Ariana DeBose knows what it’s like to be part of a crowd. The 29-year-old dancer and actor first grabbed attention for her role as “the bullet,” a key part of the ensemble in the original cast of Hamilton. She made a huge leap forward in 2018 when she was nominated for a Tony Award for her role as “Disco Donna” in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. After the nominations were announced, among the congratulatory messages she received came from former colleagues in the chorus line. “They were like, ‘You showed people that dancers in the ensemble shouldn’t be counted out. We can talk and we can sing,” she said later.
It’s in much the same spirit that DeBose performs a crucial role in the Center for Women’s History’s Women March. The exhibition (on view through Jan. 24, 2021) honors the collective action of the unnamed heroines and heroes who marched shoulder-to-shoulder for their rights and the rights of others both before and after the 19th Amendment. Ratified a century ago this year, the suffrage amendment removed sex as a barrier to the vote and was an expansive political step forward—even as many women still could neither freely vote nor exercise other aspects of citizenship. Our show captures the dynamic sweep of women marching, through a visceral interplay between the historical narrative and period footage from the 1910s through the present, projected to life-size on the walls of our Joyce B. Cowin Gallery of Women’s History. Our aim is to give museumgoers an immersive experience that evokes the past using modern technology.
But what could we to do about depicting the dramatic spectacles of the 19th century that happened before video or film? That is where DeBose comes in—or at least a full-size projection of her embodying unsung activist, writer, and lecturer Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. DeBose—featured in period costume behind a podium in a prominent spot at the exhibition’s entrance—captures Harper in 1866 when she delivered a rousing speech before the 11th National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York City. Women and men, both black and white, the activists were there to contemplate the implications of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. A watershed moment in the fight for women’s suffrage, the convention featured some of the most famous leaders of the nascent movement, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. But we wanted to focus on the power of Harper’s address as she took the floor and challenged listeners to see that working collectively to expand rights for all Americans would strengthen the nation. As historian Martha S. Jones put it during our Fifth Annual Diane and Adam E. Max Conference on Women’s History, Harper came to the convention “looking for a fight.” She boldly stated, “You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs.”
Harper’s speech was largely forgotten in the historical record. But it made a significant impact on the day’s proceedings, which concluded with a resolution to work towards attaining universal suffrage for both black men and for all women, anticipating the notion of “intersectionality” by over a century. Women March situates the address as an important juncture for understanding the multi-racial backdrop of women’s struggles, sprung from abolitionism and blossoming to encompass activism for women’s suffrage in the 19th century and the causes beyond. As Harper concluded in her speech, “We are all bound up together.”
Filming the re-creation of the speech was a collective act in and of itself. The Center for Women’s History team, in consultation with New-York Historical’s Living History coordinator, Cheyney McKnight, researched the appropriate period clothing and alighted upon the perfect costume. The City University of New York School of Professional Studies, with whom New-York Historical is partnering in an MA Program in Museum Studies, offered its recording studio and equipment for the shoot. And DeBose came armed with not only Harper’s spirit and words, but a delightful makeup artist. The results of the day are riveting.
The Center for Women’s History has watched with pride as DeBose’s star has continued to rise. A champion of our work, she first became active with the Center in 2016, when she volunteered to help cast the voice-over artists for our award-winning film We Rise. She called on fellow actor friends—some of the “most talented, ferocious women”—to make time in their schedules to characterize the voices of historic women who participated in the suffrage movement in New York City. After playing Donna Summer on Broadway, Ariana was cast as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film version of West Side Story, for which, coincidentally, Virginia Sanchez-Korrol, a member of our Scholarly Advisory Board, served as historical consultant. And soon after filming Frances Harper’s speech, Ariana was off to California to film The Prom, starring Meryl Streep, who, among many other things, is the narrator of We Rise. We are, it seems, all bound up together at the Center for Women’s History!
Check out DeBose’s performance in person and more of the inspiring imagery in Women March, on view through Jan. 24, 2021.
Written by Valerie Paley, Senior Vice President, Chief Historian, and Director of the Center for Women’s History