Five decades after bursting into the national consciousness, the work and life of Gloria Steinem, writer, organizer, and activist, is brought to the stage in Emily Mann’s Gloria: A Life, starring Christine Lahti as the inimitable Steinem. For Mann, a Tony-nominated playwright and director, the commission was an easy one to accept. As she says, “I wouldn’t have the life I have without Gloria.”
Recalling her earlier days as a college student in the ’70s, Mann adds, “It was Gloria who said that you could live a full life and be a feminist and believe the radical idea that human beings are equal to men. It was a great relief. It was a revelation.” Steinem was not only drawing attention to the discrimination women faced at the time, she was also activating a generation of women to fight back. “We found our voices,” says Mann. “Anger can be, as she calls it, an energy cell. A way to fuel you rather than paralyze you.”
That same anger is recognizable in a new wave of feminism today, and part of the reason Steinem is once again at the fore of advocacy and women’s rights. But even without the urgency of her message, Mann believes that it’s the nature of Steinem’s teaching that has allowed her to remain relevant.
“She has a capacity for deep listening beyond almost anyone I’ve ever encountered,” says Mann. “When you’re listening and then responding, with your truth, this is how we progress as human beings. We’ve been sitting around campfires for millennia sharing our stories and learning from each other.”
Mann has woven this philosophy of conversation as a catalyst for change into the structure of the play, directed by Tony winner Diane Paulus and currently running at Off-Broadway’s Daryl Roth Theatre. While the first act weaves together details from Steinem’s life and career, the second act is a Talking Circle in which audiences are invited to carry the play’s themes into a conversation of their own and hopefully beyond the walls of the theatre.
“Gloria, at this moment in time, can give us such hope. And the power and vision that we need right now,” says Mann. “Gloria: A Life is a very healing piece and it’s a way for people to find a way to cope and to find community. We need that right now. Men, women, and people of all ethnicities and generations.”