PASADENA, CALIFORNIA — I met Mimi Kennedy on the telephone by way of introduction through a mutual friend, peace activist Frank Dorrel (Addicted To War). Very quickly, we connected as writer-performers interested in historically invisiblized women heroes. Mimi lent her beautiful voice to the film, A Single Woman, based on my play of the same name, about the life of first US Congresswoman and lifelong pacifist, Jeannette Rankin. Right away, we realized that we were both passionate about telling the story of Matilda Joslyn Gage, the little-known third of the first wave feminist triumverate that also included Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. We are currently in the process of researching and envisioning a duet performance featuring Gage and an ideal nemesis, the 19th Century puritan throwback reformer, Anthony Comstock. Mimi is finishing a run of The Lady with all the Answers at the Pasadena Playhouse. The show is directed by Brendan Fox and runs through November 23rd. I interviewed her via e-mail.
Jeanmarie Simpson: I don’t know how you do it, but you juggle so many interesting and important projects and are a totally devoted mother and spouse. How do you do it and stay so grounded?
Mimi Kennedy: One thing at a time. My kids are grown — my husband and I are a stable empty nest. Anyone with kids knows that when they’re out of the house, it’s easier to get to your own projects. Of course, you spend some emotional down-time missing them and the days when they were yours to hug and hold! During the past four years — since adding whatever TV celebrity I had to attract media in remote areas to Dennis Kucinich’s primary campaign, which dogged the Democrats to challenge Bush and his war and his economic policies — I devoted myself to volunteer activism to stop war as foreign policy and destruction of the Constitution as politics. With Obama’s campaign bringing in the great power of a new generation involved in this effort, I felt able to accept this role when it was offered. It has worked out well — I was still able to monitor election protection efforts, which has been my passion since Ohio ’04. The electronic vote-counting in our country is still open to fraud and manipulation, and we have to get a system of checks and balances in place so landslides are not our only option for change. It’s supposed to be a majority of a secret vote but publicly-observable vote-count!
JMS: What attracted you to the Pasadena Playhouse project, The Lady with all the Answers?
MK: I read Ann Landers’s column as a girl. I think she was in the morning paper (there were morning and evening papers then!). I had a pretty happy childhood home, so anything that takes me back to that breakfast table is good. My mother was Ann’s generation — from the make-up to the sardonic humor to the insistence on moral boundaries with compassion in the judgement — and I miss my mother. So putting on Ann (Eppie Lederer)’s wig and make-up was a chance to recall my mother. And the script by David Rambo made a real play out of the character presentation. There’s drama, and it hit my heart — I laughed and I cried. Also, the offer was flat-out. I did not have to audition. That meant I knew Sheldon Epps, the artistic director, had faith that I could create Ann. A solo performance takes that kind of faith from a support team in order to build on firm foundation.
JMS: Do you enjoy solo work?
MK: God help me, I love it. I like to think I’m a good ensemble performer – Homefront and Dharma & Greg were both TV shows that garnered awards for the ensemble, but after doing so much public speaking about politics, peace, and justice, I was used to conveying a message in the moment, not from committee, and with direct clarity. The message of a human personality like Ann Landers as David Rambo wrote her is loud and clear to the heart, but it’s not conveyed all in words. It’s physical and psychological in the timbre of the voice and the choice of emphasis. Mind, heart, body, even costume, wig, and make-up choices played a part. It was great not to have anyone but me and a great director — Brendon Fox — collaborating how that message should best be conveyed. I even had input into costume and make-up with wonderful professionals like Holly Polk, who has worked with Brendon before.
JMS: What was your process with the Ann Landers piece, and how was it different from the way you work on an ensemble show?
