Painted Bride productions on 19th century women touch familiar issues

At a rehearsal for "If She Stood" are (from left) Ain Gordon, actor, writer, and director; Nadine Patterson, filmmaker and photographer; and actress Stacey Sergeant.
At a rehearsal for "If She Stood" are (from left) Ain Gordon, actor, writer, and director; Nadine Patterson, filmmaker and photographer; and actress Stacey Sergeant. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 26, 2013

Ain Gordon and Nadine Patterson have walked the ground in Philadelphia.

They've been to the spot, on North Sixth Street, where Pennsylvania Hall stood until it was burned to ground, three days after opening in 1838, by a mob worked to a frenzy by the very idea of women speaking out in public.

New York's Gordon - actor, writer, director - and Philadelphia-based Patterson - filmmaker and photographer - have visited the city's historic graveyards, searched through records at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Library Company.

They've poked around in the Charles Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple. They've attended meeting at the Quaker meeting house at Fourth and Arch Streeets.

And after all the research, all the exploration, all the talking, they've come up with this: If She Stood, a multidimensional stage production, written and directed by three-time Obie winner Gordon, commissioned by the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St.

The piece, which runs Friday to Sunday and May 3-5, explores the personal, political, and cultural relationships among four women, founding members of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Black and white, they forged the early women's movement, organized boycotts, and helped build the abolitionist movement.

They also brought the mob down on Pennsylvania Hall by daring to stand up and speak before a racially mixed audience of men and women; they barely escaped the rage of the crowd and the roaring flames.

In addition to the play, the Bride is also presenting, through May 18, a Patterson-curated exhibition, Freedom, Fire and Promiscuous Meetings: The Philadelphia Community Lyceum, featuring poet Lamont B. Steptoe's photographs of contemporary Timbuktu, Mali; Patterson's photographs of intimate artifacts associated with slavery (engraved iron collars, heart-shaped locks); Sarah Bond's quilts; "Peace Haiku Benches" by Sonia Sanchez and Leon McDuffie; mixed-media sculptural figures by Toni Nash; and a painted wall text by Theodore A. Harris. There are also several short videos and community and school forums.

All of this has been pulled together by the Painted Bride with support from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.

Lisa Nelson-Haynes, the Bride's associate director, said If She Stands goes back to 2010 when Gordon brought his Obie-winning turn in Spalding Gray: Stories Left To Tell to Philadelphia. Nelson-Haynes wanted more of him at the Bride and told him so.

"She said to me after, 'You know, you should tell me if you ever have an idea,' " Gordon recalled. "And no artist is ever unhappy if they receive such an invitation as they walk off stage!"

Several months later, at a conference in Dallas, the two talked more pointedly about Gordon's interest in history's blind spots and the ghosts that populate them. From that grew a nearly-two-year collaboration in which they sought out obscured events and people on which history's wheel turns.

What Gordon came up with is a sense of place - Philadelphia - and characters in the act of inventing themselves and new notions of social and political change.

"A thing very interesting to me about these women as we began to find them - they were, particularly with the women's movement . . . making up how to talk about it," said Gordon. "No one even had any language to use yet. So these women were doing something that artists have to do all the time, which is inventing, publicly, on their feet, in front of people, what they meant. They're very self-interrogative. They never took the easy way out about anything.

"It's very Talmudic, if you will. . . . [T]hey would assert something and then they would question that and then they would flip it and then they would reassert, and they would do that again and again and again. This was not like, 'Up with people . . . kumbaya.' This was a very aggressively intellectual response to a passionate need."

In If She Stood, four women hold the stage: Sarah Mapps Douglass, Sarah Grimké and Angelina Weld Grimké, and Sarah Pugh.

"What you should expect is four women in a room inventing the lanquage and the means of conveying something so personal that it has not yet been known," said Gordon.

"And all those politics, this is all 19th-century, but it's all happening right now. . . . Everything they're debating, we're still fighting in other forms."

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594,, or @SPSalisbury on Twitter.

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