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“Ancestra:” How the Play that Advocates for Autonomy Came to Be

CSU’s spring play centers women’s and reproductive rights to honor the history of real Cleveland women.

Written by Sophie Farrar

Over ten years ago, Holly Holsinger, associate professor and head of Cleveland State University’s Department of Theatre and Dance, was approached by a student with a transcript of the 1853 National Women’s Rights Convention, which took place in Cleveland. The student, Renee Schilling, told Holsinger that she thought there might be something theatrical to be found in the transcript. Schilling’s gut instinct turned out to be correct. 

This spring, CSU’s Department of Theatre and Dance performed “Ancestra,” a play co-written by Holsinger and Chris Szajbert, which was inspired by the 1853 National Women’s Rights Convention. The story of how “Ancestra” came to be dates back to the day Holsinger read the transcript Schilling had given her, which Holsinger described as a powerful experience. 

“Even though these women were speaking 150 years ago, what they were saying still resonated with me,” Holsinger said. “I was struck [by] how we still were fighting for rights. To our bodies. To our lives. And even to have a voice.” 

While writing “Ancestra,” Holsinger and Szajbert would continue to return to the question of, “What are we still fighting for?” 

“It just kept coming back to being able to control our bodies,” Holsinger said. “We would hear the women — historic women — saying things like, ‘looking to limit the ties that bind.’ That was the overlap that we saw — that we’re still fighting to limit the ties that bind.” 

After reading the transcript from Schilling, Holsinger put together a research team of students, professionals and community members to do a deep dive on the subject matter, starting with the women who were at the convention. Through their research, the team found out that many of the women were from Ohio and had attended Oberlin College (only about a 30-minute drive from CSU), making them the first women in the U.S. to be allowed to attend a coed college. The team’s work, which took place over the summer of 2013, was called the Ancestra Project. 

Contributors to the project followed the stories of the women at Oberlin College, while also looking into epigenetics, which (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is the study of how your behaviors and environment can lead to changes that affect the way your genes work. Holsinger was intrigued by the idea that all our ancestors and their struggles and joys are a part of who we are, leading to the formation of the story of “Ancestra.” 

“That’s really the premise of the play,” said Holsinger, “that those echoes and those voices are still all around us, supporting us and raising us up.” 

At the end of the summer of 2013, the Ancestra Project presented their work, leading to Szajbert, a longtime collaborator of Holsinger, getting involved with the project. 

Holsinger and Szajbert took the work the Ancestra Project had done and began writing a play with the help of some of the women involved with the project as well as some additional researchers. 

The end result was “Ancestra,” a play following a contemporary journalist and the women of Oberlin College, intertwining the history of the women’s rights pioneers with the story of a modern-day woman who writes about reproductive healthcare. “Ancestra” begins with a back-and-forth conversation between the past and present stories and ends with their convergence at the 1853 National Women’s Convention. 

“Ancestra” premiered at Cleveland Public Theater in 2014 and was laid to rest for eight years until the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision in June 2022, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe V. Wade. 

Following the Dobbs decision, a group of women in New York reached out to Holsinger after finding the script for “Ancestra” online and asked if they could organize a performance of the play as a fundraiser for the National Network of Abortion Funds. Holsinger and Szajbert gave them permission, updated “Ancestra” to make it a better fit for the present time and then traveled to New York to see the performance. Seeing the performance by the women in New York encouraged Holsinger and Szajbert to continue working on an updated version of “Ancestra.” 

“It was so inspiring to see what it meant to them that we decided we needed to work on it some more,” Holsinger said. 

Holsinger and Szajbert completely rewrote and revamped the “Ancestra” script, with updates including changes to the contemporary story such as making the journalist character a journalism student, Cora, instead. Ten plus years of reflection allowed Holsinger and Szajbert to create a new script that Holsinger believes is better and stronger than the previous. 

After completing their revised script, the playwrights decided to meet with the theater team at Oberlin College about doing a sister production there in addition to a production at CSU. 

Oberlin College’s production of “Ancestra” ran from Feb. 9-11, while CSU’s ran from Feb. 22 to March 3 at the Outcalt Theater in Playhouse Square. 

CSU’s student cast consisted of 21 women playing characters based on historical figures from the 1853 National Women’s Convention, as well as fictional characters. Much of the dialogue is based on things the historical women wrote in letters and said in real life. While the four-day convention was cut down to about 10-12 minutes in the play, it is still based on what the real women alive then wrote and said. Holsinger explained that when turning history into something that people want to watch, conflict must be at the heart of it. 

