“We’re not fighting to keep our heads from being chopped off today,” Grace Carlyle Berry observes, “but we’re still fighting the same fight those women fought in the French Revolution: for our right to live, our authority over ourselves and our bodies, and our freedom of speech.”
Berry is playing assassin Charlotte Corday in Big Dawg Productions’ “The Revolutionists,” opening this week at Cape Fear Playhouse. The oft poignant comedy, written by playwright Lauren Gunderson, is inspired by the French Revolution and female historic figures like Corday, who collides with Queen Marie Antoinette (Kiré Ann Stenson), playwright Olympe de Gouges (Susan Auten) and Caribbean spy Marianne Angelle (Lavonia “Lovay” Robinson).
Despite being set around the French Revolution, it’s written for a modern audience. It employs present-day nuances and language, which helps emphasize how relevant its themes of oppression in 2019. “The revolution was about fighting for rights and equality,” Auten notes, “and sadly that battle continues today for certain groups of people.”
Like any good story set in any time period, according to the director, Steve Vernon, “The Revolutionists” is about relationships. In fact, viewers need not be history buffs to enjoy it. “Overall, the play is about four women and how they see themselves reflected in each other and in society in general.”
encore spoke with Auten, Berry and Vernon about the women being portrayed.
encore (e): Some of these women are immediately recognizable, like Marie Antoinette, but tell us about who else we meet.
Susan Auten (SA): My character is Olympe de Gouge, playwright and activist, who truly believes theatre and the arts have the power to help change the world … if only people will listen to her.
Grace Carlyle Berry (GCB): So I play Charlotte Corday, a young girl in the French countryside so incensed by the journalist Jean Paul Marat’s ridiculous amount of influence over the violent revolutionary mobs that she went all the way to Paris to assassinate him. (Marat was actually the first to call for the execution of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette’s husband.) If you can picture a painting that your high-school history teacher probably pulled out at some point, of a woman standing behind a curtain with a knife, watching a man bleeding out in a bathtub, that’s her. In our play, she’s an intensely passionate woman—young enough to be totally dedicated to the cause and not fully understanding the consequences of her actions. Also, she really likes swinging her knife around.
Steve Vernon (SV): You’ll also meet Marie Antoinette (Kiré Ann Stenson), who everyone assumes they know about. At the point in the play, she already has lost her status as queen, as well as her husband. She’s trying to negotiate a new reality that doesn’t have room for her former place of power. Then there’s Marianne Angelle, played by Lavonia “Lovay” Robinson. Marianne is a free black woman from the French colony of St. Domingue, who is in Paris to protest the slave trade. She points out the hypocrisy of a revolution for freedom for all men but doesn’t address slavery. She and Olympe have a friendship that exists before the beginning of the story, as Olympe was a strong abolitionist. She is also the only character in the play not based on an actual person. She serves as a composite character for the women of African descent who fought for their freedom from the slave trade.
e: What can we learn from them?
SA: Olympe wants to be a part of the revolution, but she doesn’t believe in violence. More than anyone (without giving anything away), she is desperately trying to stay alive throughout the show.
GCB: Charlotte is definitely the millennial or even the Generation Z character in the play, in that she openly calls out the societal problems handed to her by previous generations and is ready to fix them herself. She put her life on hold, hopefully, to stop Marat’s rampant executions and has no qualms about sacrificing herself in the process. She is often talked down to by and patronized by the other characters in the play, but her strength and readiness to take action is honestly inspiring.
SV: One of the things that each of them bring to the table is their individual flaws. They aren’t painted as perfect people. As a group, they want the same outcomes, but individually they each have their own ideas of how those outcomes should be achieved. There’s camaraderie, but there’s also tension.
e: Women today often are accused of “losing their heads”—albeit figuratively. Is there underlying commentary here?
SA: Well, then, and to some extent still now, women who try to express any opinion that isn’t what the “establishment” believes or adheres to must be crazy, or [spoken by] a traitor, or influenced by a man.
GCB: Absolutely. Each of these women fight being silenced: Olympe for being a female playwright; Marianne for being a black woman, unafraid to speak out about racial inequalities; Marie for being a fairly intelligent woman, who is pegged as stupid by the way she presents herself; and Charlotte for being young and angry. It’s something I think all of us in the cast and perhaps all women know, too, well; the moment you start saying something men don’t want to hear, they start telling you to be quiet or you’re being too “emotional” or “irrational.”
SV: It becomes obvious these women connect because they can be heard by each other. In moments where they do try to use their voice with men, they are shouted down or dismissed. Or worse. You don’t have to be a feminist to recognize it is still an issue today.
e: Steve, is it intimidating to direct a show centered on feminism? How are you ensuring this focal point is done justice?
SV: It would be an issue if the cast weren’t so open-minded. I appreciate they have allowed me to be around. The first few rehearsals [were] awkward because I hadn’t learned my place yet. I kept trying to voice an opinion, but they were wonderful about redirecting my focus to making them sandwiches, succumbing to anxiety, rooted in trying to achieve impossible “handsome” standards and keeping the theater clean.
Seriously, however, no, it has not been intimidating. I’m aware of how it could be, with a play written by a woman (Lauren Gunderson, who, by the way, has been the most produced playwright in America the last couple of years—more so than Neil Simon or David Mamet or Sam Shepard, etc.) about women starring women. I do take that to heart.
But the truth is, all involved are artists with a common respect for the story. It’s really the distorted idea of what feminism is that promotes the idea that men and women can’t equally respect and appreciate one another’s talents while working together. Feminism has been painted, willfully or otherwise, as meaning that women “hate” men. Sadly, too many people have been led to believe that. As in the play, most women, I believe, just want to be shown respect and appreciation for their accomplishments, talents and stories.
e: Can you share a funny yet poignant moment from the play?
GCB: This play is ridiculously self-aware. One of my favorite running jokes is Charlotte whining about the whole thing being “a play within a play,” which is both a meta joke about the show itself and also poking fun at “Marat/Sade,” another show that features Charlotte Corday. It may go over some folks’ heads, but as someone who actually played Charlotte in “Marat/Sade” before, I find it delightful.
SV: There are so many, and I’m hesitant to give them away. I will say the comedy aspect is broad enough that audiences will appreciate them without having to understand all of the inside jokes related to theatre or the revolution. The dramatic elements are universal enough that there is an ease of connection.