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Civilization Needs Peace as Bread Needs Yeast - Jeannette Rankin, Back in the Kitchen
Jeanmarie Simpson has been carrying Jeannette Rankin's words with her since the US started bombing Afghanistan. We talked about her plays, her universal access theatre company and her personal life including her struggles with mental illness.
Cynthia Schwartz: When we last spoke you were doing public readings of your solo work, Mary's Joy: the anatomy of a martyr.
Jeanmarie Simpson: Yes. I'm pleased with the script now. I've cast a Quaker actor, a woman who is beautiful on the inside and out, as Mary Dyer is reported to have been. We're going to stage it and then film it this fall. It's infinitely easier and less expensive to make a Universally Accessible DVD than it is to try to staff every performance with sign language interpreters, describers for the blind, et cetera. Also, many people are sensitive to chemical fragrances. This way, people can watch at home, do screenings for their friends and so forth. As much as I love live performance, it has simply become too costly. We're filming in Ultra HD. I don't expect a theatrical release, though I hope we'll screen at some art film houses.
CS: Wow. This is exciting. Will you be putting it out on the internet as well?
JS: Absolutely. This work – all of my work anymore – is for the masses. As Jeannette Rankin says, “We've got to wake everybody up!”
CS: Okay, let's talk about the Jeannette Rankin piece, Flight of the Dove. Can you talk about the evolution of the project?
JS: I originally tried to write a solo work, but found it far too unwieldy with all of the other characters with whom Jeannette interacts. She lived a long life that began in the wild west in 1880 and ended during Second Wave Feminism. It took me nearly two years to write A Single Woman. I toured with it for two years.
CS: And Cameron Crain, your husband at the time, played all the other characters?
JS: Yes, but in New York we cast Neal Mayer. He's a Broadway veteran and brought enormous talent, skill and passion to the role. He did it off book, which Cameron never did, and it was a real tour-de-force for Neal as well as for me.
CS: You weren't originally in the New York production, right? You directed it.
JS: Yes. I cast another woman. I loved her audition and I loved meeting and talking with her and I offered her the role. I thought it made more sense to cast a New York actor rather than assume that I was the best one for the part. I wouldn't do it that way again, obviously.
CS: You fired her and then you stepped in and finished the run.
JS: Yes. God. What a mess.
CS: I read somewhere that she had a hard time with the lines.
JS: She did. Anyone would, I guess. Several other women have done the role and they have all had a hard time with it.
CS: Why is that, do you think?
JS: I think it's a piece that is specific to who I am. In the play, Jeannette makes bread and lemonade from scratch. These are things that I do – that I have done since my children were babies. To me, it's a primal, visceral experience, profoundly feminine in the most earthy, powerful sense, deeply connected to our ancient ancestors who gathered the grain, ground it by hand and learned to make bread from the mothers back as far as mothers go. It wasn't fair for me to expect other actors to get that – to have that same organic connection to the action. And it's entirely strange for American actors to engage in autonomous activity rather interacting realistically with the other actors.
CS: Your life has undergone some huge changes since then.
JS: Yes, it has. Cameron dumped me and I got into a brutal, unhealthy, rebound relationship. I woke up in a psych ward after eating a whole bottle of Klonopin. Scary to think back. But that led to me being diagnosed, finally, with severe depression as a result of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. I've been on meds and in treatment now for nearly four years. I don't have the issues I once had.
CS: What caused the PTSD?
JS: Let's just say that I had a pretty rough growing up and it hit me hard.
CS: Okay, let's change the subject. Your cousin, Kamala Lopez, directed the film, A Single Woman.
JS: Yes. My grandmother's niece. I've known her since we were kids.
CS: How did she come to direct the film of your play?
JS: Kamala got into TV and film when she was a kid – she was on Sesame Street and various things and then she went out to Hollywood and did the lead in Born in East LA with Cheech Marin. 18 years later, after she saw the play in NY, I asked her if she would make a video of it. (laugh)
CS: You're not happy with the film.
JS: No. Are you?
CS: It's not a great movie.
JS: Is it a good movie?
CS: I couldn't describe it as “good.”
JS: I'd have to be blind and an amnesiac to be able to say that film is a worthy rendition of my play.
CS: This must have created some tension in your family. You hired an attorney at one point?
JS: Yes. This is awful. Can we please get off this subject?
CS: All right. Tell us about Flight of the Dove. It's based on a book?
JS: Yes. It's based on a book of the same name, by Kevin Giles. He was born in Montana, as was Jeannette Rankin. He interviewed people in her family and many people who knew her. He originally published the book in 1980. Now he's doing a new edition and invited me to co-author it with him. Flight of the Dove was the first biography I read about Jeannette – it's the first biography ever written about her. It's thrilling, collaborating with Kevin, whose work changed by life.
CS: Why do you want to play the character again?
JS: Well, it's not as if I haven't done anything else. Since I closed the play, A Single Woman, in 2006 and did the film later that year, I've played several other characters. I played Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway in a solo show.
CS: That was directed by Leonard Nimoy?
JS: No, he produced it. His wife, Susan Bay, directed it. Then I did Rose Kennedy in a three-woman production, then I did another solo work, Coming In Hot, in which I played 17 different women. Then, as you know, I wrote Mary's Joy and focused on Mary Dyer, the first colonial woman executed in the New World. It's not as if I'm just stuck on one character.
CS: But you do have a rather intense affiliation with Jeannette Rankin.
JS: Yes, I do. I would never deny that. She is a deeply intelligent, crystal clear thinker. She was a tireless advocate for women, children and workers. Her two anti-war votes are practically all that anyone remembers about her, but she was a suffragist for ten years before the 19th Amendment was ratified. She was elected to Congress in 1916, she was a lobbyist for peace legislation when she wasn't serving in Congress. During the Vietnam War, she and Ralph Nader became great friends, because he was working to protect people from corporate negligence and greed. Honestly, there's not a single moment in Flight of the Dove that isn't as relevant today as it was when Jeannette lived it. History only repeats itself, in my view, because we refuse to learn from it.
CS: Okay, what's the schedule? When are you filming, and how do people participate in that?
JS: Thanks for asking! We're filming from the 26th to the 28th of August. Friday and Saturday nights at 7 and Saturday and Sunday at 2pm. It's in the Fellowship Hall of the Boulder Friends Meeting House. We've got in the cast three men and three additional women, one of whom is a terrific musical director. We're singing a bunch of wonderful old songs. If you're a peace activist, if you're anyone who seeks human rights and justice for all, you'll love the experience. And you'll love the bread and lemonade, so please come.
CS: Is there an admission charge?
JS: Just a donation basket. We're all volunteering – the world needs Jeannette's wisdom.
CS: For example?
JS: Civilization needs peace as bread needs yeast.
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