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THEATER 'China Shop' looks at influential lesbian couple
by Catey Sullivan
2018-05-23

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Imagine this: You're at the top of your class. You're off to an Ivy League college, thrilled at the seemingly limitless intellectual pursuits you can follow. And then you're told that since you're a girl, classes in folding laundry and baking are mandatory. Because everyone knows two things for sure: Rigorous intellectual pursuits are damaging to a woman's precious femininity. Also, your primary goal in life is to get an MRS degree. And, it goes without saying, spawn babies.

Such was the state of higher education if you were a woman lucky enough to attend college in 1900, when Mary Woolley became president ofthe Ivy League's Mount Holyoke College. Flash forwards a century or so. Women who made it through a higher-ed degree program without having to waste hours learning how to properly use a shrimp fork or remove blood stains from petticoats have Mary Woolley to thank. Never heard of her? Not surprising.

"So much queer history and women's history has been forgotten or just never told," said Kelli Simpkins, who plays Woolley in About Face Theatre's upcoming Bull in a China Shop. Opening in previews Thursday, May 24, Bryna Turner's 90-minute dramatic comedy puts the high beams on Woolley and her partner of some 50 years, Jeanette Marks.

It's not hyperbole to say that Woolley changed the entire model of higher education for women. Both Woolley and Marks were also staunch suffragettes, peace activists and social justice warriors in a time when activism meant far more than all-caps clamoring on social media. For director Keira Fromm,you can draw a clear parallel between the early 20th-century issues within Bull in a China Shop and the state of the world for women today.

"It's no secret that womens' rights are being subverted today, under the current [White House] administration," Fromm said. "And it's no secret that so much of our queer history has been lost. This play takes some of it back. It challenges the white male narrative that dominates history. It's about queer history, and taking ownership of it, and giving it voice."

Even a terse bullet-point list of Marks' and Woolley's accomplishments would fill a book. Woolley was the first woman to be admitted to Brown University. As president of the venerable Mount Holyoke College from 1900 to 1937, she fought with an all-male board of trustees to shut down the classes in handkerchief laundering and reworked the curricula to give women access to a dazzling array of courses in the arts and sciences.

"Basically she changed Mount Holyoke from a finishing school to a true institution of higher learning for women," Fromm said.

Woolley also was vice president of the then-fledgling ACLU, and a crucial voice in creating the League of Nations. She helped lay the framework for the establishment of the NAACP, she advised two presidents ( Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt ) on pacifism and women's rights. Through it all, she and Marks lived and worked side by side, with Marks ( played at About face by Emjoy Gavino )heading up the theater department at Mount Holyoke.

"Mary Woolley was, like, 'Look: A woman is capable of much more than just being a help mate,'" Fromm said. "She argued that education wasn't detrimental to women. It was their right to pursue academia as much as it was for a man. That was absolutely radical," Fromm said.

So why haven't most of us ever heard of Marks and Woolley?

"I think it's partly the patriarchy. And homophobia. And misogyny and sexism," said Simpkins. "Now we're at the point where people of color and queer people and women—all are demanding that their history be included in the history books

Simpkins—as anyone who has been in Chicago's "theatrosphere" for more than a minute knows—is no stranger to dramas that queer the narrative and reclaim history while also being intensely entertaining. A veteran of 11 years in Chicago preceded by 15 years in New York City working with Tectonic Theatre Company and LC3 ( Lincoln Center's new works wing ), Simpkins has created many an indelible feminist on stage, from the hyper-articulate, take-no-bull attorney of Steppenwolf's Fair Use to a laconic Wild West explorer of American Theater Company's Men in Boats. However, Woolley will be Simpkins' first time onstage in a corset. ( "Fortunately, I get to take it off in the second half," she said. )

With Bull in a China Shop, she adds another smart, strong wickedly funny woman to her resume. "Mary was described as an effervescent optimist," said Simpkins. "You read her letters and you find them full of poetry and hope and brilliance and joy. She believed in a future for women that was golden and bright.

"When I think of what she did and look at the shit show that is the Trump administration—which is trying to take away everything she accomplished—I see a silver lining," Simpkins added. "The bright spot is that people are finding their footing and finding their voices and creating resistance. Woolley showed how it's possible to change even in the midst of turmoil. She showed what we as queer voices can bring to the revolution

Bull in a China Shop runs May 24-June 30 at About Face Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. For tickets, go to AboutFaceTheatre.com or call 773-975-8150.


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