Female firsts in the spotlights

There seems to be an almost cultural fixation with firsts – first car, first kiss – who are we not to play along?

Later this month, Jobsite Theater opens its season with Dr. Ride’s American Beach House, a play set on the eve of astronaut Sally Ride’s historic 1983 launch as the first American woman in space.

Sally Ride joined NASA in 1978, and in 1983 became the first American woman in space.

That got us thinking about female firsts in theater.

Although the pioneering women of the stage prior weren’t launched into orbit, their expeditions into what was a predominantly male-oriented profession of the era were just as lofty.

For example, Lillian Trimble Bradley who, in 1918, stipulated she would assist producer George Broadhurst in directing her play The Woman on the Index. That stipulation led to Bradley becoming stage director of Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre.

Trimble Bradley went on to direct eight more Broadway productions and along with her earlier demand regarding directing, she became known as the “first American woman director on Broadway.”

Trimble Bradley, who died at 84 in 1959, was just one of a long line of “first females” on Broadway and theater, on stages and behind the curtain.

Here are some of TV, Broadway and theater’s noteworthy female frontierswomen of recent history:

  • Margo Jones (1911-1955) – Jones was an American stage director and producer who helped develop American regional theater and created the theater-in-the-round in Dallas, Texas. Jones established the first regional professional company, Theatre ’47, in Dallas. During her career, she staged 85 plays in Dallas, 57 of them new and about a third of those continue to be performed on stage, television and radio. According to a 2005 article by Helen Sheehy, Jones played an important role in the early careers of playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Joseph Hayes, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee.
  • Micki Grant (1929-2021) – She was American singer, actress, writer and composer and three-time Tony® nominee for her writing, including two nominations for her musical review Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, a show with the focus on the African-American experience. Other theatrical credits include roles in the 1961 musical Fly Blackbird; 1964’s revival of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock; and on TV, she was daytime’s first contract Black character, portraying Peggy Nolan on NBC’s Another World (1966-1973).
  • Vinnette Justine Carroll (1922-2002) – Carroll was known for breaking new ground for minority artists for more than 30 years. She was a playwright, an actress, making her Broadway debut in A Streetcar Named Desire and the first Black woman to direct on Broadway with her 1972 production of Grant’s Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, which garnered her first Tony nomination.
  • María Irene Fornés (1930-2018) – The Cuban-American playwright and director was most noted for her 1960s-era Off Broadway plays which often involved plots related to the economic impacts encountered within personal relationships. Between 1965 and 2000, she won eight Off-Broadway Obie Theatre Awards and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Among her most-noted plays are plays were Promenade, The Successful Life of 3, Fefu and Her Friends, The Danube and The Conduct of Life.
  • Hildy Parks (1926-2004) – During her career, Parks was an actress and television writer. She was the writer of the first Tony Awards telecast in 1967, where she also was given a producer’s credit. The Washington, D.C. native went on to produce the Tony Awards through 1986. Her TV and film resume includes the films Fail Safe (1964), the daytime drama Love of Life (1951-1955), and was a panelist on the TV game show To Tell the Truth.
  • Diahann Carroll (1935-2019) – The famed actress collected many firsts in her groundbreaking career. In 1962, she was the first Black woman to win a Tony in a Best Actress category for her performance in the musical No Strings. She also was the first black woman to star in the title role of a television series, in which the character wasn’t a domestic worker. She portrayed a nurse in Julia, which ran for three years on NBC.
  • Julie Taymor (1952-) and Garry Hynes (1953) – There were two major firsts at the 1998 Tony Awards. Within a few minutes of each other, Hynes (The Beauty Queen of Leenane) and Taymor (Disney’s The Lion King), became the first women to win best director Tonys in the award’s then-51-year history. Earlier in the evening, Taymor picked up a Tony for the innovative costumes that transformed actors into wild animals on the African savanna.
  • Cyndi Lauper (1953-) – The singer who hit it big with “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and four other Top Ten hits in the 1980s became the creator, composer and lyricist for the musical Kinky Boots. In 2013, she became the first woman to win a Tony for Best Score without a male writing partner. The musical won five more Tonys, including Best New Musical. In 2014, Lauper was won a Grammy Award for “Best Musical Theater Album” for the cast recording and two years later, the West End production won Best New Musical at the Olivier Awards.

Liza Birkenmeier, the playwright behind Jobsite’s 2021-22 season premiere, Dr. Ride’s American Beach House, may have some awards in her future that could add her to this list of female firsts in theater. Commissioned by Ars Nova and receiving rave reviews including being chosen a New York Times‘ “Critics’ Pick,” Birkenmeier sets the play where she’s from, St. Louis, on the eve of astronaut Ride’s famous foray into space. On a rooftoop a group of women gather, discussing the juxtaposition of their intimate desires against American norms of sex and power among lesbian anti-heroines.

David Jenkins, Jobsite producing artistic director, says playwright Liza Birkenmeier lends an “authentic voice” to the play’s characters. He says the play was chosen partly in its portrayal of women in the 1980s, some of whom still suffered repression of career identities.

“I think the play really uses the backdrop of the ’80s of how difficult it still was for women to live authentically … and how during that period, they often had to ‘just suck it up and live with it’ in many aspects of their lives,” he says.

The Jobsite performances, running Sept. 29-Oct. 10, will be the first time Dr. Ride’s American Beach House will be performed outside of its New York premieres.

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