First Ladies? These 45 Short Plays Cover Them All, From Washington to Trump

Hilary Asare in a play about Lady Bird Johnson in '45 Plays About America's First Ladies,' presented by the Neo-Futurists. (Screenshot Courtesy of the Neo-Futurists)

My first encounter with the work of the Neo-Futurists was actually via the Bay Area’s now-defunct Rough and Tumble, when they performed 43 Plays for 43 Presidents in the basement of La Val’s pizza parlor in North Berkeley. A wild deconstruction, replete with top hats, popping balloons, and a suit jacket passed deftly from actor to actor representing the office of Commander-in-Chief, 43 Plays introduced me to the Neo-Futurists dizzying facility with micro-plays rooted in the “non-illusory,” an art they’ve been perfecting since 1988.

Over the years the Neos have expanded from their Chicago home into sister ensembles in New York and San Francisco, and currently produce a weekly showcase of 30 short plays performed in 60 minutes they call The Infinite Wrench. Additionally, they occasionally produce full-length “prime time” shows, of which 45 Plays for America’s First Ladies is their latest.

Vic Wynter inhabiting a Hall of Presidents in a scene from '45 Plays About America's First Ladies,' presented by the Neo-Futurists through Nov. 2. (screenshot taken by Nicole Gluckstern)

A cross-continental effort, 45 Plays includes performers from all three ensembles, each inhabiting the various personas of the pantheon of Firsts—a collection of wives, daughters, sisters, nieces, and any similarly related woman who would take on the often thankless task of supporting the presidency through social affairs, public service, and campaign management. As with the Neo-Futurists' play about presidents (which has since been expanded to 45), each short vignette takes an experimental approach to the delivery of dry historical facts. Through song, dance, pushups, puppets, plates of Wonder bread, rolls of butcher paper, more balloons, and a signature scarf worn by each performer in turn, 45 Plays for America’s First Ladies grapples with the legacies and reverberations of 50 individuals who are frequently glossed over, or written out of the popular narrative.

A Jackie Kennedy puppet makes her way down a Hall of Presidents in '45 Plays for America's First Ladies,' presented by the Neo-Futurists through Nov. 2. (screenshot taken by Nicole Gluckstern)

Staged as a livestream for its first weekend, and now available on demand through Nov. 2, 45 Plays stimulates the curiosity as it attempts to fill in some of the blanks. Directed by Denise Yvette Serna, the most compelling pieces are those that create a full atmosphere and engages each sense.

For Abigail Adams, Ida Cuttler head-bangs down a makeshift “Hall of Presidents” to words cribbed from Adams’ letters to her husband, urging him to “remember the ladies,” set to a brash, rock guitar riff. For Anna Harrison, actor Hilary Asare stands before a wall covered in butcher paper and white balloons which, as in 43 Plays, are surrogates for the deceased. As she pops the wall of balloons in grim succession, she intones a litany of horror. She later fingerpaints what appears to be the same butcher paper with a swirl of loden green trees, for Lady Bird Johnson. In honor of Harriet Lane, Vic Wynter rides a bicycle down a dirt road under a wide blue sky, to celebrate the radical exploits of the niece of President Buchanan who became his adopted daughter, First Lady, and possible “beard.” For Eleanor Roosevelt, Brenda Arellano grapples with a rope ladder in the middle of a Summer pond, as a voiceover muses on the nature of fear, and how one might decide to do without.

Brenda Arellano as Eleanor Roosevelt in '45 Plays for America's First Ladies,' presented by the Neo-Futurists through Nov. 2. (screenshot courtesy of the Neo-Futurists)

Other plays inject humor, as when Cuttler plays Florence Kling Harding as a fast-talking dynamo with energy to spare, baking cookies and “inventing” the photo op, dodging questions about her personal life from behind a megawatt smile and giant glasses. While others dig frankly into the darker legacies of their subjects, such as when Andie Patterson and Hilary Asare—as Martha Jefferson and Sally Hemings—go over the salient facts of their respective roles as “first” ladies: Martha as Jefferson’s deceased wife, Sally as his never-freed, sexually abused slave—and the mother to six of his children.

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During every election cycle, there’s a flurry of plays that deal with the political, and 2020 is no different in that regard. What is different, perhaps, is in how these plays land. A question that’s tempting to ask these ladies (and is occasionally asked out loud, as with a dialogue starring Andie Patterson as Laura Bush) is why? Why did this first lady allow this particular atrocity to occur on her watch? Why did another not push harder for women’s suffrage, or emancipation of the slaves, or for Medicare for all? When all is said and done, what truly is the lasting legacy of a first lady, and what should we hold them accountable for?

Ida Cuttler as Florence Kling Harding in '45 Plays about America's First Ladies,' presented by the Neo-Futurists through Nov. 2. (screenshot taken by Nicole Gluckstern)

“The trick,” Wynter acknowledges in an early play as they perform a precarious balancing act in their bedroom, “is to write a play about a job that does not actually exist.” The job is the balancing act, the Neos seem to suggest. And each lady wobbles along as best they can, whether they are the first First—or the fortieth.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, our own branch of the Neo-Futurists have been hard at work creating their version of The Infinite Wrench, on a playful array of platforms—Twitch, Zoom, Youtube, Instagram Live, Vimeo, and email. As with the fully live show, they roll the dice each week to determine how many plays to cut and replace with brand new ones. An interesting component of their online foray is that instead of rushing to finish all 30 plays in 60 minutes, an audience member has a full week to explore the offerings, and many of the plays, although still essentially short, have ballooned into five-, eight-, or ten-minute pieces.

Screenshot from San Francisco Neo-Futurists' digital version of 'The Infinite Wrench.' (screenshot taken by Nicole Gluckstern)

This luxury of time has given the Neos the chance to dive more deeply into introspection, while still retaining their essential participatory nature. A guided meditation. A series of stretching exercises from the '70s. A short film that positions acts of kindness as "pranks." A science-fiction “book club.” Unsurprisingly, plays with political themes are currently in heavy rotation—a play that offers a list of resources and phone numbers to call to protest the murder of Breonna Taylor, a play comparing political debates past and present, a play which delves into the possibly ephemeral rewards of phonebanking.

However, it’s not all phonebanking and pranking at Neo-Futurist central, and their highly-anticipated Halloween edition, Hallow-wrench promises “extra-spoopy” entertainment for the intrepid, running just two nights, Oct. 30 and 31.

SF Neo-Futurists Margaret McCarthy, Topher Lin, and Amy Langer in a past live performance of 'The Infinite Wrench.' (Kayleigh McCollum)

Like a guided meditation, an evening spent steeped in the playful inventiveness of the Neo-Futurists near and far is an evening designed to activate awareness, and reframe the familiar into a portal of wonder and engagement.

The Neo-Futurists' 45 Plays for America's First Ladies runs through Nov. 2. Details here.

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Details for the San Francisco Neo-Futurists' 'Infinite Wrench' and 'Hallow-wrench' here.