There are plays that spin their yarn of spectacle, event and dialogue solely for the pleasure of story. Then there are plays that set out to educate, inform or even infuriate us, as if the playwright sat down to write dialogue between characters that leaves us arguing with ourselves after the curtain’s drawn.
Jenifer Nii’s “Suffrage” falls mostly in that latter camp. Like a George Bernard Shaw play on overdrive, it bristles with dialectic passion as two 19th-century Utah women — sister wives in the same polygamous family — place the issue of women’s right to vote in a complex battlefield where religious freedom and political equality shift in and out of view.
Ruth, played by Sarah Young, is the idealist upstart, passionate about her Mormon faith and the emerging struggle for universal suffrage in the United States. Frances, played by April Fossen, is her older sister wife, a pragmatic anchor concerned more about the welfare of the family’s children than political equality between the sexes.
“Suffrage,” which receives its world premiere April 4 in a production by Plan-B Theatre Company, exposes a Utah history few may know in a story even fewer theatergoers may expect from the cutting-edge company.
“My first reaction after reading the script was that I had no idea the destiny of polygamy in Utah was so intertwined with suffrage,” said Cheryl Cluff, who directs the play. “Then I did my research and it began to make its own kind of sense.”
Nii sets the action in 1887, the year the Edmunds-Tucker Act punishing the practice of polygamy was enacted. Then it follows Ruth and Frances up to the days of Utah statehood between 1895 and 1896. Frances fears that the cause of universal suffrage will be used to enlist fellow women in a war against polygamy, while Ruth believes the causes of religious freedom and suffrage is a war that may be fought “on both fronts.”
“Suffrage” follows the heart of their back-and-forth arguments against a backdrop of Utah history excerpting statements from leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, such as George Q. Cannon and Brigham Young, extolling the equality of women in civic and political life. Americans against polygamy feared granting women the vote would fortify the practice, with women in plural marriages voting in submissive line with their husbands. Denying women the vote, they felt, chipped away at women’s rights and polygamy.
The Utah territory granted women the right to vote in 1870, long before women in the United States were granted the same right, and just one year behind the Wyoming territory. Utah women at the time, as exemplified by the leadership of Relief Society president and women’s activist Emmeline B. Wells, saw the right to vote and practice polygamy as one and the same. That intrigued Nii.
“Women who believed the vote to be every citizen’s right found themselves fighting simultaneous battles — to be recognized as equals, to be free to worship free from persecution. In both, women — particularly Mormon women — faced enormous challenges; the stakes could not be higher. Which was fascinating to learn about and very, very inspiring,” Nii said. “These women believed, sacrificed and ultimately won a precious right for me.”
The play’s language, which at times skirts the verse style of the King James Bible, is grand enough to match the themes it wrestles with.
“You envision yourself a warrior and forget the source of their strength,” Frances tells Ruth.
“Without ‘warriors’ like me, sister? You are banished,” Ruth replies.
Sarah Young, who plays Ruth, said that for her “Suffrage” works as a symbiotic feud between her character’s concern for political freedom and Frances’ focus on keeping the family intact through religious persecution.
“We’ve talked a lot between and during rehearsals about the how women support each other and how much we support each other in current times,” Young said. “The fact that we open the show during LDS Conference weekend, and during the first conference that women will be allowed to give prayers, is very interesting.”
Plan-B Theatre’s ‘Suffrage’
When • April 4-14. Thursdays and Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.
Where • Studio Theatre, Rose Wagner, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $10-$20. Call 801-355-ARTS or visit planbtheatre.org for more information.