It was a New York Times review of a history book that led Manhattan playwright Melissa Bell to pen a script on the life of Emma Goldman, who was deported from the United States in 1919 under the Anarchist Exclusion Act, along with her lover, Alexander “Sasha” Berkman.
The book was “Sasha and Emma” by Paul and Karen Avrich, and she was struck by its story—its true story. “This has so much conflict in it, that it has to be a play,” she recalled thinking.
This Tuesday, October 4, Ms. Bell will put on a staged reading of the play she was inspired to create, “Love, Sex, Anarchy,” at the John Drew Theater in Guild Hall as part of the JDTLab series, which helps incubate new works in development.
“It’s not really a biopic, but it is Emma Goldman’s life,” Ms. Bell explained.
Ms. Goldman was a fiery speaker who fell in love with the anarchist movement, Ms. Bell said. The story focuses on a 30-year period in her life, starting from about the time she arrived in America, in 1885, to just before she was deported to Russia. “And it’s all laced together with her various sexual exploits, which also play a very big role in the show,” she said.
Some very famous historical events frame the story, according to Ms. Bell, such as 1886’s Haymarket Riot in Chicago—which started when a peaceful labor rally was bombed—and the subsequent persecution and hangings of anarchists.
“This incited her sense of justice, and she started to become very interested in anarchy, and she was very involved with the Homestead riot in Pennsylvania,” Ms. Bell said.
The latter event pitted striking steelworkers in Pittsburgh again Henry Clay Frick, who tried to bust the union. In 1892, in what became known at the Homestead plot, Mr. Berkman was arrested for attempting to assassinate Mr. Frick.
The play will strike a chord with audiences today because it concerns a conflict of ideologies, Ms. Bell said. “Oftentimes, when people fight for these ideologies, they’re not always matching what their human needs are. They’re really fighting for the ideology over the actual need.”
People start to believe that one way is the only way, she said. “There are a lot of dangers to ideologues and what they think, and what they feel has to be done in the name of some sort of ideology.”
Heather Bagnall will read the part of Emma, and Kyle Minshew will be Sasha. Clinton Brandhagen will play the third principal character, Fedya, who is Sasha’s cousin and the third co-conspirator in the assassination of Henry Clay Frick. There are seven actors and 16 characters in total.
Ms. Bell said the actors will have scripts in hand, though many are very familiar with the material, having taken part in past staged readings of the work. Readings took place in Manhattan at the 29th Street Playwrights Collective, where she is a resident artist, and in Washington, D.C., at Corner Store Arts and the National Museum of the Woman Artist, and she has revised the play after each.
“I actually have a new first scene that we’re trying out, because we felt that the opening was not quite right, and, hopefully, we got it right this time,” Ms. Bell said of the Guild Hall performance.
“Love, Sex, Anarchy” will be presented on Tuesday, October 4, at 7:30 p.m. with free admission at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton.
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