top of page

Spotlight: Women of Theatre

This year for Women's History Month, I started a little personal dramaturgy project initially on social media and now archived here. The following recaps weekly posts from the month of March on a few incredible ladies I have come across in my joint studies of history and theatre over the years, who deserve so much more press than they receive. Of course there are so tremendously many artists who could fit into this category, but I hope my tiny sampling will inspire you to research further if you’re interested!

Week 1

Rachel Crothers

(1878-1958) Playwright, Producer, Director, and Activist Extraordinaire.

Near and dear to my heart for being the subject of my undergrad history thesis!

In Five Facts, that definitely do not do her justice:

  1. As a playwright Crothers explored and commented on the position of women in American society, while also enjoying great commercial success. For three decades from the 1900s-30s, she maintained an incredible average of one Broadway production a year.

  2. Throughout all of these productions, she cast, produced, and directed the majority of her own work!

  3. During WWI she founded the Stage Women’s War Relief, and during the Great Depression she helped organize the Stage Relief Fund.

  4. (...and now we come to the topic of my thesis) At the outbreak of WWII in Europe, she led the creation of the American Theatre Wing – originally conceived as a war relief organization managed by the women of the New York theatre community (founding board members included such recognizable stars as Katharine Hepburn and Gertrude Lawrence), and remained its executive director until 1950.

  5. Throughout WWII the Wing grew exponentially and ultimately oversaw initiatives serving every demographic of the services and the home front, most famously operating Stage Door Canteens in New York and beyond. The Wing continues today as a non-profit supporting theatre and theatre artists and presenter of the Tony and Obie Awards.

“We are here and ready — and … we shall leave it in the annals of theatre that the trained imagination … can be used for serving humanity in more ways than entertaining.”

- Rachel Crothers to the SWWR, 1920

Further Reading:

Week 2

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

(c.1651-1695) Poet, Playwright, Scholar, and Nun.

Iconically nicknamed “The Tenth Muse” and “The Phoenix of America”

In Five Facts, that definitely do not do her justice:

  1. Born to a mixed-race Creole-Spanish family during Mexico’s colonial period, Juana sought education from a young age and was almost entirely self-taught, mastering several languages including Spanish, Latin, and Nahuatl.

  2. She was invited to the Spanish court in Mexico City as a lady-in-waiting, but soon chose to enter a convent as she wished “to have no fixed occupation which might curtail my freedom to study.”

  3. At the Convent of Santa Paula, Sor Juana took on employment as a scholar, writer, teacher, archivist, and accountant. She assembled a tremendous library, and even managed to serve as the unofficial court poet through correspondence with the viceroy of New Spain and other patrons!

  4. She is regarded as the last great writer of the Hispanic Baroque style as well as an early giant of Mexican literature and the first significant playwright of the Americas, with wide-ranging works including poetry of varied forms and tones and both religious and secular verse plays.

  5. Throughout her work Sor Juana celebrates women for their reason and knowledge, and champions female education. She also comments on the socio-political landscape of 17th-century Mexico, and the sexism of church and society in poems such as “You Foolish Men.”

“O World, why do you wish to persecute me?

How do I offend you, when I intend

Only to fix beauty in my intellect,

And never my intellect fix on beauty?”

- Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sonnet 146 (trans. Edith Grossman)

Further Reading:

Learn about Sor Juana and her play Los Empeños de Una Casa from Expand the Canon

Week 3

Lotta Crabtree

(1847-1924) Actress, Producer, Philanthropist, and a true superstar of her day.

I have actually learned about Lotta my whole life, as she happens to have had a summer home at the lake where my parents run a local history museum, and it’s always been wild to me that she is so seldom referenced outside a narrow corner of 19th-century theatre history. So we’re going to remedy that today!

In Five Facts, that definitely do not do her justice:

  1. Charlotte “Lotta” Crabtree traveled to California with her parents at a young age to follow the Gold Rush, and soon began entertaining throughout the mining towns as a singer, dancer, and musician.

  2. Initially making her stage debut in San Francisco, Lotta rose to become a top star of the vaudeville circuits, New York, and London stages, even establishing her own touring company with a resident ensemble of actors.

  3. “Miss Lotta,” as she was billed, was considered America’s most celebrated performer for twenty-five years and the highest-paid actress in the country by the 1880s. She rarely appeared as a conventional ingenue or romantic lead, preferring instead comedic, musical, and character roles.

  4. Throughout a career overlapping that of Sarah Bernhardt, Lotta was judged to be the more popular of the two in the United States, and has been referenced as the nation’s first great celebrity.

  5. Lotta never married and left her estate to a trust which continues to this day in support of numerous causes including women’s education and care for aging actors.

Further Reading:

Week 4

Angelina Weld Grimké

(1880-1958) Playwright, Poet, and Activist.

Holder of several surprising and under-recognized firsts!

In Five Facts, that definitely do not do her justice:

  1. Angelina grew up in a prominent biracial Boston family, learning a legacy of activism from her father, a leading member of the NAACP, and great aunts, notable abolitionist and early suffragists the Grimké sisters. Angelina would also herself go on to join a group of influential Black suffragists in DC.

  2. Throughout her career as a teacher in Washington DC, she wrote prolifically in a range of styles including poetry, drama, and short stories. Her writing is credited as an inspirational forerunner of the Harlem Renaissance.

  3. In her narrative writing Grimké confronts issues of racial injustice and lynching in particular, while her poetry is often romantic, including lyrical love sonnets addressed to women.

  4. As a playwright she is best known for Rachel (1916), produced by the NAACP’s Drama Committee in DC and later in New York, and intended as the first attempt to use the stage to educate white audiences on the harsh realities of the Black lived experience in America.

  5. Rachel is believed to be the first play by a Black woman professionally produced in the United States, as well as the first drama by an African American playwright and actors presented to a white audience.

Further Reading:

Learn about Angelina and her play Rachel

Week 5

Yang Jiang (杨绛)

(1911-2016) Playwright, Author, and Translator.

I’ve only just learned about her and she’s incredible, I look forward to researching further!

In Five Facts, that definitely do not do her justice:

  1. Yang Jiang grew up in Beijing just after the imperial period, where she studied political science, literature, and foreign languages before traveling abroad.

  2. In the 1940s she found popular success as a playwright of witty comedies, contemporary to the works of Noel Coward, in wartime Shanghai.

  3. She may be best known as the first Chinese author to complete a full translation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. This monumental undertaking involved teaching herself Spanish in order to translate directly from the original!

  4. At the height of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, both she and her husband were sent to rural labor camps for several years. Upon returning to Beijing and to writing, she published a memoir of her experiences, celebrated for its honesty and wit.

  5. Yang Jiang’s Don Quixote, finally completed in 1978 after the Cultural Revolution, remains the definitive Chinese translation, and her original plays, novels and memoirs leave an epic literary legacy in their own right.

“After undergoing more than ten years

of reform… not only had I not reached

the plateau of progressive thinking that

everyone sought, I was nearly as selfish

now as I was in the beginning.

I was still the same old me.”

- Yang Jiang, Six Chapters from My Life ‘Downunder’ (1981)

Further Reading:

Learn about Yang and her play Forging the Truth from Expand the Canon


bottom of page