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About 15 women, all dressed in ivory wearing hats and sashes to emulate the 1920s, stand on a stage, looking toward the audience. One woman in the center, on top of a prop made to look like a horse, wears a gold headdress and top akin to a Greek goddess.
"Suffs," nominated for six Tony Awards, tells the story of the fight for the 19th Amendment. Photo by Joan Marcus.
On a stage, six women in 1920s-era clothes and suffrage sashes stand on a smaller stage with a yellow banner above them that says, "National American Women Suffrage Association 1913," as each of them wave to the side, except for the woman in the middle who sings to the audience with a spotlight on her.
"Suffs" is directed by Leigh Silverman, who graduated from the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in 1996. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Rewriting History with ‘Suffs,’ 4 CMU Alumnae March Toward Tony Awards

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Pam Wigley
College of Fine Arts

Four Carnegie Mellon University alumnae have helped bring the fight for the 19th Amendment — granting the right to vote to millions of women across the United States — to a Broadway stage. 

"(opens in new window)Suffs(opens in new window)," which opened April 18, tells the stories of some of the real-life suffragists who dedicated themselves to recognizing women’s enfranchisement, and the decades’ worth of work leading up to it.

The show is co-produced by former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, after a successful off-Broadway run last year.

“It’s up to the art of musical theater to give you the information in a way that lets it be human first and history underneath, so that the experience feels both enjoyable and entertaining but also there’s something that gets activated in you,” said director Leigh Silverman, who graduated from the School of Drama in 1996.

In 1920s-era costumes, a white woman dressed as a man with a moustache speaks with her arm around a Black woman dressed as a man, who looks reluctant to the companion's message. The pair stand in front of an American flag on a stand.

CMU alumna Tsilala Brock (left) plays Dudley Malone, who is based on an aide to then-U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

Silverman is nominated for a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical for “Suffs,” which was also nominated in five other categories(opens in new window), including Best Musical.

Carnegie Mellon is the exclusive higher education partner of the Tony Awards(opens in new window) and will present the Excellence in Theatre Education Award(opens in new window) to the 2024 winner CJay Philip, founder of Dance&Bmore theater programs in Baltimore, during the awards ceremony on June 16.

“Suffs” has already won Outstanding New Broadway Musical at this year’s Outer Critics Circle Awards, and Shaina Taub, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for the show, won Outstanding Book of a Musical and Outstanding Score as well as a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music.

Tsilala Brock

Tsilala Brock

Kirsten Scott

Kirsten Scott

Leigh Silverman Credit Jenny Anderson

Leigh Silverman (Photo by Jenny Anderson)

Emily Skinner

Emily Skinner

Teaching history to encourage progress

Silverman, who was also nominated for the Outer Critics Circle award for Best Direction of a Musical, said she and Taub deliberately don’t break the fourth wall and “wink” at the audience very often with the story. Most people know the broad strokes of how the amendment was passed, but not the details or names of the individual women represented by characters in the cast.

“We use it very strategically,” Silverman said. “You want the audience to feel that resonance, you don’t want to overdo it.”

Tsilala Brock, who earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in drama from CMU in 2014, plays Dudley Malone in her Broadway debut. The character is based on an aide to then-U.S. President Woodrow Wilson who resigned in protest over Wilson’s lack of support for the movement.

Starting with the factual historic events, then creating art around them, allows the story to help the audience to connect with that history. This way, theatergoers are inspired to make their own conclusions, she said.

“We have to allow these characters to learn and grow, which I think is more fulfilling, otherwise we’re just lecturing instead of experiencing humanness,” Brock said.

The story, which includes women reaching across and against generational, racial and class divides, relays the historic events with an awareness of the political and social struggles — including those around gender equality — that continue the march toward progress today.

This is a credit to Taub’s creative artistry, said Kirsten Scott, a 2007 School of Drama alumna who for “Suffs” serves as a swing(opens in new window), or an understudy that covers multiple roles.

In the song “Worth It” — a part of the cast soundtrack album released on June 7(opens in new window) — Taub’s character Alice Paul grapples with the choice between her political efforts and family life. Those feelings are relatable, even a century later, Scott said.

“The crafting of the story is what makes it feel so personal,” she said.

Continuum of connections to Carnegie Mellon

Scott attributes her growth as an actress during her time at Carnegie Mellon to Ingrid Sonnichsen(opens in new window), associate teaching professor of acting emerita, and Barbara MacKenzie-Wood(opens in new window), university professor emerita.

“They were the keys to crack open something inside of me,” she said. “The two of them changed my life. I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t taken the time to figure out this girl from Pittsburgh who just couldn’t find her way out.”

Emily Skinner, who graduated from CMU in 1992, plays Alva Belmont and Phoebe Burn in “Suffs,” her latest role during her more than 25-year career on Broadway. She credits her Carnegie Mellon education and network for opening those first stage doors.

Emily Skinner as Alva Belmont. Photo by Joan Marcus

Emily Skinner as Alva Belmont. Photo by Joan Marcus

“My career as a theater actress is directly due to CMU, to have an instant CMU family hold their hands out to me when I moved to New York,” she said. “I feel very proud to have come from CMU and I felt very, very prepared.”

Silverman said she remembers Skinner’s name being “whispered in the halls” as an inspiration. Now, she recognizes how fellow alumni working on Broadway will continue to serve in that capacity for current students and new graduates.

“I think about the way that Tsilala, Emily and Kirsten will continue to reverberate in those halls,” she said. “I think about the students coming and I’m really excited about being a part of a continuum, it feels really great.”

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