Discover how the women’s suffrage movement inspired the history musical ‘Suffs’
Suffs is the hottest new musical playing right now — and it’s not even on Broadway. The history musical about the passage of the 19th Amendment that allowed women to vote is running off Broadway at The Public Theater, and tickets are going fast. Even before it officially opened on April 6, Suffs extended its run twice. The show is now playing until May 29, and modern female icons such as Sandra Oh, Gloria Steinem, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been among its audience members.
On stage, Tony winner Nikki M. James, who plays real-life journalist and civil rights icon Ida B. Wells in the show, has been having the time of her life. “Not only is the show fantastic, but it’s fun to do and the people on stage and the people backstage love doing it together,” she enthuses.
James, who won a Tony Award for The Book of Mormon, takes us behind the scenes of the new musical. Here’s why it’s a must-see.
Suffs is based on real events.
Suffs has been in development since 2014. The process began when creator Shaina Taub, who wrote the music, lyrics, and book, picked up a copy of the book Jailed for Freedom, suffragist Doris Stevens’s account of how the suffragists held the first public protest at the White House in 1917 and were subsequently jailed and tortured.
Taub ultimately begins Suffs with the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade, where over 5,000 women marched in Washington, D.C., while wearing all white, clamoring for their right to vote. It wouldn’t be until eight years later, in 1920, that the 19th Amendment was finally enshrined in the Constitution. Suffs dramatized what happened in those long eight years.
“The right to vote for women was not inevitable,” says James. “It’s so easy for us to look back and think, ‘Well, of course women have the right to vote.’ It’s like, no! They fought hard; many people suffered in order for this to happen.”
Taub approached James about the project in 2018, after the two had worked together on Twelfth Night at Shakespeare in the Park. Taub had turned Shakespeare’s rom-com into a musical in which James played Viola.
Suffs currently has a sprawling cast of 19, but in those early days, it was just five or six women singing around a piano. “I thought this show was special,” says James of those early workshops. “Whenever they were doing little readings, workshops, developmental stages, if I was available and they’d have me, I was a part of it.”
Suffs is not your typical history lesson.
Suffs has a decidedly modern sensibility to it. There are period top hats and petticoats, but the cast of Suffs is entirely made of women who play the suffragists and all the men who opposed their freedom.
Grace McLean (of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812) plays President Woodrow Wilson, and Tsilala Brock plays Dudley Malone, who worked for Wilson but also supported women’s suffrage. The show also has a diverse cast that contains Black, Asian, Latinx, and gender non-conforming actors, and actors with disabilities.
The musical acknowledges the messy history of the suffrage movement.
Suffs doesn’t shy away from depicting the conflicts within the suffrage movement. Within the fight against patriarchy, there was a lot of infighting — between the moderate wing and the radical wing of the women’s movement, the different generations, and between the white women and the women of color.
“This isn’t just girl power. This is about infighting within the movement. This is about any group of people who have similar goals, but very different histories, experiences, and thoughts about how one gets to the end,” says James.
Similarly, the creative team and actors behind Suffs wanted to create a compelling musical, but they sometimes disagreed about how best to portray this history. In previous drafts of Suffs, James’s character Ida B. Wells only appears in Act One. But after the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, it became apparent that the Black suffragists needed a more prominent place in the musical. Suffs couldn’t just be a show about white feminism.
In real life, Black women and women of color were integral to the suffrage movement but were pushed aside to prioritize the vote for white women. Black women did not receive the right to vote until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed. Sidelining the Black voices would be a repeat of history.
James recalls conversations with Taub about making sure her character had more agency. “I just said, ‘It felt like there was not a moment where we got to ever be alone with Ida — she was always sort of in relationship to the white protagonists,’” she says. So Taub wrote James a second-act song in which Ida reflects on how “decades of defiance take their toll.” It’s coming from Ida, but it’s a sentiment that helps to humanize all the women.
Says James, “That’s an unbelievable gift for me as an actor and, I think, for the audience to hear that. It’s very easy to think of the successes of people’s lives and then forget that these people had feelings, they had disappointments.”
The musical is historically accurate.
Suff has a long list of characters. Taub herself plays Alice Paul, who started the National Women’s Party, the first all-female political party. Jenn Colella (of Come From Away) plays Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Hamilton original cast member Phillipa Soo plays Inez Milholland, who most famously led the 1913 suffrage parade atop a white horse. Suffs dramatizes that pivotal moment, and there’s even a life-sized horse onstage. Or at least half of it, according to James.
“The horse is too big [for the theatre] so the horse does not have hind legs,” says James with a chuckle. “But you can’t see it because [Phillipa] is wearing this beautiful big cape. But it’s a really funny thing to look at — it’s such a good replica of a horse, with all this like intricate details in the eyes and all the hair, and then it doesn’t have hind legs. It’s very theatre; it’s only the parts we need.”
Visual accuracy aside, the musical also contains the real words said and written by the suffragists. Suffs is mostly sung through, and one of Ida B. Wells’s most famous quotes, “I would rather die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap,” is musicalized.
James says getting to sing Wells’s words has been a “gift.” “It’s very easy to think of these women as being stoic and fearless and supernatural in their ability to withstand threats and slurs,” says James. “I love that Shaina has woven in, seamlessly, direct quotes from a lot of these people. I think it is a beautiful way to honor them and to invite their voices into the room and into the story, which is a fictionalized version of history.”
Suffs is an inspiring call to action for the audience.
Suffs isn’t content to give a history lesson (though James hopes the audience picks up a book and looks up the various characters in the musical afterwards).
But the Suffs musical ends with the following statement: “The work is never over, so it can’t be done alone.” James says the musical isn’t just a celebration of the 19th Amendment. It also ends on a note that James hopes reaches the audience: The battle for equality is not yet over. It is still being waged to this day.
After all, voter suppression is still a reality, as are increasing restrictions on women’s right to abortions and bodily autonomy. “Still today, we’re fighting this fight,” says James. “It is a call to action. At the end, we sing a song, ‘The work is never over.’ The show doesn’t end with a bunch of us clapping and singing and dancing. It’s looking at the audience and saying, ‘This is unending. We need to accept that change is not a destination; it is an ongoing cycle. And each of us, we have to be a participant in that.”