By Christie Perfetti Williams
Directed by DeLisa White
Produced by Retro Productions
Nominations: Christie Perfetti Williams is nominated for Outstanding Original Full-Length Script; Heather Cunningham is nominated for Outstanding Actress in a Lead Role; and An Appeal to the Woman of the House is nominated for Outstanding Premiere Production of a Play
Photo by Kyle Connolly Photography LLC
About this Production
An Appeal to the Woman of the House is about what happens when history knocks on your door. It's about how large activist gestures create smaller ripple effects. Appeal… takes place on one fateful night in May, 1961 in the farmhouse of Rose and Gideon Walker on the Alabama-Tennessee border. It is just after midnight when David and his fellow lost Freedom Riders knock on the door seeking assistance in the form of a phone and a place to stay until daylight. But Gideon, who knows this is Klan country, is reluctant to let in this band of mixed race college kids until Rose forces him to open the door with the acknowledgement that "they're just babies." What follows is a touching story of race, love, acceptance and learning how to stand up for what you believe.
Playwright Christie Perfetti Williams, Director DeLisa White and Producer and Actress Heather Cunningham share their experiences of dramatizing a highly volatile moment in American history.
What attracted you to this project?
Heather: As producing artistic director for Retro Productions, a company that specializes in 20th Century period work, I'd been looking for years for a project about the Civil Rights Movement. Although I'm sure that a lot of people hear the word Retro and think kitsch and comedy (and there's nothing wrong with that - I love me some kitsch and comedy!) I also believe we are in a unique position to educate our audiences by using historical stories to create parallels to current circumstances.
Christie Perfetti Williams approached me several years ago about writing a play for Retro. After a long conversation about what that would mean we started talking about the Freedom Rides. It was the 50th anniversary of the rides and there was a documentary on TV that we were both watching. I said things like "imagine the play that takes place on that bus" and "imagine the play that takes place in that bus station." Then a former Freedom Rider was interviewed and she spoke about the time she and several other riders were taken out of jail by the sheriff and driven to the border in the middle of the night and dropped off. They walked until they came to a farmhouse but the man didn't want to let them in, he was afraid. So the rider said "My Mama always told me if I was in trouble to go on and appeal to the woman of the house. And that's what we did - and she let us in. And those people saved our lives that night." I said "imagine the play that takes place in that house," and that is what Christie did (although in full disclosure, Christie's play is FICTION, it is merely inspired by that event, not a documentary of it). AND I had the distinct pleasure in this production of portraying, for the first time in my career, a character who was written specifically for me.
DeLisa: Retro can always be counted on to do high quality work and I had longed to work with Heather who is a magnificent talent and a super cool broad. So when she told me they were working on their first original piece I knew it had to be quality. And once I heard the premise - and realized I had never seen any play, movie, or television show about the Freedom Riders, I was tremendously excited. Then I got to read the play, which even in its earliest development stages was profoundly moving. I can’t tell you how proud was every day to be able to be the one to direct this incredible play.
Christie: I was able to write a play not just for Retro Productions but for Heather Cunningham. A lead role for Heather Cunningham. A kick ass lead role for a brilliant actor. It was a playwright's dream.
What was your favorite part of working on this production?
DeLisa: There was SO much talent involved in this show. It was an immense luxury to have such a huge cast and crew of this tremendously high caliber - full of passion, commitment and ideas. It was an embarrassment of riches, for sure – but to watch them all find their way to shine and shine solely in service of this beautiful play moved me immensely. To have the front row seat as it comes to life is always the great treat of being a director, but given all the elements - a huge cast and crew – involved, it just was wondrous to see and feel it blossom.
Heather: As a producer - I'm also a research geek - so I loved doing the research - watching documentaries and news clips, reading books, searching the faces in the mug shots.
The cast was glorious - we had a wonderful time in the rehearsal room. It felt like such a wonderful ensemble. And even when it came to the singing (which I suspect some of them were surprised by) everyone was game. There was a lovely camaraderie - and a lot of chocolate!
Christie: My favorite part was probably the most distressing...the revision process. Workshopping and revising and tearing apart and gluing back together. Opening myself up to feedback and criticism, hoping and praying that throughout the process I would never lose love for the piece. Never become disenchanted with the work. It was both exhilarating and agonizing. Lots of risking, deep inhales. A truly white-knuckle landing!
