When Bella Abzug’s daughters approached author/actor Harvey Fierstein with the idea of a piece about their firebrand mother, he initially refused. It was not, he tells me, until Hilary Clinton was pilloried that he felt the need to share her life and ideas.
Never planning to star himself, he approached Vanessa Redgrave, Bette Midler and host of other capable actresses. Every one of them had sworn off the kind of exhausting solo shows Bella Bella’s author has now taken on.
It’s 1976. The congresswoman has taken refuge in the bathroom of her Summit Hotel suite. On the other side of a door crowd friends, family, and political staff. They await the outcome of a race that would make her, at 56, the first woman senator. “A stag Senate is stagnation.” (Smattering of audience applause.)
“Battling Bella” Abzug stormed barricades from Harvard Law School’s rejection – no women – and Columbia’s acceptance, “a seat filler while the boys were out fighting World War II.” One of two percent of female lawyers, she was constantly taken for a secretary. The trailblazer donned gloves and her eventual signature hats so as not to be mistaken for one. Changing repressive attitudes was not as simple.
“Why did thousands of women risk their lives for suffrage? Can you imagine a day when women only vote for women?!” We have, she states unequivocally, untapped power. If only women wouldn’t vote the interest of their financial supporters. “We see things men don’t seem to notice because we’re not busy proving our masculinity.”
As a young attorney, Abzug took on cases of southern bigotry with single minded fervor. One story in particular is horrifying. She represented “show biz types” during the McCarthy hearings and was disgusted so many women took The Fifth. We hear about dashed hopes for Bobby Kennedy, the nomination of Hubert Humphrey “a man no one wanted,” Barbra Streisand’s possible turning point fundraiser, and the Boys Club called Congress.
It was Abzug who freed women exiled to the balcony of the prestigious House. Her actions put The Pentagon Papers into public record, gave women the right to their own credit history, introduced an anti-abortion law and gay civil rights bill, the latter with Ed Koch. “He wasn’t always a prick.”
Pacing her tiled confines, Abzug takes us through historical wrongheadedness: FDR did nothing to end the Holocaust, Harry Truman demanded a loyalty oath from everyone who worked for him – “Can you imagine?” (Audience groans.) She addresses Kennedy and Vietnam. “Three women presidents in a row would never have kept that war going!” Then Nixon and Watergate including Gerald Ford’s pardon “which proves if you have powerful friends, you can get away with anything…(audience rustling).
Harvey Fierstein is barefoot with painted toenails, dressed in black pants and shirt. Lack of drag does nothing to dispel channeling this force with which to be reckoned. A red hat serves as entrance and exit prop. There’s no fourth wall. The character not only addresses her audience, but zeros in on individuals with razor intensity and/or warm inclusion.
Abzug bats away personal insults with self deprecating humor, professional ones with chilling facts. She zeroes in on Civil Rights, sexual discrimination, and Jew-bating. The activist was also an environmentalist and, she implies, accidental feminist. (She never liked the term.) Oh, and she’s hungry.
Most of the ninety minutes is dense with politics. Some will stick, some will wash over, but overall effect impacts. Abzug’s personality is inferred through actions and comments rather than personal revelation. We’re offered just a few references to her supportive husband and family. The piece is liberally peppered with Yiddish terms – you’ll get the sense of it. These are employed equally as rolled-eyes-frustration and humor.
Harvey Fierstein has deftly written in (and plays) encroaching resignation. Towards the end we watch the character’s veneer start to peel away. Bella Abzug was a woman intent on making things better/more equitable no matter what. These are principles with which this artist strongly agrees.
In a year that’s seen Gloria, A Life (Gloria Steinem), What The Constitution Means to Me, On the Basis of Sex (portraying the young Ruth Bader Ginsberg) as well as several plays and a superb documentary about the rightfully lionized Supreme Court Justice, the growing Me-Too movement and, notably, a terrifying erosion of women’s reproductive rights and LGBT rights, this piece fits at every angle.
As always, Harvey Fierstein is all in.
Director Kimberly Senior manages to keep the heroine moving without need for motivation. Occasionally monologue speeds up, but the better part is paced allowing for reaction.
Photos by Jeremy Daniel
Manhattan Theatre Club presents
Written and Performed by Harvey Fierstein
From the Words and Works of Bella Abzug
Directed by Kimberly Senior
City Center Stage 1
131 West 55th Street
Through December 1, 2019