The latest collaboration between Miami Valley arts organizations was inspired by the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. It began when the folks at The Human Race Theatre chose a special theme for the upcoming season.
“I started looking for scripts by and/or about women,” says Kevin Moore, the theater’s artistic director who says he was looking for great stories to tell — some familiar and some not. “Our reading list took us in many directions, but as we narrowed the list it became clear that our selections were about women who have made a difference, influenced our world. And with the blessing from the YWCA (for sharing the title of their annual award) we arrived at “Women of Influence: Their Power, Passion & Pitfalls.”
Plays at The Race
Moore said the stories are as varied as the women who have shaped our world and our own lives.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” which kicks off the theater season Sept. 12-29, introduces famous singer Billie Holiday in one of her last performances. “The Cake” examines the current discussion about who and who cannot bake a wedding cake. “Gloria: A Life” celebrates Toledo native Gloria Steinem’s 50 years of promoting equality. “The Revolutionists” is a humorous “Sex in the City” look at the 1793 French Reign of Terror. “Looped” attempts to answer an age-old question about the outspoken film legend, Tallulah Bankhead.
Adding a film series
The collaborative film series with The Neon, Moore says, grew out of the city-wide 19th Amendment Committee, formed to help promote, create and cross-pollinate area projects centered around the 19th Amendment celebration.
Moore approached Jonathan McNeal, manager of The Neon movie theater in downtown Dayton, about a possible collaborative season. McNeal was quick to say yes.
“Curating a film series is one of my favorite things, so I jumped at the chance to assemble a line-up,” he says. “Susan Strong, a good friend and board member of The Neon, helped me develop the series. We have chosen one film that comments on — or speaks to — each of these plays in the season.”
Each film will play one time during the run of the corresponding play, and a guest speaker has been invited to each screening.
The film series is being sponsored by PNC. “The films celebrate women and is diverse and inclusive — all elements that speak to a strong partnership,” says McNeal.
Kicking off the season
For the first Human Race production — “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” which focuses on singer Billie Holiday — the movie theater will be showing an early film work from Billie Holiday’s career. “Her first appearance on film was in the recently restored short film “Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life,” McNeal said.
That film is being paired with “New Orleans,” a feature film in which she co-starred with Louis Armstrong. Local jazz historian David Greer will speak after the films about Holiday’s career and legacy. He says the movie has some wonderful jazz moments. “The Ellington film from the same era presents a great band with a cameo of what made Billie such an archetypal jazz singer – a voice with an unusual edge and timing that was always a little behind the beat,” Greer says.
“The Cake,” the second show in the season, is a play about a baker who has to decide if she can make a cake for a same-sex wedding. “For this play, we have chosen the film ‘Saving Face’ - about a young lesbian and her mother and the secrets they have to keep from their traditional Chinese family,” says McNeal.
Nicole Richter, head of the Tom Hanks Center for Motion Pictures and Professor of Film Studies at Wright State University, and retired literature professor James Hughes will talk about LGBT representation on stage and screen.
“Representation matters,” said Richter. ” Even though it’s 2019, and we are starting to see more focus on women in film, there is still a staggering gender imbalance, with female directors making up only 6 percent of Hollywood filmmakers.” She said the problem is even worse when it comes to women of color and LGBTQ women, which makes films like “Saving Face” even more important.
“Queer women have been erased and misrepresented in cinema history,” says Richter. “When we don’t see women represented in a diverse way, it gives us the sense that they don’t matter. Films that tell rich stories about women, made by women, teach our society that women matter.
“The celluloid closet is a term that encompasses how queer people have been erased and misrepresented in film history,” Richter said. ” I will discuss early stereotypes of queer women, how representations have changed over time and the important contributions LGBTQ filmmakers have made toward making film more diverse and inclusive.”
Other films include Yellow Springs filmmakers Julia Reichert & Steve Bognar’s upcoming film ” 9 TO 5: The Story of a Movement” which will be paired with the play about Gloria Steinem; “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blanche” which will be paired with ‘The Revolutionaries”; and “Die! Die! My Darling,” starring Tallulah Bankhead, which is pairing with a play that’s partially about the creation of this film.
Finalizing the series, says McNeal, took several weeks.
“Obtaining licensing for films, particularly older films that were produced by now defunct companies, can be a tricky business,” he says. ” Numerous calls and emails and a little detective work was needed in order to secure the films.”
Moore is thrilled with the results.
“Jonathan’s selections reflect the spirit of our individual shows while staying true to The Neon,” he concludes. “Hopefully, we both will build our audiences by sharing this experience.”
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