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Nikki M. James, Anastaćia McCleskey

Nikki M. James & Anastaćia McCleskey Take on an Often Erased Part of History

In the anthemic finale of Suffs, the Shaina Taub–written musical premiering on Broadway March 26 at the Music Box Theatre, a troupe of suffragists gathers to sing:

“You join in the chorus of centuries chanting to her / The path will be twisted, and risky, and slow, but keep marching / Will you fail or prevail? Well, you may never know, but keep marching / ’Cause your ancestors are all the proof you need that progress is possible, not guaranteed / It will only be made if we keep marching, keep marching on.”

Newly added for the Broadway run, “Keep Marching” has quickly become a favorite among the cast members. Taub’s lyrics offer both a benediction and call to action. After lifting up the story of the suffragists’ fight for women’s right to vote and the passing of the 19th amendment, Suffs reminds modern-day audiences that they can — or, perhaps, must — catch the baton from these women and, well, keep marching on.

“I love the message,” says Tony Award winner Nikki M. James, who portrays real-life journalist Ida B. Wells in the Leigh Silverman–directed musical. “It’s about reaching backwards and kicking away the fog around the women who should take their rightful place in the continued improvement of this country, but it’s also looking forward and inspiring the next generation.”

“Because we live in a world that is upside down as we speak, it can be really hard to want to keep going some days,” adds Anastaćia McCleskey, who plays real-life activist Mary Church Terrell. “[‘Keep Marching’ and] Shaina’s music pick you up and give you the spirit, joy, and hope to move forward and do your best to make the world a better place for all people of tomorrow.”

James’s and McCleskey’s characters are two key suffragists who are often erased from an already dismissed movement. The American women’s suffragist movement at the turn of the 20th century has been repeatedly relegated to a mere paragraph in history textbooks. Suffs expands on that paragraph — examining the movement as a whole, with its victories and its failures, as well as exploring the lives of the women on the frontlines, including Alice Paul, Inez Milholland, Terrell, and Wells.

“I was embarrassingly underinformed about the women’s suffrage movement,” says James. “I won’t take all of the blame; there can be glaring holes in the teaching of U.S. history, especially women’s suffrage. Shaina was a great resource; she could have her own library about the suffrage movement. I went on a little bit of a deep dive [into Wells’s life], and I was absolutely blown away by how massive and powerful her life is.”

As an investigative journalist, Ida B. Wells reported on racial violence and documented lynchings happening in the Southern United States during the Reconstruction Era. She moved to Chicago after a white mob destroyed the office of Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, the newspaper Wells wrote for and co-owned. It was in Chicago that Wells became heavily involved in organizing efforts for Black civil rights and women’s civil rights. She specifically advocated for the inclusion of Black women in the women’s suffragist movement, which centered white women and wanted to maintain a segregated movement.

“What’s incredible is that since Ida was a journalist, we have her words about everything,” says James. “There are so many little stories that aren’t able to be included in the two hours and 30 minutes of Suffs, but I hope that, if anything, people will walk out and remember her. That could be more than people know now.”

By elevating the experiences and voices of Black women within their broader social groups, both Wells and Terrell provided the framework for Black feminism before it was a concept. Instead of seeing their intersectional identity — the intersection of their race and gender — as a weakness, they saw it as a strength. They were able to discern and attempt to dismantle society’s oppressive systems with two marginalized perspectives.

Even with her parents teaching her all about Black American and Black world history growing up, McCleskey was unfamiliar with her character, Mary Church Terrell. Terrell was an educator and journalist. She taught at Wilberforce University and was appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education in 1895, making her the first Black woman to do so. She also organized anti-lynching campaigns alongside Wells, and both worked to integrate the 1913 suffrage March on Washington, an event covered in Suffs. 

“Growing up, I was a member of the [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] and I’d heard of the National Association of Colored Women, but I always thought that was an organization that just Ida B. Wells started,” says McCleskey. “I was very excited to learn that this woman who I would have the honor of portraying not only cofounded both organizations, but also had so many firsts as a Black woman at that time and laid a foundation that so many of us are privileged to stand on today.”

To better understand these historical heroines, both James and McCleskey dove into books and academic resources to learn more about their characters. McCleskey read The Progress of Colored Women: Three Civil Rights Speeches by the First Black Woman to Receive a College Education in the United States of America, and Unceasing Militant, a book by Allison M. Parker. While reading the latter, McCleskey appreciated that the book contained letters and diary entries from Terrell, “showing her personal joys, struggles, and balance of political and private life,” which gave McCleskey a glimpse into Terrell as a multidimensional person, not just an activist.

James agrees that after the research phase, the mining of the character must become a little more personal and intimate. One of her approaches is to pull out the 2015 New York Times article “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love.” Asking those questions of her characters allows her to crack open their secrets, opinions, and views. She then looks at how any of her own experiences mirror those of her characters.

“At a certain point, I have to put down the analytical resources and figure out where the legend of Ida manifests in the body of me,” says James. “You can’t play a paragraph in a book. What can I bring to the stage?”

In excavating their characters from the trenches of history, both James and McCleskey have both been inspired by their characters in their daily lives. McCleskey discovered that while she is more radical than Terrell, she has been inspired by Terrell to speak up faster and be “willing to lay everything on the line for the sake of the future of humanity and for the sake of the future of your people.”

“Ida was unflinching and unafraid,” says James. “She understands the danger she puts herself and loved ones in when she pushes back against the KKK or the U.S. government, but she doesn’t flinch. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t scary or she didn’t have doubts. Her actions were of true bravery and the serious courage of her convictions. She’s taught me to have confidence even in the small moments.”

As the two actors continue to craft their performances, there is a deep gratitude for their characters, who moved the needle of progress more than a century ago, and for Suffs, to spotlight these two important yet often forgotten women. They are eager for audiences to learn about their characters through Taub’s moving score, which McCleskey describes as “a spiritual experience.”

“Shaina’s music is like sitting on your porch on an easy, breezy spring day, drinking an Arnold Palmer and eating a slice of pound cake,” says McCleskey. “It’s free, it’s relaxing, and it creeps into your soul and spirit. The language that she chooses is for every human. Everyone can relate to this music in some way, shape, or form. There are a few protest songs in the show, and no matter what you’re going through, you can apply them to your life.”

James adds, “I believe Shaina is one of the great stars of American musicals. As we go forward, whatever happens with Suffs — like, how long the run is and how we define its success in the present — this musical will be in theater textbooks, and my name will be next to hers on that page in the book.”

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