by Grace Hatton, Reverb Editor
“Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man has a nothing to do with it!” declared the actress Shinnerrie Jackson as she portrayed the women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth during the stage presentation Ain’t I A Woman at Kittredge Theatre on this Sunday. Ain’t I a Woman was written by Kim Hines and is presented by the Core Ensemble, which travels all over the country putting on this performance. The production is a marriage of theatre narrative and musical performance, combining chamber music theatre with historical narrative and first person monologues. The production was brought to campus with the help of various professors and departments including the Committee for Multiculturalism.
Ain’t I a Woman is titled after the famous speech given by Sojourner Truth at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1854. The production recounts not just the life of abolitionist Truth (1797-1883) but also three other pioneering African-American women: the writer Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), the folk artist Clementine Hunter (1887-1988) and the civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977).
The production began with the three musicians taking their places behind their instruments. Each musician played with passion as though their instruments were an extension of the limbs. The trio of cello, piano and percussion performed a combination of spirituals, jazz and blues, and original music throughout the show.
Within the first few minutes of the show Jackson burst onto stage with an undeniable energy as she portrayed Zora Neale Hurston. As Jackson portrayed Hurston she spoke to the audience as though it were a conversation. This conversational tone continued throughout Ain’t I a Woman, creating a real sense of intimacy in the theatre as patrons smiled and laughed as though they were speaking with a friend. Jackson moved with the music as she portrayed Hurston. Her shoulders swayed and she sauntered around the stage to embody Hurston’s saucy persona. The audience laughed at her jokes and took notice of deeper thoughts, “I had things clawing inside of me that must be said,” Jackson as Hurston declared. Her every move was boisterous, confident and charismatic.
As Hurston’s monologue came to an end the music began to play once more as she sauntered off stage. When she returned a few moments later Jackson had returned as an entirely new character, folk artist Clementine Hunter. Jackson slipped into this role seamlessly, yelling at the audience with a French accent as though they were invading her home. She flawlessly communicated Hunter’s personality, passion and moral stance by adapting her speech, body movements and delivering Hunter’s words with urgency: “If I don’t get these paintings out my head, I’m sure enough go crazy!” she declares before gathering the sample paintings and shuffling off stage.
The last two women Jackson portrayed were Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer. Jackson delivered Truth’s famous speech with a stoic and fierce tone that demanded the audience’s complete attention.
The final woman portrayed in Ain’t I a Woman was Fannie Lou Hamer and it was her scenes that caused the audience to hold their breath. Hamer’s monologue included a scene where she is recovering in the hospital, after being beaten by police officers for attempting to register to vote. At one point she rolls up her hospital gown, smacking it to the ground and emulating the sounds of when she was beaten with leather straps.
The sheer violence and pain Jackson was able to communicate with simply her voice, body and a hospital gown was astounding. Silence hung in the auditorium as each smack against the hard ground echoed throughout.
Although Ain’t I a Woman does an incredible job of highlighting numerous social injustices for both women and people of colour, its greatest achievement is the way the production, with only one actress and three musicians, can cut away any political jargon to expose the truest pain of the civil rights movement and in turn expose its great strength. The pain caused by those dark years elicited a fire in those who wanted to fight against injustice. Ain’t I a Woman ended with Jackson portraying Hamer discussing her political activism and expressing her desire for people to fight against injustices: “If we work together they can’t beat us all. They can’t get rid of all of us.”
She walked off the Kittredge stage singing “I’m on my way to freedom land” and a moment later a standing ovation ensued. In a ninety minute presentation, Ain’t I a Woman took the audience on an emotional journey of history, humor, injustice, pain and suffering. But more than that Ain’t I a Woman highlighted the importance of hope and taking a stand for equal rights, is a fight that has no ending.