Before 7:30pm, the 15th November 2018 felt like any other hectic Thursday, but it is not every day that D/deaf and disabled women actors from Graeae come together to revive the histories of D/deaf and disabled suffragrettes and suffragists.
And Others is one of the staged readings taking place at the National Theatre as part of the Courage Everywhere series, comprised of plays performed by women celebrating the 100 year history of women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom. But as And Others reminds us, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the right for some women to vote, but not everyone. “And Others” refers to the descriptor used to refer to rest of people in a group: “Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and others gathered in Westminster today.” Who are the “And Others” of suffragist history? When Artistic Director Rufus Norris writes you an email asking you to participate in this celebration by putting on a play about D/deaf and disabled suffragists, as happened to Graeae Artistic Director Jenny Sealey, and all you have are the ‘and others’, how do you respond?
The answer is bold, critical, playful, and crucial: you do the archival and theatrical work to tell those women’s histories, and you make the performance itself a continuation of that history. And Others takes the form of biography, structured by the emails between Jenny Sealey and researcher Dr Susan Croft throughout the research process for the production (“Swoosh!” goes the sound of an email entering Jenny’s inbox). In British Sign Language, spoken English, captioned English and with visual description, the actors retell this collaborative process of uncovering the history of D/deaf and disabled suffragists, and interweave it with performances of key moments in the historical women’s lives. Graeae’s women are holding a meeting of the London branch of the Guild of Brave Poor Things – a guild founded in 1894 by Grace Kimmins for disabled children. The Guild trained disabled children with viable skills, and set a precedence for disabled advocacy and social support. But today, Jenny Sealey observes, ‘We are not poor “things”’; we are continuing this history but changing it, too, as D/deaf and disabled people’s lives have changed.’ In this new meeting, they retell biographies of women suffragists including Sylvia Pankhurst, Kate Harvey, Rosa May Billinghurst and Margaret Wynn Nevinson.
Dr Susan Croft’s archival research comes to life as the women re-enact Rosa May Billinghurst’s trial for spilling black ink into postboxes in 1913, the auction held for Kate Harvey’s badge of honour awarded by her lover Charlotte Despard for her imprisonment in Holloway, and Grace Kimmins’ song to call together the members of the Guild. Recovered court reports, auctioneer records, and an interview with Kate Harvey’s granddaughter Anne colour and clarify rich detail about these women’s extraordinary lives. These women were militant, disruptive, socialist, members and founders of many suffragist movements of the 1910s. Kate Harvey was deaf, and refused to pay taxes as a form of suffragist protest, and conducted a hunger strike whilst imprisoned. But she also loved Selfridges because they sponsored the suffragist movement. Rosa May Billinghurst had polio, rode a tricycle, poured black ink into mailboxes, charged police officers with her tricycle, and led the shop window-smashing campaign in 1912. She knew she would be subject to police violence during her protests, and accepted this reality as part of her commitment to the suffragist movement. Margaret Wynn Nevinson was a legal advocate and a playwright who staged In the Workhouse in 1911.
These exciting stories are interspersed with the Graeae company’s commentaries and important additions. Graeae’s women are sharp, passionate, insightful, rebellious and playful. They cover the nuances of feminist conflicts from then and today: do we fight to ‘sit at the table’ or say ‘Fuck the table! Let’s get rid of it!’? Fighting for the right to vote takes on new forms for D/deaf and disabled women today: how can we vote when wheelchairs don’t fit in voting booth, when political parties do not publish their manifestos with an ‘easy read’ function, when people in in-patient mental health care can’t vote because they are not given access to voting information. What can we celebrate when Channel 4 is still calling Jenny at Graeae to get her D/deaf and disabled actors in a show called The Undateables?
Most boldly of all, And Others documents and argues that voting will not solve every problem, and voting as a form of civic duty is only part of the whole picture of justice and equality: strikes and protests, marching, and staging history are also important components. While the women marvel at Harvey’s accomplishments, they also stand in a line and deliver their own biographies: “If I were a Wikipedia page, what would mine say?” This D/deaf and disabled history is collaborative and ongoing, made possible only by women’s teamwork and determination not to settle for some victories.
‘And Others’ was performed on 15th November. The ‘Courage Everywhere’ season runs until 18th November. More info here.