Okay, I have to admit—up front—that I’ve never met a Lauren Gunderson–penned play that I didn’t like. The Revolutionists, now available in live and streaming formats at Colonial Players, is no exception. Directed by Jennifer Cooper, this French Revolution–era exploration of the lives of women is affecting and illuminating. We always talk about the men involved in the Reign of Terror, how that horrible movement consumed its proponents by the time it had run its course, and how it led to the subsequent rise of Napoléon Bonaparte. And yet, there were women involved, as there always have been—the guillotine laid claim to all corners of society including entire convents of nuns, activists, and queens. All of these women were lost to a revolution that bolstered only the rights of the men around them.
The Revolutionists opens on the apartment of Olympe de Gouges, a writer and social activist, played here by Mary C. Rogers. As the first act proceeds, we are greeted by two figures who loom large in French history: Marie Antoinette (Ryan Gunning Harris) and Charlotte Corday (Carey Bibb). The fourth character is Marianne Angelle—played by the stunning Samantha McEwen Deininger—who did not exist in fact but is a composite character representing free Black women on the island of Saint-Domingue.
Each of these women brings a different energy to this ensemble and it makes for a great production. Rogers, as Gouges, is believably restrained and frightened by the reality of her own power to impact history with her words. Bibb, as Corday, delivers instability while reminding us of the injustice of Charlotte Corday’s trial. Harris’s comedic timing is impeccable as the doomed queen Marie Antoinette.
Marie Antoinette, especially, bears the the brunt of the blame for the misbehavior of men during the Revolution. We often forget that this woman—still a child when she was married off to the king of France!—had almost no control over her circumstances and the policy decisions that her husband was involved in. Why do we uncritically accept this narrative of her villainy? These are heavy questions that this play doesn’t shy away from, forcing the viewer to interrogate their own presuppositions about the events of history.
It’s no secret that the narrative of history is controlled and constructed by the victors. Most recently, these “victors” have been white Western men. This brings me to the character of Marianne Angelle. As I mentioned, Angelle was not a real person but a composite character. How sad is it that we don’t have enough information about the free Black women of Haiti (formerly Saint-Domingue) to even have a real person embodied in this role? Someone out there knows the names of these women—and Deininger plays the character so superbly that it will certainly light the spark of curiosity in the heart of the audience. It’s so refreshing to see a role for Black women that contains both moments of resolute strength and heartbreaking vulnerability. Deininger nails both of these extremes in a way that is compelling and believable.
The acting and content are a highlight of this production. There is much else to love here, especially the set by Richard Atha-Nicholls and costumes created by Amy Atha-Nicholls. There are a number of technical effects that utilize projections. Designers Wes Bedsworth and Bill Reinhardt have done an excellent job of utilizing the technology available to them and the 360-degree space in which they are working.
Featuring a talented cast and engaging story, Colonial Players’ production of The Revolutionists is a must-see. Looking at the plight of women through the ages helps us to reflect on how far we’ve come and how far we still have yet to go. This production is near-perfect and will give audiences plenty to think about long after they’ve left the theater.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
The Revolutionists plays through October 2, 2021, Thursdays through Sundays, at Th Colonial Players’ historic theater-in-the-round in the heart of downtown Annapolis, 108 East Street Annapolis, MD. Tickets are $23 for adults; $18 for seniors 65 and older, full-time students with ID, and active military with ID. The Revolutionists will be live-streamed through Broadway OnDemand. Tickets to live and streaming performances can be purchased online by calling the Box Office at 410-268-7373 and selecting option 2.