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A Theatrical Look At 'The Vote That Changed the World'

A YOUNG girl in the audience rests her chin on the stage, listening attentively. When she reaches voting age, she might be more likely to exercise her right, now that she has heard the words of generations of women before her who struggled to win it.

The Historyonics Theatre Company reaches both adults and children with its blend of education and entertainment. Its performances this month of ''The Vote That Changed the World: The Women's Suffrage Movement,'' for two weekends at the Missouri Historical Society, stimulated impromptu discussions among audience members, not only about women's rights but about the importance of the vote itself. The play coincided with the local showing of the women activists exhibit sponsored by the US League of Women Voters.

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Dressed in period costumes of purple and gold (the colors of suffrage banners) the actresses stood at podiums to deliver passionate speeches, poignant stories, and barbs. Even when moving around on stage they held scripts. Managing director Larry Roberson says the staged-reading style ''grounds it in the reality'' and comes from the company's roots in radio performances.

The artistic director, who goes by the name Patton, says she found it challenging to choose among excerpts from diaries, letters, newspapers, and other archival sources to represent the period between the 1848 Seneca Falls convention and the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment. She and three other actresses played well-known figures such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Amelia Bloomer, Susan B. Anthony, and many others, including some men who were for and against women's suffrage.

The anti-suffragist arguments, though taken seriously in their day, were used mainly as comic relief. Notable doctors, for instance, asserted that to educate women was to divert nutriment from the ''ovaries and their accessories'' to the brain.

The show's authentic suffrage songs, which music director Lydia Ruffin sang and accompanied on guitar, included pledges to ''speak my mind if I die for it,'' remakes of patriotic tunes, and more personal -- yet no less political -- laments.

One issue that complicated the women's suffrage battle was whether to prioritize the rights of blacks or of women. Hassie Davis portrayed some of the black women activists, who knew they needed both. ''I enjoyed the difference of ideas going on with the black women,'' she said after a Saturday-night performance.

Patton observes that the play shows ''how much things have changed and how little things have changed.'' Some suffragists lobbied Congress, while others picketed the White House and went on hunger strikes in prison. Less than a week after the show, Patton's statement was confirmed. While Congress debated a welfare-reform bill, Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, was led away in handcuffs for protesting the bill in the Capitol Rotunda, a misdemeanor.

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