Teacher, author, playwright and actress Allyson Adams discovered U.S. Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin’s story through biography “Flight of the Dove” by Kevin Giles in a Virginia City Bookstore in 1997.
“I felt kind of cheated I had never heard about her,” Adams said during an interview last week in her Virginia City home. Before that, history to Adams was “about war and men in bad wigs.” “It might have changed my whole life.”
But the meeting did change her life. Adams immediately took inspiration from Rankin’s story, turning it into a sweeping play covering 60 years in the first woman to hold federal office’s life from her childhood in Montana to her protest of the Vietnam War. It followed her involvement in the women’s suffrage movement, her successful runs for Montana’s lone Congressional seat, her “no” votes for entry into both WWI and WWII and her continued calls for peace. Adams read the play to her students, thinking it was too political to produce, but with their urging staged it at Virginia City’s Opera House.
That play would become Adams’ one-woman show “Moment of Peace,” which toured Montana for a decade. She performed for groups of all sorts and as a teaching tool in schools, where the play fit in with English, history, government and drama curriculum. It also gave rise to the MontanaPBS docudrama “Peace is a Woman’s Job
,” which Adams wrote, directed, produced and starred in using people and scenes from Virginia City. Her own house became a set, patriotic dressings on the back porch a stage where Rankin greeted the public after winning her first election. A prop sign announcing the “National American Woman Suffrage Assn.” still hangs under Adams’ porch.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001. Suddenly, the political climate changed as there was once again a push toward war. No one wanted to hear about a historic peacemaker.
“The only positive thing I could take away from it is this is how Jeannette felt,” Adams said.
Adams turned to other projects, teaching drama to Ennis high schools students, coaching speech and debate, hosting writing retreats and leading the Tobacco Root Writers group, publishing her father’s memoir of his friendship with Elvis Presley, ”The Rebel & The King,” and working on her first cookbook.
“Not only did we do the whole Jeannette Rankin thing, but then life imitated art and I became the mayor of Virginia City,” Adams said.
Adams soon realized she would rather remain an artist than be a politician. As the 100th year anniversary of Rankin’s first election loomed, she knew she had to revisit Rankin’s story.
This time, the play, “Save the Country: How Belle Fligelman and Jeannette Rankin Changed the World,” takes place in the three years starting with Montana women gaining suffrage and ending with her first “no” vote. It also focuses on the relationship between Rankin and journalist-turned campaign manager Belle Fligelman. In many ways that relationship mirrors that of Adams and longtime collaborator Linsu Crowley.
“I couldn’t have done it without her,” Adams said of the years working on and touring the first Rankin play with Crowley. “In some small way, it’s kind of a tribute to her.”
Librarian Beth Boyson, Get Out’s library columnist, organized the event as part of a push to bring more free theatrical readings to the library. There is so much to learn from history, from the true stories of the world, Boyson explained.
“I admire Miss Rankin’s stance, a singular stance against war,” Boyson said. “The people of Montana took a brave step and elected her. It tells a little something about the character of the state and the character of Jeannette Rankin.”
Rankin was a political progressive, fighting for equal wages for women, for health and safety of workers, for education, care of infants and child nutrition. The name of the play, “Save the Country,” is taken from these ideals, from Rankin’s domestic agenda as opposed to the peace vote which is normally first in any discussion of her life.
“It is all together fitting and proper that a mother be at the bedside of her child to nurse him through typhoid fever, and it is all together fitting and proper that she then go out into the public forum to eradicate the conditions that gave her child the disease in the first place,” Rankin proclaims early in “Save the Country.” “It is for these women that have no voice, that I ask you to vote and dare to make women free.”
“Save the Country” is more modern and experimental than its predecessor, calling for a spotlight where actors speak directly to the audience. It also includes Rankin’s premonition of the testing of the atomic bomb in New Mexico.
“Young people and Americans, they don’t know their history,” Adams said. “That’s why we keep repeating it.”
As for Adams, she may retire Rankin soon.
“It’s not that I want to spend my whole life on Jeannette,” she said, talking about Rankin’s platform from campaign finance reform to support for the GI Bill. “I want to clear up misconceptions.”
The first staged reading of “Save the Country: How Belle Fligelman and Jeannette Rankin Changed the World” is Tuesday, Nov. 1, at 6 p.m. in the Bozeman Public Library’s Community Room, 626 E. Main St. The free reading will feature Amber Rose Mason as Belle Fligelman, Adams as Jeannette Rankin and John Hosking as Wellington Rankin, Jeannette’s Harvard-educated brother and campaign financier. There will also be music by Bozeman singer-songwriter Edis Kittrell. A talkback with the writer and actors will follow the roughly 35-minute play and cake will be served. A full production will be staged at the Torch Theatre in Virginia City in summer 2017.
By Rachel Hergett at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Oct. 27, 2016