I am somewhat ashamed to admit as a feminist that I didn’t know that much about Emma Goldman or her life. But when I saw the Vortex Theatre was featuring a devised play about a female anarchist and activist trying to smash the patriarchy and capitalism, I figured, I’m in!
And I was not disappointed.
Co-produced with Shrewd Productions, Emma When You Need Her is the story of Emma Goldman's life, based loosely on her memoir, Living My Life.
Several members of the cast portray Goldman, passing around a red silk scarf to designate who will bear the mantle next. Scenes throughout Goldman's life and activism are re-enacted, and the format occasionally allows and older Goldman to chat with, challenge, or question her younger self.
Before the show, audience members are invited to write with chalk on the walls of the theatre what they want to see in the world, or to draw a flower. Throughout the play instead of quoting Goldman's speeches, similar mantras are read aloud from scratch paper by other cast members, followed by a repeated refrain: “This is your revolution. Now, what are you going to do to make it happen?”
The play is a pretty even mix of nostalgic, optimistic, and realistic. Disillusioned by the failure of the Russian Revolution, Goldman gives up the fight in the end. But the ensemble cast picks up her mantle to begin the fight anew, encouraging plenty of vigorous dancing.
The ensemble is tight and filled with camaraderie. They are clearly rehearsed enough for the play to flow without a hitch, but it feels organic enough in the moment despite that. The set, such as it is, is comprised of chairs flowing fluidly around the stage, stacking, and occasionally being used as props or rhythmic and aural accent.
Through the lens of Goldman's life, the play brings up some important questions about activism and revolution. What should we give up for the cause? What must never be given up? What makes life worth living? Who can we trust? How can we make sure everyone is included? “Beautiful things are not luxuries,” Goldman says. “Life would be unbearable without them.”
Does your revolution involve cookies? Dancing? Free love? New clothes? Can we have those things and still ensure everyone has enough to eat and a roof over their head? Can a revolution be sex-positive and call for the true emancipation of women without being written off as slutty?
I also appreciated that the play wasn't afraid to broach the subject of Goldman's own privilege within the anarchist community as a white woman raised in a bourgeois household. The play touched on the life of Lucy Parsons, a mixed race activist and former slave whose contributions to the movement were overshadowed by her marital status in Goldman's memoir.
Is your revolution intersectional?
Emma When You Need Her portrays Goldman as a wild, passionate, free spirit with her heart in all the right places, though perhaps limited (as we all are) by the culture of her time. A staunch defender of “everyone's right to beautiful, radiant things,” Goldman's life stands as a testament to the power of hope, activism, and love.
Though considered at times perhaps naïve by her peers, I agree with Goldman that in the post-revolution world it will be important to have flowers, tea, and chocolate biscuits. And it's no accident that a female activist called most loudly for a world filled with love, beauty, and freedom for all.
In a world still fighting for equality based on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, a legacy like Goldman's is important to remember. Much thanks to the cast and crew for bringing her passions and contributions back into the light.
Emma When You Need Her runs through May 16 at the Vortex in East Austin.
This review was originally published by The Horn on 05/08/2015.