“Gloria: A Life” goes beyond theater, into action

The cast of "Gloria: A Life" / Photo by A Priori Photography, courtesy of ART

By Kendall Tamer
BU News Service

“History. Her Story. Our Story,” the program reads.

As you enter the theater, you are lured into a false sense of security by a welcoming display of cushions, books and old carpets, and an intimate theater. Old-fashioned throw pillows line the audiences’ seats and there are pillows on the floor of the theater, inches from the set, where audience members are meant to sit. It’s cozy, and a little unorthodox. It gets you comfortable, before delivering a gut punch of a production. 

“Gloria: A Life” at the American Repertory Theater (ART) is a play about the feminist movement, told through the life of Gloria Steinem. But its key is the way it moves beyond theatre into a kind of participatory performance art. It encourages the audience to actively engage with the work, compare it to politics today and, afterwards, turn that engagement into activism. 

Patricia Kalember and Gabrielle Beckford in “Gloria: A Life” Photo by A Priori Photography. Courtesy of ART.

The actors often integrate into the audience, who are sitting in a circle, which is often referred to as “in the round” and after the bows, a feminist community leader leads the audience in a reflection. It serves as a way to try and make theatergoers feel as if they are a part of the production, and I think it definitely lends itself to that effectively.

In a sense, we are all a part of this “show,” since in a big way we’re all a part of the history being made every single day. We’re a part of this story; “Her Story. History. Our story,” just as the program said.

The tale takes us through a near-linear journey with Gloria, as she discovers herself, her career and her identity as a feminist. The call back to the past bore grim and glaring resemblances to the current political climate. There were outcries of creating fair pay for women, establishing equal rights for women of color and ceasing the deportation of mothers of American children. There was talk of Nixon’s impeachment and of women’s marches, and the actors broke the fourth wall to drive this point home more than once. 

Eunice Wong and Patricia Kalember in “Gloria: A Life” Photo by A Priori Photography. Courtesy of ART.

The story then brings us to almost the current day by employing a screen and projector to display images of all of the big political movements going on in modern media, such as a speech by Greta Thunberg, the climate activist, and a speech by current-day Steinem at the 2017 Women’s March. The message is clear: we must learn from Steinem and take action today. 

The role of Gloria is no small task. She is the only static character throughout the entire production and acts as the narrator. The rest of the cast is only listed as ensemble in the program, but they play a variety of characters throughout the show, including Playboy bunnies, marchers, seedy men in bars and significant women Gloria encountered in her real life, such as Bella Abzug, Florynce Kennedy and Dorothy Pitman Hughes.

Some of the jokes landed as a bit out of touch, and the pace dragged somewhat toward the middle. This was not aided by the fact that there was no intermission throughout the almost two-hour production. 

While Patricia Kalember was impressive, and the entire cast was talented, two of the ensemble actors stood out, in particular.

Joanna Glushak slipped into each of her roles like she was slipping into a comfortable old sweater. She was haunting as Gloria’s mother and delighting as feminist congresswoman, Bella Abzug, and she was able to embody both of those opposing ideas with what seemed like ease. 

Eunice Wong, Gabriella Beckford, Patricia Kalember and Joanna Glushak in “Gloria: A Life” Photo by A Priori Photography. Courtesy of ART.

Gabrielle Beckford was the shining star, taking on each role with grace. She commanded respect as Dorothy Pitman Hughes, and captivated the audience with a brief but moving moment of song, at the end of the show. The brilliance of the supporting cast uplifts a key message of the show: Steinem was only possible because of the women around her. Change is only possible when we work together.

But you have to ask: is it preaching to the converted? If it’s in a theatre of people who likely came to see it because they already agreed with it, is the message able to reach the right people? Some more cynical minds say no, but maybe those who are “hope-aholics,” as Gloria refers to herself several times throughout the show, would disagree.

“Gloria: A Life,” often feels more like a political statement or a call to action than it does a play, but maybe that’s the whole point. Either way, the tear-jerking moments pack a punch that could be cathartic and important for anyone who feels like they’ve ever had their voice taken from them.

And as the show says in its final moments: “Uncovering the link to the past, makes the pain of the present start to diminish.” 

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