It is Spring time here at Homestead High School which means that social media is exploding with posts from seniors excitedly sharing the news on which university they are going to next year. Around the world, hundreds of thousands of young people around the world are talking excitedly about their imminent move to university. Today, it’s natural to anticipate that next step, so long as young people use their time wisely, they will emerge with a degree.
In 1896, the female students at Girton College in Cambridge, England had no such prospect. They could study, but unlike their fellow male students, they weren’t allowed to graduate. Depicting Girton’s mistress, Elizabeth Welsh, struggles to win her girls the right to graduate, Blue Stockings is an entertaining new play that examines this ridiculous paradox. Mrs.Welsh (invested with wise dignity by Caitlin Geurts) decides that progress may require compromise and stealth; to her dismay, her more outspoken lecturer, Miss Blake (Elizabeth Foster) allies with the women’s suffrage movement. It’s this debate, this demand for their achievements to be recognized, which provides the backdrop to the play as we follow the stories of four female students: Tess, Celia, Maeve, and Carolyn. While the girls relish the engaging debates they have with their lecturer and the riches of the library, they also find themselves in the cross-fire of opinion, ridiculed and pitied by society as being unmarriageable. There are some shocking examples of misogyny and flawed argument from high-placed academics, but also a number of men were sympathetic to the cause, to the point where they were obligated to make sacrifices of their own.
The writing never oversimplifies, elegantly condensing a lot of themes: the various challenges faced by these women, the need to avoid being seen as radical, to disassociate their cause from that of the suffragettes, the acknowledgement that class and money create a whole different set of barriers to education are all present and yet the play also finds room to explore what it is to be a young woman tasting independence for the first time. The characters are not exceptional; they’re recognizable, relatable, human, flawed.
Of the central quartet, the play’s main focus is on astrophysicist Tess (Bella Gabor), a fiercely bright scholar who is tripped up by love, tumbling into a relationship with a dashing young chap who quotes Dante (put some complementary adjective here by David Blatz). Celia is the Charlotte Lucas to Tess’s Lizzie Bennett, the pragmatist who accepts that her commitment to her studies may well make her unmarriageable. Celia is played beautifully by Renee Schwarz. Next, we have no-nonsense Maeve (Silma Berrada), whose struggle is made all the harder by family commitments and her comparative poverty. And finally, Carolyn (Claire Looker) a worldly traveler who has experienced freedom, “When I lived in Burundi, the villagers chose their chief by putting stones in a pot. And I was allowed a stone. We all lived there, so we all had a stone. In Burundi.”
But in a world where people are still struggling to vote, go to school, and be taken seriously this play reminds us that the fight is not over, it’s just changed a bit. We still live in a world where famous women are asked what designer they are wearing when males are given the meatier questions. We still live in a world where people on Twitter still use rape as a weapon against anyone with even vaguely feminist leanings, and perhaps most upsettingly where a teenage girl can be shot in the head – yes, shot in the head – for campaigning for the education of girls. The play’s exploration of how hard women fought is both timely and charged and a reminder that we’re in no way reached a place where we can just sit back and relax and say we’ve won.
There are great warmth and wit to the play, however, and, as its dedication to Malala Yousafzai reminds us, the subject may be historical but many of the play’s concerns are still very much alive. The Homestead High School Drama Club is fundraising for Malala Fund, the amazing organization founded by education activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.
Blue Stockings open tomorrow night at 7pm
Homestead High School
James Barr Performing Arts Center
5000 W. Mequon Rd.
Mequon WI 53092