By the time Bella Abzug was sworn into the House of Representatives in 1971, a teenage Harvey Fierstein was donning drag in clubs and performing at La MaMa. He stayed in his native Brooklyn to pursue his BFA as Abzug held office a borough away.
“She wasn’t our representative,” recalls Fierstein of the oft-hat-wearing Women’s Movement stalwart, “but I saw her through the Jewish eyes of the neighborhood. We had all the Jews up and down the block, and they would all hang out on the stoop and talk about Bella.”
The two crossed paths as Fierstein’s career flourished. Their mutual friend Shirley MacLaine brought her backstage following performances of Hairspray; a photo from a 1983 Human Rights Campaign event shows the two with Jesse Jackson and Patti LaBelle. Now he’s even closer—to the point of becoming her—in Bella Bella, currently running Off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club.
The Tony winner’s new play sees the late politician locking herself in a hotel bathroom as results from the 1976 primary for the U.S. Senate pour in. Abzug lost the Democratic nomination by less than one percent; had she gone on to win, she would have become New York’s first female senator. The election instead ended her political career.
Her tribulations also ring familiar, with tactics used against her echoing throughout the 2016 presidential election. Opponents decried sexism should Abzug ask women to vote for her and construed the staunch Zionist’s anti-war statements into an anti-Israel stance.
“Can you imagine getting away with that?” Fierstein asks, recognizing that such campaigns are still used against the likes of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. “Would this be happening to two congressmen?”
“[Abzug] says the majority of the voting public is female, so women have the power to vote in their own candidates. But what do they do? They vote the way men tell them to. I think there’s a very interesting argument to be made there.”
Fierstein hopes the show will help end this perpetuation. If not with him in a hat, with someone else. “If the show goes well, I’ll offer it to be done in concert by Bella’s friends [like MacLaine or Lily Tomlin] to raise money for women candidates around the country.”
His intentions mirror the downtown projects he pursued during Abzug’s time in office: “This will have the feeling of something underground. ‘I was born for revolution. I was born to fight the establishment.’ Those are her own words. I want it to have that feeling.”