What was the most challenging part of working on this production?
Christie: See above : )
DeLisa: Nine cast members, 12 or so crew – it was a lot to juggle. Without the amazing production team of Heather and Ricardo and Monica Daniels astonishing work as Stage Manager, I can’t imagine how we would have gotten it all done. While I feel the play was at top form at opening, perhaps more than any I have worked on, I would have loved if we had had the time and money to have a “preview” structure before the full run. The play, the remarkable cast, and the superb crew all rocked the target, but they also all deserved more time to go even deeper and further and get more sleep during the process. That’s always the challenge of indie theatre – how do you match the quality of off-Broadway or Broadway with a pittance if the time and money. As your nominee list shows - indie theatre DOES do that. Routinely. But we all spread our elbow grease to the very thinnest.
Heather: When doing the research on this play the most challenging part was, as I'd be inspired by the students and CORE and SNCC and the leaders who made the rides possible, I'd also have to take in the actions of white supremacists and try to somehow understand how they could think they were right, while still believing in their own Christianity. It's a very hard thing for me - and it's just as hard in 2014 when someone uses their religion as an excuse to discriminate against LGBTQ or really anyone who is unlike themselves.
Spoilers! There is an unspoken fact about Rose, which is that she has recently had a miscarriage - and that it is in fact one in a long line of miscarriages and failed attempts at conception. As a woman who has never had a child this was difficult on many levels - not just because I don't know that particular physical pain, having never been pregnant myself, but because I do know a little something about the emotional pain of wanting a family and feeling like I don't get to have one. Harnessing that - getting past it and over it - that was the most challenging part of this role.
Oh, and, pulling a gun on a guy - that was pretty challenging too!
What makes An Appeal to the Woman of the House so different?
DeLisa: Firstly, there’s never (to my knowledge) been a play or movie (other than a GREAT American Experience documentary) or tv show about this particular element of the civil rights movement. The play captures a part of history that has been somewhat left in shadow culturally. But it also take a different, more complex and more nuanced approach to history than a lot of historical fiction, which I think is so important. Often historical fiction is in the business of deification, which makes us all feel admiration but distance from the course of history. THIS play demonstrates astutely that multiple people can be committed to “doing the right thing” and still interpret that differently. The world changes because of a confluence of individual choices, not because of one brave hero. This play isn’t about “Look at how some people in the past were brave” but asks us “what would YOU do if history knocked on your door?”
Because it does. Every day.
Heather: One of the loveliest experiences was having an audience member afterwards say to me "how much would it cost to keep this running?"
Also, the audience member whose father was a Civil Rights worker in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964 who came up to me and said "you got it right - it's all so right - and the young Jewish woman who comes in in Act 2 - she reminded me so much of my Father."
I really appreciated when an actress friend of mine pulled me aside after seeing the show and said "I'm from the South and I have seen many women in my time in NYC attempt to play southern - but you - you actually did. When you said 'You from Louisiana? I thought so - I got kinfolk there myself' I thought to myself, yes. Yes she does."
That was a great complement to this native NYer! (Albeit with kinfolk in Louisiana!)
Christie: Too bad this is listed under the 'different' column but the truth is the fact that our production's producer, playwright, director, lead actor and stage manager were all women is pretty phenomenal, as well as inspiring.
What do you want the audience to come away with after watching your production?
DeLisa: What I have always hoped people would take away is that every choice you make, no matter how small it may seem, impacts the course of history. You are a part of change or an obstacle to it. It’s not just the high profile activists who are catalysts for change. The Freedom Riders sat on the bus, but there were people who chose to attack them, or be neutral or help them or join them. At some point or other, history knocks on your door – whether you answer it or not impacts the course of history. We are all activists, whether we intend to be or not - it’s just a matter of scale. And we are all responsible for the world we live in – we can’t hide from that. It’s foolhardy to try.
Heather: I think the overriding message is one of love - and I hope that when they leave An Appeal to the Woman of the House they have a sense of the love of humanity that is in it - and also how far we've come and how far we have still to go. Hopefully they are inspired and they feel good - that we are all capable of change and love.