As an actress, Kristine Thatcher has had a powerful way with words, whether boiling with indignant spitfire as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew or lamenting the death of child and marriage in Three Hotels. As a playwright, her ability to use language is no less compelling.
Almost four years ago, the world-premiere of the wrenching Emma's Child managed the feat of eliciting tears through means that did not involve emotional manipulation as Thatcher's story of a terminally ill infant unfolded on the stage of Chicago's Victory Gardens. With Voice of Good Hope, Thatcher achieves the same resonance. Just as a unique eloquence marked former Texas State Senator Barbara Jordan's brand of "passionate reason," Thatcher's drama about the state politician turned national political figure is so marked as well. The play brims with humor, depth, and insight.
Receiving its world premiere at the Victory Gardens with staging by Artistic Director Dennis Zacek, Voice of Good Hope paints an extraordinary portrait of an extraordinary woman--from 1966, when Barbara Jordan became the first black representative since 1883 to win an election to the Texas legislature, to 1972, when Jordan became the first black woman from the deep south ever to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Two years later, Jordan captured the national spotlight with her carefully measured, pull-no-punches criticism of President Richard Nixon made headlines during the Chief Executive's impeachment hearings. By the time Jordan died at the age of 59 in 1996--just two years after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom--it was clear that she had created a legacy of well-tendered, uncompromising opinions and astounding political courage.
Whether one agreed or not with Jordan's politics, her force as a power and as a personality cannot be denied. By weaving together actual speeches Jordan gave during her life with fictional recreations of her childhood and a variety of exchanges both in and out of the public eye, Thatcher captures the essence of a true-hearted public servant and woman who was, above all, nobody's door mat.
Appropriately, then, Voice of Good Hope is book-ended by Jordan's ringing eloquence, first at the top of the play with her fierce defense of the Constitution during the Nixon impeachment hearings, and closing the play as she readies herself to deliver keynote address before the Democratic National Convention in 1992. Interspersed between her public words, Voice of Good Hope (whose title is derived from the Good Hope Baptist Church where Jordan's parents met) is comprised of tightly written, two-person scenes. In between, Thatcher draws Jordan in relation to the people that shaped her life.
For example, we see the future Congresswoman as a child in the '40s, folding rags and soaking up wisdom from her grandfather, John Ed, a junk dealer with a philosophy that left Jordan with an indelible impression. We also see the easy, loving relationship between Jordan and Nancy Earl, the woman she built her Onion Creek house with, and who was her steadfast partner in sickness and in health, both in an out of politics. And, in Thatcher's most biting scenes, we see Jordan playing politics with a canny shrewdness that never damaged her credibility or her adherence to ideals.
As Jordan, veteran Chicago actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce imbues the role with a dignity matched by a will of iron and an inability to suffer fools gladly.
Indeed, in what is perhaps the most compelling scene (and best example of Bruce's interpretation of the role), we see Jordan confront a young candidate, played by Yvonne Huff, on a series of ill-advised remarks that she had made. The colleague--whose comments calling for racial separatism come amid accusations that "white America" practices genocide against African-American men, which have landed her in political trouble--has come to Jordan for help in the form of an endorsement.
Only a woman of Jordan's stature can fish her out of this p.r. nightmare, the young politician argues. But Jordan refuses to help her former student. Instead, Jordan challenges her inflammatory remarks--which, as it turns out, was presenting an inaccurate representation of the young politician's own views. That, plus Bruce's depiction of Jordan's battle with multiple sclerosis creates a fully rounded portrait of a great American icon.
Finally, as Jordan's boon companion Nancy Earl, Meg Thalken manages a balance of affection with exasperation that indicates a friendship that ran as deep as bone marrow. Whether the two were lovers is not addressed, and not important. It's their characters that make them strong--and the play as well.