Her childhood dream was to join the high-kicking Rockettes. But swept up by history, she became a butt-kicking icon of women’s equality.
Feminist leader Gloria Steinem is 85 and very much alive. She has been memorialized in “Gloria: A Life,” Emily Mann’s 2018 stage biography that had its regional premiere Saturday at the re-christened Herstory Theatre in St. Paul.
Staged by Risa Brainin as both a warm pageant and a steely parade, the show is straightforward, funny and inspiring. “Gloria” captures the journalist turned firebrand as she awakens to her own power and the capacities of other women, singing “You Don’t Own Me.”
The 80-minute one-act outlines Steinem’s life, from Toledo, Ohio, where she grew up, to New York, where, as a young journalist, she donned bunny ears to do an exposé of the Playboy Club.
Steinem used her cachet to found Ms. Magazine in 1971. With help from friends, she overcame a fear of public speaking to become a voice for several generations.
That “Gloria” succeeds has a lot to do with the cast, led by Charity Jones. Serene and confident in Steinem’s emblematic aviator glasses, she imbues the title character with stateliness and wit. When she walks onstage for the first time, coming into a circle of powerful women, you can feel the waves of her power coursing through the other women and into the audience.
An all-female acting company surrounds Jones, playing a litany of women and men, including Steinem’s incapacitated mother (Cathleen Fuller in a tremulous and stilted turn), Cherokee chief Wilma Mankiller (icily amusing death-starer George Keller), congresswoman Bella Abzug (Lolly Foy in a fulsome performance) and Angela Davis (punchy Jamila Joiner).
The cast also includes Katie Bradley and Dana Lee Thompson, who plays fearless attorney Florence Kelley.
Steinem was a model of inclusivity and intersectionality before those terms became fashionable or existed at all. She saw that structures that have oppressed women are continuations of systems that have kept others down.
And, importantly, she saw that while some women were clamoring to work, others had been laboring, under much duress, from the founding of America.
Still, a variation of the N-word, which is not properly contextualized, is jarring in the show.
The action takes place on set designer Joel Sass’ round playing area softened by rugs and adorned with two squat bookcases that double as platforms. The minimalist design, augmented by Miko Simmons’ era-evocative video design, helps “Gloria” step into its theatrical power.