Neo-Futurist Theater premieres new online show celebrating America's 'First Ladies'
When someone suffers a concussion, medical personnel sometimes test that person's alertness by asking if he or she can name the president.
Bilal Dardai, one of the writers for The Neo-Futurist Theater's new online show "45 Plays for America's First Ladies," says it's because the president's importance is ingrained in us. For many, the president defines the country.
Dardai, a Downers Grove native, and his fellow ensemble members disagree. They want to change the perception that one person defines the nation and they hope a show profiling first ladies can help.
A companion piece of sorts to The Neo-Futurist Theater's 2004 show "43 Plays for 43 Presidents" -- which was updated and remounted in 2012 as "44 Plays for 44 Presidents" -- "First Ladies" exists because Donald Trump prevailed in 2016.
Anticipating a Hillary Clinton victory, ensemble members were preparing to conclude their presidential trilogy with a show about the nation's first female commander in chief.
"Obviously, that went another way," said Dardai, a playwright and performance artist who's been with the company since 2004.
Shellshocked by the results, ensemble members shelved the project. Some time later, Dardai and fellow Neo-Futurist alumni Andy Bayiates, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Sharon Greene and Chloe Johnston decided to revisit and widen the project's scope to "examine the role of women and marginalized people in America in general."
"Stories about people who have been obscured or forgotten but should not have been obscured or forgotten hit me in the heart," Dardai said. "We as a nation are still trying to understand and accept that there are people who have been pushed out of the spotlight in favor of white males."
To that end, he and his fellow playwrights took care that the presidents did not overshadow the women. That posed a challenge, said Dardai, especially when it came to 18th- and 19th-century first ladies (or female relatives who assumed the duties for widowed or bachelor presidents), for whom little biographical information exists.
"Women by standard of the time were burning their letters, removing all trace of themselves in the shadow of their powerful husbands, even when those husbands were mediocre at best," said Dardai, who wrote about Edith Roosevelt, Nellie Taft and Lou Henry Hoover among others.
Learning about Hoover, a scholar/athlete and early Girl Scouts supporter who witnessed China's Boxer Rebellion, motivated Dardai to dive deeper into his subjects' lives. Having done so, he and the other writers had to figure out how to distill the essence of those lives into plays lasting five minutes or less. ("First Ladies" has a format similar to The Neo-Futurists' long-running "The Infinite Wrench," which delivers 30 plays in 60 minutes).
For Dardai, detail is vital to a good play. So is brevity, which is something at which The Neo-Futurists excel. Besides, it doesn't take hours upon hours to make the point that a nation's identity doesn't rest with one man.
"The definition of a country can't be traced to one person," Dardai said. "It's traced to many ... and some you might not have heard of."
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"45 Plays for America's First Ladies"
When: Livestreamed performances Friday, Oct. 9, and Sunday, Oct. 11. Digital recording available through Nov. 2
Where: Online at neofuturists.org