Monday, August 19, 2019

Indy Fringe Festival: A pre-Warren reminder of the benefits of persistence — pacifist/suffragist Jeannette Rankin

The redoubtable progressive Jeannette Rankin
American history is loaded with mavericks who went against the grain, but few had the staying power — with an odd combination of great influence and marginalization — of Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973).

A member of Congress for just two widely separated terms, the resolute Montanan wielded clout for several progressive causes over many  decades. In the 2019 Indy Fringe Festival,  J. Emily Peabody impersonates the outstanding suffragist/pacifist in "Jeannette Rankin: Champion of Persistence."

Seen Sunday night as a thunderstorm raged outside, the rage on the District Theatre's Cabaret Stage was controlled and self-contained in Peabody's performance. Yet Rankin's life exemplified continual outreach and activism, and Peabody's show (based on her own heavily researched text) never flagged in detailing her heroine's grit and determination, her curiosity and compassion.  These qualities, honed on the frontier with encouraging parents, prodded her into tireless defense of the rights of labor and women, as well as in agitation for world peace.

With slide projections coordinated with the narrative, the audience is able to see the places and people that were important in Rankin's story as the performer ranges across the stage. The patriarchy the heroine had to fight gets stunning visual realization in photographs of some of the men who stood in her way, from captains of industry to rock-ribbed, granite-jawed politicians.
J. Emily Peabody in performance as suffragist Rankin.

The actress changes costume periodically to match the period being described, starting with her fight for female suffrage and extending through her activities as an elder stateswoman campaigning against the Vietnam War.

Peabody kept the narrative stirring and amply expressive, so that the feeling of a lecture was held at arm's length. With a few simple props and some variation of lighting to reflect the prevailing mood, she carries the audience along through major political struggles of the 20th century, some of which remain unsettled today, some of which seem quaint. It's remarkable to realize the breadth of stances that once were possible within the Republican Party, for example. It's also salutary to be reminded that once upon a time members of Congress could vote against war, rather than turn over war powers to the executive branch, thus giving up their constitutional prerogative to send America's sons (and more recently, its daughters) into battle.

"Jeannette Rankin: Champion of Persistence" is a lesson in patriotism from a side of the spectrum that some would exclude from claiming that shopworn word. This presentation puts before the Fringe audience a historical figure whose bravery and ingenuity are qualities that should never go out of style if we are to retain our form of government in all its vigorous health.

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