Brenda Arellano as Eleanor Roosevelt in 45 Plays for America's First Ladies Credit: Courtesy The Neo-Futurists

After the uproar around Bill Burr‘s recent SNL monologue taking white women to task for their role in upholding institutional racism, a YouTube clip of Burr complaining about Michelle Obama in particular and First Ladies in general made the social media rounds. “When did First Ladies start acting like they got elected?” bellowed Burr. “To be the First Lady, that’s not a fucking job. Just standing there smiling and waving.”

Maybe Burr should carve out about 100 minutes to watch the Neo-Futurists’ latest, 45 Plays for America’s First Ladies, to get a wider perspective on what the role entails. Because while it’s indisputable that First Ladies don’t get elected (thanks to the Electoral College, even when they run on their own steam, apparently), they sure as shit have a job. Or they sure have a shit job. Take your pick.

Inspired by the Neos’ 2004 show 43 Plays for 43 Presidents (later updated in 2012 as 44 Plays for 44 Presidents), this prerecorded digital show (created by Neo-Futurists alumni Andy Bayiates, Bilal Dardai, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Sharon Greene, and Chloe Johnston and directed by Denise Yvette Cerna) frames, in chronological order, the stories of each of America’s First Ladies (who include daughters and nieces as well as wives). We also get a quick sketch of American history during their respective times.

But it’s not a Schoolhouse Rock series of biographies. Instead, the writers and performers (who include Neo-Futurists in the Bay Area and New York as well as Chicago) offer an exhilarating, funny, and sometimes very sobering portrait of what it means to be someone with no constitutionally sanctioned position in the U.S. government, but who is nonetheless expected to meet high standards of circumspection, graciousness, and to serve as, in effect, America’s mother. 

In a nation as rife with unresolved Mommy and Daddy issues as ours, that’s a big ask from jump. Say too much and bellowing comics and pundits will get bent out of shape. Say too little, and you’ll be held complicit with whatever your husband’s administration does. (Not that women who actually win elections have it any easier; I saw this show the day that the news about the thwarted kidnapping plot against Michigan’s Governor Whitmer came out.)

The stories told inevitably intersect with America’s structural racism. By the time we get to Eliza Johnson (Andie Patterson), wife of the terrible president who succeeded Abraham Lincoln, we’re reminded that, out of the collective 1,000 enslaved people owned by the first 17 First Ladies (give or take—John Tyler’s two wives and assorted other female family members skew the curve), we only have heard two of their names. Sexism is certainly present, even as Abigail Adams (Gallo-Bayiates) tells her husband to “remember the ladies.” (Though the real Abigail probably meant the white wives of landowners, not ALL women.)

Tragedy, especially loss of children, is woven throughout. Jane Pierce‘s story is particularly grim—Ida Cuttler, who plays Jane, says, “If Mary Lincoln and country music had a baby, it would have my eyes.” Jane, who didn’t want Franklin (the terrible president who PRECEDED Abraham Lincoln) to run for POTUS, saw her 11-year-old son nearly decapitated in a train wreck on the way to her husband’s inauguration. (Other than that, Mrs. Pierce, how did you enjoy being First Lady?)

The struggles of those women who tried to make the job bigger than state dinners and smiling and waving perhaps inevitably resonate the most. As Eleanor Roosevelt, Brenda Arellano (who also plays slavery-loving Martha Washington) swings on a rope over a creek, physicalizing the struggle to avoid both drowning in the roiling waters of the republic during the Depression and World War II, and the vicious current of the many enemies she herself made by speaking up. The wild-eyed conspiracy theories around Hillary Clinton go in overdrive in a series of video close-ups in red light, the cast hissing about poisoned cookies and lesbian affairs with Eleanor’s ghost.

As the Michelle Obama piece makes clear, being FLOTUS is above all a nearly impossible balancing act—Vic Wynter does a plank on a moving board to illustrate how easy it is to be misunderstood or take a misstep, even for FLOTUSes who are generally well-loved. 

The pieces incorporate dances (including the delightful “Lead From Behind” waltz Hilary Asare‘s Edith Wilson uses to illustrate her power after Woodrow’s stroke), music (Julia Grant‘s divided loyalties in the Civil War come out as “The Blue and Gray Blues,” performed again by Asare), paper cut-out dolls (Jackie Kennedy and Sarah Polk), and puppets. Certainly not all the segments land with the same disquieting power (though it’s fun to hear about Grace Coolidge‘s attachment to Rebecca, her pet raccoon). But overall, 45 First Ladies is a fascinating introduction to these women, while also raising valid questions about the nature of power by marital proxy, how that power has been wielded in white supremacy, and how our own notions of what a First Lady should be create self-canceling expectations.

Even those who tried to hide their light have their poignant moments here. Louisa Adams (Johnston), wife of John Quincy, was a recluse who suffered from depression, but also was known for her intellect and directness of discourse, which stood apart among distaff dissemblers of her era. She wrote her life story and entitled it Adventures of a Nobody. It was never published. Burr might be fine with that. I’d like to read it.

A War of the Worlds

When Orson Welles‘s Mercury Theatre on the Air presented their 1938 radio play version of H.G. Wells‘s The War of the Worlds, it famously created a panic among those who tuned in late and thought they were hearing an actual news account of a Martian invasion.

But given this past year, bloodsucking alien predators don’t sound that farfetched (or unwelcome, even!). That makes Theatre in the Dark’s contemporary radio version (adapted by Mack Gordon and Corey Bradberry, who also directs) both a logical choice for streaming Halloween entertainment and a challenge—just how scary can this be when doomscrolling is our habitual nightcap?

The stylish and compelling adaptation is streamed live every performance by a cast that (like the Neo-Futurists) encompasses actors in other cities (Vancouver and New Orleans, in this case). That in itself is an admirable feat to pull off. (Take a bow for your sound tech prowess, Ross Burlingame.) There are no visuals. Instead, audiences can join a Zoom (reservations on a pay-what-you-can basis), turn out the lights, pour a libation of choice (the company suggests a tequila old-fashioned), and pretend that they’re back in the golden age of radio drama. 

The conceit here is that H.G. (Gordon) is a science writer who lives with his photographer wife, Isabel (Elizabeth McCoy) out near Kankakee. When a cylindrical object, first mistaken for a meteor, lands near their home, H.G. and his mentor, Ogilvy, try to dig it out. Well, that doesn’t turn out to be such a great idea.

The story mostly follows the outlines of the original, with some contemporary and regional flourishes. Isabel is separated from H.G. and tries to flee the invaders through the streets of Chicago with her sister, Shelly (Ming Hudson). (For local color, we get references to Miller’s Pub, the DuSable Bridge, and a lake escape involving an architectural tour boat.) As H.G. writes down the terrible events as they unfold, Isabel takes pictures. A narrator tries to piece together what happened from the seemingly unrelated images and words, discovered after the attack.

The poignancy here comes from the fact that all Isabel and H.G. want is to be safe with each other in their own house. After a year that’s involved everything from various levels of sheltering in place due to COVID-19, evacuations from forest fires, and god knows what else, the idea of being snug at home in the dark with your loved ones doesn’t sound so bad. 

As H.G. notes, so much that’s awful in the world comes not from alien presences, but from our own stubborn inability to cooperate and empathize with each other. (Like, say, wearing a mask in public during a pandemic.) A War of the Worlds balances escapist classic sci-fi with a subtle but effective reminder that conflict resolution sometimes involves shutting off other distractions and investing in another person’s story.  v