Gonzaga University’s winter performance, “Weaving Our Sisters’ Voices,” weaves together dance and poetry to convey the intersections of contemporary issues with ancient stories of Vashti, Jochebed, Miriam and nine other women from Scripture.
A collaboration of the theater/dance, religious studies and music departments, it was created by poet-writer-biblical scholar Linda Schearing and director-choreographer Suzanne Ostersmith.
The spark for the production began when Ostersmith choreographed “The Medieval Mysteries” for the theater program in 2002 and realized that 90 percent of students auditioning were women, but 90 percent of the parts were for men.
“The disparity ignited my desire to create a piece about the lives of women in Scripture in relationship to our lives,” she said.
In 2005, she met Schearing, professor of Hebrew Scriptures, and proposed that she write the script and Robert Spittal of the music department rework a musical composition for it.
The script and music were developed that summer. After fall rehearsals, the first performance was for the Gonzaga Guild in November 2005.
More than 850 people saw it during spring 2006 performances at GU, Whitworth University, the Women’s Hearth, two Interfaith Council Circle of Caring events, Volunteers of America shelters and programs and St. Thomas More Parish.
When Ostersmith came to her with the idea of the drama, Schearing was teaching a class on the “Feminist Interpretation of the Bible,” looking at stories of women in Hebrew Scriptures.
As they began to discuss which women to choose and how to include an element of conflict, Schearing suggested developing the drama around the story of the Levite’s concubine from the book of Judges.
She was pushed out the door into an unruly crowd of men to save the Levite’s own life. Abused, beaten and raped all night, she was barely alive in the morning.
When she died, the Levite divided her body into 12 pieces and sent a part to each of the 12 tribes of Israel.
“We used the stories of other women to help bring healing, to give her a burial,” Ostersmith said.
Added Schearing: “We recover unknown and unnamed women, like the five daughters of Zelophehad and Job’s wife. We also look at how Mary feels as a mother, excited about her baby and later unable to protect him.
“Stories of women biblical characters are exemplars or cautionary tales,” she said, explaining that more men are named and more chapters are spent developing their characters in the Bible.
“It’s important to recover women, whose lack of visibility and lack of character development leaves them subject to being stereotyped and leaves their power unseen.”
With the women chosen, Schearing wrote poetry to capture their stories and how each calls for justice. Ostersmith broke it into parts, assigned characters and decided how to stage it.
“In 2005, we did the touring show with three women actors,” she said.
When Ostersmith was asked to direct the upcoming performances at GU’s Magnuson Theatre, she decided to do “Weaving Our Sisters’ Voices” with five actors, two musicians, a full set and costumes.
A symbol designed by a student for the first performances represented the Levite’s concubine torn apart and put back together.
For this performance, costume designer Summer Berry made it from white quilted pieces held by Velcro on a black circle at the center of the backdrop.
The pieces are taken down as the concubine’s body is torn apart, and are set at the edge of the stage.
“As the pieces are put back after stories of other women are enacted, the puzzle is rebuilt, leaving a picture of wholeness,” Ostersmith said. “Our goal is to empower women.”
The Levite’s concubine had fled his abuse and gone home, but the Levite came and took her back.
In 2005, when the actor playing her said, “I understand restraining orders today are not effective, either,” it resonated with the residents of the Women’s Hearth, a shelter for homeless and low-income women.
One spoke up, “That’s for sure.”
“Women’s voices,” the performance begins. “Women know what it’s like to love, hate, hope and fear. Words and lives of our sisters, mothers and grandmothers have shaped who we are.
“Women far away in time are our sisters, mothers and grandmothers in spirit – angry over injustice, triumphant over adversity.
“Women are more than objects. They are people who struggle for food, water, life and human rights. Some are silenced. Their stories are our stories, our legacy.”