“There’s plenty of conflict in what happened at Oberlin College,” Holsinger said. “There’s a great story about these women founders founding a secret society in the woods so that they could speak because they weren’t allowed to speak. They weren’t allowed to take all the subjects offered at Oberlin College — only geography, music and English.” 

There was also a Ladies' Literary Society at Oberlin College around the time of the convention, run by President Lucy Stanton, one of the historical characters in “Ancestra.” Other historical characters include Lucy Stone (played by Graceyn Dowd), Antionette Brown (played by Brooke Hamilton), who would become the first female Protestant minister in the U.S., and Mary Jane Patterson (played by Kaleny Balfour), who was the first African American woman to receive a bachelor’s degree, to name a few. While Patterson didn’t speak at the actual 1853 National Women’s Convention, she was among the women activists who were there, and her commencement speech was added to the convention scene in “Ancestra” because of its impact. 

Another dramatic event for the women at Oberlin College during the time of the convention was when the principal of the Ladies’ Department, Emily Pillsbury Burke (played by Kacey Sheridan), was removed from her position for kissing a male student. These conflicts all build up to the women coming together as fully grown abolitionists and suffragists at the 1853 National Women’s Convention by the end of “Ancestra.” 

Abigail Jarvis, a senior theatre arts major and former section editor for The Vindicator, was a part of CSU’s “Ancestra”cast, playing two characters as well as being a part of the ensemble cast. Jarvis played another one of the show’s historical characters, Abby Kelley Foster, as well as Lonny, a fictional character based on the experiences of people who work at crisis pregnancy centers. 

While Jarvis has been involved in many productions as an actor, “Ancestra” gave Jarvis her first role based on a historical figure. Jarvis found the experience of bringing Foster’s character to life to be gratifying. 

“I've never played a real individual before, and it's just been really cool, learning her history and reading her speeches because she was so notable,” Jarvis said. “She wasn’t just a suffragette advocating for her own rights as a white woman. She also was an abolitionist and had that type of intersectional feminism that I believe in as well.” 

“That is kind of a wakeup call, right?” Holsinger said. “Probably the best thing that women can walk away with — and men — is the inspiration to talk and to speak out and to take action.”

One of the most incredible parts of being involved in “Ancestra” for Jarvis was bringing the story of real women to the stage, and, to a greater extent, the story of women who lived, worked as activists and began a national movement in Cleveland. 

“I just think it goes to show how important Cleveland’s always been as a social, cultural and political epicenter of the Midwest,” Jarvis said. 

Jarvis also valued the knowledge “Ancestra” gave her by telling the stories of women that people may not know about because they’re forgotten about or omitted from a school’s curriculum —  a theme that is explored in the second act of the play. 

“Even though these activists were so prolific in their area, they’re not taught about in schools,” Jarvis said. “I had no idea who Abby Kelley Foster was prior to this play.” 

Jarvis appreciated the opportunity “Ancestra” gave her to make sure people knew who these historical women were and to tell a version of their stories that was written by women. 

“It's been exciting playing a woman who's powerful, self-assured and confident — and not held within the boundaries of maybe a male playwright,” said Jarvis. “I think sometimes women can be put in boxes when they're in various forms of media. It's been great doing a show by women, for women and as a woman.” 

Holsinger centers women in all her theater work and has looked to cultivate an appreciation in CSU’s Department of Theatre and Dance for works by women and playwrights of color. 

“Since I’ve been here [CSU], plays by women have been at the heart of what I do, plays with maybe a slightly political message, about the inner lives of women or with women characters at the forefront of the story,” Holsinger said. 

Jarvis hopes that audiences of “Ancestra” left the show excited to learn more about the historical women in the show, in addition to empathizing with the modern story of the journalism student, Cora, and gaining more respect for those who work in pregnancy clinics. Jarvis also hopes audiences were left feeling empowered to continue activism in Cleveland. 

Holsinger believes that they were likely preaching to the converted with “Ancestra,” but hopes that, if anything, audiences were surprised by how similar the women of the 1850s and women today talk. 

“That is kind of a wakeup call, right?” Holsinger said. “Probably the best thing that women can walk away with — and men — is the inspiration to talk and to speak out and to take action.” 

Next on stage from CSU’s Department of Theatre and Dance is “The Aliens,” a play about two young men in Vermont who befriend the young employee in the coffee shop they frequent, which is scheduled to run from April 4-14. Other performances from the department this spring will be the Spring Dance Concert, which will have performances April 19-21, and the Senior Showcase on May 2. CSU’s Department of Theatre and Dance’s 2024-2025 season will be announced this month.

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