Debates of the past came back to life on Monday as performers put on a Chautauqua play featuring the 1872 and 1972 elections, with historical figures including Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. Chautauqua is a 19th century educational performance meant to reform movements and entertain and is largely improvised by the actors. Lisa Merrill, a rhetoric professor here at Hofstra, organized the performance and also played Victoria Woodhull, a figure of the women’s suffrage movement who ran for president in 1872.
“Everything we say is historically accurate,” Merrill said. “They were said throughout these character’s lives, and we use transcripts.”
Other historical figures featured in the Chautauqua performance included Douglass, played by Charles Everett Pace, Susan B. Anthony (Sally Matson), Judge Ward Hunt (John Dennis Anderson) and Shirley Chisholm, played by Hofstra alumna Shakirah DeMesier. Content related to this year’s election themes was highlighted – Chisholm was the first African-American elected to Congress in 1968 and the first black candidate for president. Anthony was arrested, tried and convicted of voting in the presidential election of 1872, before women were legally able to vote.
Hunt was a judge on the Supreme Court who presided over Anthony’s case. Douglass, an abolitionist, writer and statesman described his support for women’s rights in the performance. The characters interacted with each other very few times, the notable exception being the reenactment of Anthony’s trial, where she was fined $100 for voting for Ulysses S. Grant.
DeMesier graduated from Hofstra in 2009, so she was at Hofstra to experience the 2008 debate. She performed in a Chautauqua performance then as well, playing Harriet Tubman.
“The culture is different this time around,” she said about the atmosphere on campus. “The presidential climate is different. I can feel this sense of urgency just standing here.”
Since Hofstra had less time to prepare for this debate than in the past, Merrill put the performance together very quickly. She and the other performers made sure to bring historical figures to life whose messages are still relevant today.
“There’s so much going on in this election, and if people could see these people, even some from their own lifetimes [like Chisolm], it can answer some of their questions,” Merrill said.
A big part of the performance was centered on the fact that while Hillary Clinton is the first woman to win a presidential nomination, she is not the first woman to run – Woodhull, the founder of the Equal Rights Party was. “If people could see that even if women couldn’t vote, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they couldn’t be voted for,” said Merrill.