Playwright Rachel Lynett’s “Letters to Kamala” is about firsts. It is, tangentially, about our 49th Vice President, Kamala D. Harris. It is directly about three “first” women who put down the path that led Harris to the vice presidency. It’s about the weight, the sacrifices, the lessons of being first.
“Letters to Kamala” also is the first of WAM Theatre’s 2021 First Takes Play Readings series; the first presentation of WAM’s 2021 season — period.
The digital reading begins streaming Sunday through the WAM Theatre website — wamtheatre.com — and will be available for viewing anytime between Sunday and March 21. Tickets are priced at $15, $25 or $50.
The vice president brings a whole lot of firsts with her. The former California Attorney General and U.S. Senator from California is the first woman, the first African American woman and the first Indian American woman to hold the vice presidency. She also is the first Indian American to serve in the U.S. Senate and the first Black woman to appear on a major party national ticket.
Her father, Donald J. Harris, a Jamaican immigrant, is an economist and professor emeritus at Stanford University. Her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan, who died in 2009, immigrated from India. She was a notably influential breast cancer researcher. The couple divorced in 1971 when Kamala was 7 and she raised Kamala and her younger sister.
Kamala Harris never appears in “Letters to Kamala.” Written as interwoven monologues, Lynett’s play finds vice presidential candidate Harris backstage getting ready to deliver a speech. Seeking inner strength before going onstage, Harris seeks support through her ancestors to bring forward inspirational women. The women who materialize are: Charlotta Spears Bass (1874-1969), the first African American woman to run for vice president (1952, Progressive Party), and the first African American woman to own and operate a newspaper in the United States (The California Eagle, 1912-1951); Charlene Mitchell (born 1930), the first African American woman to run for president (1968, Communist Party); and Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink (1927-2002), who became the first woman of color, first Asian-American woman and first woman to represent Hawaii in Congress when she was elected to a House seat in 1964. She served from 1965 until 1977 and again from 1990 until shortly before her death in September 2002. In 1972, she became the first Asian American woman to seek the Democratic Party presidential nomination. She co-authored Title IX, a federal civil rights law that bans discrimination based on gender in all federally funded education programs or activities.
Shannon Lamb is reading the role of Charlotta Bass. Torie Wiggins reads Charlene Mitchell and Lilli Hokama is Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink. Nicole Brewer is directing.
“Letters to Kamala” was commissioned by American Stage Company in St. Petersburg, Fla., where the play was given a digital presentation last November. It was brought back for an encore run in January.
The play grew from a series of conversations between Lynett and American Stage’s CEO and artistic director Stephanie Gularte.
“We wanted a play we could produce for Zoom,” Lynett said by telephone. “Harris had just been named vice presidential nominee. That made me think of other firsts; the idea of firsts being special and how we hold on to firsts being special.”
She decided on creating three women, “because,” Lynett said, “one wouldn’t drive home the point.” Lynett chose these three specifically because they fly below the radar.
“In addition to women who spoke to Harris’ ethnicity,” Lynett said, “I wanted names I thought were lesser known. I wanted [audiences] to question why we don’t learn about these people in school. I want people to think about the pressure we put on people who are first, especially women of color, and what they leave behind.”
“Letters to Kamala” will be followed April 25-May 2 with a Fresh Takes streaming of Loy A. Webb’s “The Light” and a fall Mainstage production of Kim Senklip Harvey’s “Kamloopa” at a date and location to be announced.
It’s a season, WAM producing artistic director Kristen van Ginhoven said in a separate phone interview, that looks at where we have come from, where we are now, and where we might be going. As a whole, the season examines ways in which the past, van Ginhoven said, informs the present and considers normalcy and what that might mean. It’s a season, she said, that also speaks about accountability.
“We need to hold people accountable,” she said. “As we move forward, it will be easy for people to forget.”
More than anything, perhaps, WAM’s 2021 season is about connection; about affecting, rather than simply reflecting, change.
“We’re all digging deep,” van Ginhoven said, “to keep going and keep people feeling good.”