I took a spot of jujitsu my senior year of high school. At my mother’s insistence, I attended weekly classes in a rented dojo with a handful of other students of all ages and backgrounds. Why did my mother insist I take these classes, despite the fact that my enthusiasm for any form of physical activity was lukewarm at best?
The answer is simple. Safety. I was going off to college the following year, and she believed, and rightly so, that I needed to be able to defend myself against any potential (male) attackers.
Over a hundred years ago, the women of the Women’s Social and Political Union, a British militant group that destroyed property to protest for women’s right to vote, faced a similar dilemma, only their opponents were not hypothetical college students but rather very real armed police officers. The Good Fight, written by Anne Bertram and currently being produced in Chicago by Babes With Blades Theatre Company, tells the remarkable story of the group of WSPU women, known as “the bodyguard,” who trained in jujitsu to protect themselves from those who would do violence against them.
The connections to the present day are obvious. The WSPU grappled with the same essential question many disenfranchised groups grapple with now: what is the best way to effect change against an unjust system? Within the ranks of the same cause, even within the ranks of the same organization, answers vary from individual to individual. Is it acceptable to use violence to promote a peaceful cause? Are churches too sacred to bomb? Is martyrdom an effective method of swaying public opinion? Is war incompatible with human rights?
All these are messy questions, and Bertram allow their messiness to play out in an ensemble cast of female characters who have different backgrounds, opinions, and lines they will and will not cross. Race is not touched on in the script, athough it has always played a role in the women’s rights movement; however, Babes With Blades’ colorblind casting works well to not only bring fantastic actors like Arielle Leverett and Taylor Raye (whose work I also enjoyed in The Kid Thing) to the stage, but also to remind the audience that wealthy white women weren’t the only ones who fought for women’s rights.
The Good Fight is a dark play in many ways, touching on police brutality, torture, and suicidal thoughts, among other bleak topics, but it has a center of optimism and hope that keeps it from falling into the realm of despair. Often, after a particularly dismal scene plays out, the charming and upbeat Mary, played by with great energy and charisma by Elisabeth Del Toro, skips onstage to lighten the mood with a cheery moment. And ultimately, the play ends with the fact that British women did, in the end, receive the right to vote, thanks in large part to the efforts of many tireless historical women.
What stuck in my mind the most after this performance was a fact that had lain dormant in my head since I was seventeen but was brought back to my attention by this show: jujitsu is a martial art explicitly designed for smaller people to be able to beat larger people in a fight. Like the women in the play, I too have thrown grown men over my shoulder using only gravity and the other person’s momentum. How, then, can we apply the principles of jujitsu to the worlds of policymaking and social justice? What is the political equivalent that will allow the underdogs, the marginalized groups like trans folks, queer folks, people of color, people with disabilities and yes, still, women, to overthrow those who are bigger and stronger? It’s not a question with an easy answer, but it’s one that demands exploration.
Location: City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.
Dates: January 6 – February 17, 2018.
Times: Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.
Tickets: Student and senior tickets are $15 and general admission tickets are $25. To purchase tickets and for more information, please visit the Babes With Blades website.
Open Caption Weekend: January 25 – 28
Pay What You Can Performances: Thursdays – Jan. 18, Jan. 25, Feb. 1, and Feb. 8 . To reserve a PWYC seat, call 773-904-0391.
All photos by Joe Mazza.