MK: I learned the first Act before first rehearsal, so I was fluid in moving around the rehearsal room. Brendon watched me the way a good shrink would — looking for cues to what I was thinking and feeling, and guided by suggestion and discussion of the things Ann/Eppie was choosing to talk about. It was a fantastically satisfying process. Every moment was germinated with love and attention. Organic moments took root and bloomed into something that could flower with color and size on the Playhouse stage. I tend to shrink back from conflict in the theater. If some other actor needs something, I tend to try to give it and adjust my performance rather than think I’m frustrating my fellow actor. Or if a director has some idealized vision into which I must fit, I try to go there, but it can stunt a clear performance. It pains me at times, which eventually shows up in frustration that ruins whatever good effect my ingratiating deference was meant to create. There is another common frustration in my being categorized as a comic actress because I like making people laugh…and because I can. But it denied me an esteem I craved and, more pertinently, certain roles I wished I’d been given a chance to do. All of that was healed in this process. Ann/Eppie is funny, but David Rambo took it deeper. What liberation.
JMS: You are so well-known for your activism, in addition to your artistic celebrity. How do the two integrate in your life?
MK: One thing at a time, or both together when you’re lucky enough to meet a fellow artist or artists who see the world as you do! As I’ve said, when people were dying in a war, we started without legal foundation; when constitutional rights were being destroyed and our politics were in danger of descending into a Soviet-style, one-party system, I had to focus on the drama of citizenship. People were suffering and dying because Americans had their heads in the sand. I felt terrible about that. I didn’t feel like laughing and entertaining in the old success paradigm. Of course, with the many friends I met — the activists and ordinary citizens — I laughed and entertained. It was our commitment to peace and justice that made hard times easier. That will sustain a lot of us through the next couple of years too.
JMS: How did you become acquainted with the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation?
MK: I was writing a novel. I needed a Seneca word for a fictional lake. I met someone at a NOW dinner (where I was invited as a TV celebrity) who told me that Sally Roesch Wagner was a source for all things Seneca. I pursued another source who never came through. A little voice in my head kept saying “Call theother one,” and finally, I did. I called Sally and she was right there on the other end of the phone, delighted to hear from me — a fan of Dharma & Greg. She was also a brilliant academician. She introduce me to the clan mother who gave me the word I needed, and she also told me she was Matilda Joslyn Gage’s biographer and had just bought Matilda’s home in Fayetteville, New York and established a foundation to revive her memory and write her back into women’s history. I read Woman, Church and State — Matilda’s masterpiece which Sally had edited and gotten published again. I read all Sally’s work about Matilda. Eventually there will be a biography from Sally, and it will rock the world.
JMS: Let’s talk about an original work about Matilda. Why do you think it’s a meaningful subject to explore today?
MK: Well, we could reduce it to the name Sarah Palin. There was a sense around Sarah P that she embodied true womanhood — as a mother, as a political leader, and as a woman with a solid moral center. People who don’t agree with her politics were nonetheless excited by what she represented — the culture is hungry for forthright, moral, feminine feminists! Yet everything about feminism and being female — the sorrows and joys and politics of physiology, human reproduction, sexual love and gender — is currently misshapen by competing ideologies. Fundamentalist ideologies of many kinds tragically suppress women’s individuality under law and cultural practice. I believe this is due to human fears of extinction. There is a felt threat to our survival. Instead of understanding that the threat comes from all of us and our depradations on the planet, we ascribe it to the failure of women to obediently reproduce and strengthen the particular culture or tribe or society that is worried about losing dominance to another culture or tribe. Humans want to survive on a personal level — it drives everything about us! It also drives the politics of culture. In the 19th century, Americans were still on the march to settle the frontiers. But Matilda, in Syracuse, saw clearly that repression of women, denial of the vote, denial of equal rights under law, was a kind of slavery. She was an abolitionist too, and her home was a station on the Underground Railroad. At a time when libraries were the only research resources available to her, she did exhaustive investigation of treatment of women in ancient and medieval societies. She was adopted into the Iroquois Wolf Clan. She was so close to the clan mothers in her area, who chose and deposed their chiefs at a time when white women had no political voice. Matilda insisted on the right and responsibility of people to think for themselves instead of cleaving to receive wisdom out of fear. She loved generously — she had a long-term marriage and five children, one of whom died in infancy. She was a great writer and strategist for the Suffrage Movement. She identified Christian fundamentalism as a threat to democracy and the Constitution in her day, even as she said that “true religion” sets people free. She had a great mystical curiosity and respect for spiritual matters, but not for ideologies that denied human equality. She was an intellectual giant and a wise woman. We need to know her.