garment Workers Strike marcher Ida Braiman, soccer star Abby Wambach, and musician Teddy Geiger did make the list.
Tenacious Women was inspired by the Rochester Museum & Science Center exhibit “The Changemakers: Rochester Women Who Changed the World,” which runs through May 16. It’s a celebration of more than 200 people, such as the late Rep. Louise Slaughter, singer Danielle Ponder and sculptor Olivia Kim, who created the Frederick Douglass statues scattered throughout the city.
These are people who have had an impact on the lives of people throughout Western New York. They go back as far as Jikonsaseh, a woman who, according to historical legend, helped unite the Haudenosaunee nation a thousand years ago. It can be seen in a charming photo of Aesha Ash, a Black ballet dancer in a predominantly white art, standing on a Rochester sidewalk in her tutu, showing two little girls pointe technique.
“It was really, for us, about stories that sparked our imaginations,” Werner says. “We were inspired by the way the people in the exhibit looked at systems that were broken, and re-envisioned those systems to make change.”
Geva has commissioned other such literary archeology in recent years. Its “Revival: The Resurrection of Son House” was an ambitious exploration of the bluesman who was discovered living in obscurity in Corn Hill. And its series “Rochester Stories” has included shows such as “The Agitators,” telling the story of Anthony and Douglass.
Each of the 25 writers was given a list of between five to 10 changemakers drawn from the RMSC exhibit. Braiman was one. The teenager was shot to death by a man while she was part of a large group of strikers protesting outside his tailor shop. There have been many times in the country’s history when a man could get away with murder, and the killing of Braiman was one of them.
“We could see the system they were pointing at,” Werner says of these changemakers, “and saying, ‘That’s broken. Here’s another way to think about the future.’
“Part of why we wanted to do this project,” Werner says, “was inspiring us all to think about, how do we make change in our lives, in our own lives? And how do we make change for others?”
And, what follows such change? “Make the world a better place.”
“I didn’t grow up in Rochester,” Werner says. “But I am always inspired by just how many revolutionary people have come from this area. And so, in so many ways, I’m excited by the freedom of looking at these people who are not as well-known as Susan B. Anthony and Fredrick Douglass, who are so important in our nation’s history.”
As of this week, two-thirds of the plays have been submitted. They are monologues, plays with many characters, even a song. Some are audio plays, some are intended to be seen virtually. How Geva will present these stories to the public remains to be seen. The form will be driven by the content.
Changemakers who have died seem to allow the writers more room to interpret their lives. “There’s more opportunity to imagine what their life was like, because we didn’t know, because we weren’t there,” Werner says. “We have to piece together their history in a different way than someone right now.”
And for those subjects who are still with us, “What I have seen in a lot of the pieces that are written about the living changemakers is that they’re more focused on an issue, as opposed to the person’s life,” Werner says.
One issue is gender. Teddy Geiger is a Rochester musician and transgender woman. Her story is being told by Penny Sterling, a local playwright, comedian and trans woman.
“There’s an interesting thing that happens,” Werner says, “because so many people who have written about Teddy don’t have that same lived experience. I think that there’s an opportunity to tell a more full story, which I’m excited to see how Penny approaches that. And to tell not only a more full story, but maybe a more accurate one than might be recorded.”
These stories are being told for the most part by women. But some men are involved. Tim J. Lord is a Minneapolis playwright whose works often reflect on the lives of people with disabilities.
He will tell the story of Lisa Hoffman, a Rochester woman who was blinded at age three by a rare form of cancer. Before Hoffman died in 2019 at the age of 54, she had become an advocate for the disabled. Among her accomplishments was helping to develop audio describers, a system by which a sighted person in a booth offstage narrates what is happening in a theatrical play: what the actors are doing, even what they’re wearing. Werner calls the short play powerful, and “an emotional awakening.”
“I’d be really interested to know how Lisa would have felt about being called a changemaker,” Werner says. “She was so critical in changing the experience of so many people as they attended the theater. That piece has really been sticking in my head.”
Lord, she says, “wrote it in a way that it is a voice that you’re hearing, you’re just hearing a voice that is describing something that you might see. It put me in a position of relying on someone’s voice.”
A position of empathy.
“I can’t fully put myself in someone’s shoes who doesn’t see. But for a moment I can have a glimpse of an understanding of what that is, and of what that experience is,” Werner says.
The sum of these 25 plays, Werner suggests, might be felt only when COVID-19 no longer dictates the everyday course of our lives. The changes that will have to be made, so we can “come back from this place of isolation to being together again.”
“The impact of that on us might be that we have a broader sense of who can make the world a better place, and who can make change,” she says. “And that’s, I think, what’s exciting in this moment when we’re sitting, many of us, working from home. When it feels like so many systems in this country are kind of broken.”
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s arts and life editor and reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]