Ain Gordon Revisits Female Reformers of Philadelphia's Past in If She Stood

01 Apr 2013


Ain Gordon and Nadine Patterson at the historical marker for the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society on 5th and Arch Streets in Philadelphia. Photo by P. Sumpter.

Obie-Award winning playwright, director, and actor Ain Gordon completed an 18-month residency at the Painted Bride Art Center, alongside documentarian and filmmaker Nadine Patterson, which allowed him to explore "forgotten" stories and figures from Philadelphia's history. This collaborative project, dubbed Place Philadelphia, culminated in the world premiere of Gordon's new play, If She Stood, inspired by a small, multi-racial collective of women in Philadelphia who dared to take action against social wrongs in the early 1800s.

During the residency period, Gordon and Patterson visited a number of historical sites, searching for unique tales of influential Philadelphians who are often marginalized or rendered invisible in mainstream history. They came upon the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, a collective founded in 1833 that included white women and free African-American women, working together to promote an abolitionist cause. They were not only fighting for an end to slavery, but also for the protection and education of newly freed people, and a boycott on goods produced by slave labor. The group met with public outrage, not only in response to its message, but to the very idea of women daring to stand and speak their minds to an audience of men. Pennsylvania Hall, a site built to serve as a meeting place for the participating women to gather and discuss these issues freely, was burned down by an angry mob in May 1838, just four days after it opened. "These women sparked riots by speaking," Gordon said. "Their monumental bravery to go against everything the world around them said was right astonishes me, living, as I feel we do, in a relatively complacent time."

In addition to this story of pre-suffrage and women's rights activism, Gordon also took inspiration from the women's Quaker heritage. For this production, the Bride's performance space was transformed into the setting of a 19th-century Quaker meeting—a place where attendees are traditionally encouraged to stand and speak when the mood strikes. "They are incredibly theatrical," Gordon said of these meetings, having attended several throughout his research period. "Nobody stands until they feel compelled. And that's what an actor is supposed to do. A character cannot speak on paper, for me, until truth arrives." What prompts a person to stand, and what informs that moment—and how that action is then received by others—are the driving questions behind If She Stood, which also incorporated largely overlooked figures in both Philadelphia and women's rights histories, such as Sarah Mapps Douglass, Sarah Grimké, Angelina Weld Grimké, and Sarah Pugh. "The visible invisibility of these women, the relatively scant position they hold in mainstream history, is what draws me to them," Gordon said. "As a mid-career artist facing my own self-history, these human ellipses speak to me at the top of their lungs."


Performances of If She Stood took place at the Painted Bride Art Center on April 26–28 and May 3–5, 2013. Nadine Patterson's related exhibition, Freedom, Fire, and Promiscuous Meetings, was on view at the Bride through May 18, and doubled as a community learning and discussion place for the play.