Arts & Culture

‘Radiating Like a Stone’ meant to be a ‘conversation starter’ about Wichita women in the 1970s

It wasn’t all that long ago that women in Wichita couldn’t get a library card without their husband’s signature.

Or a credit card in their own name. Or arrange for utility changes without their husband’s permission, even though they may have been paying the monthly bills themselves for years.

Today, too many young women take those — and many other — freedoms for granted without realizing what their mothers and grandmothers went through as recently as the 1970s and 1980s, said Gina Austin-Fresh and Anne Welsbacher.

To make sure those feminist struggles in Wichita aren’t forgotten, the two have adapted “Radiating Like a Stone” — a series of essays about the struggles and achievements of key Wichita women by longtime local journalist and activist Myrne Roe — into a play. It premieres at Wichita Center for the Arts next week.

With its title taken from local poet Anita Skeen, the drama revolves around a mother and 16-year-old daughter packing for a cross-country move. As they debate which items to take or leave, from a bikini to a bumper sticker to an infant’s never-worn shirt, it sparks memories in the mother of how much her life has changed since the 1970s. She is shocked to realize that her teen daughter is unaware of the struggles behind those changes.

With the help of a lively, diverse ensemble of 10 women — think Greek Chorus — who bring to life the words of those 1970s-to-1980s movers and shakers, the advances take on a riveting new reality for the girl. The ensemble also stresses that while women have come a long way, there’s still a long way to go, the playwrights said.

“We didn’t want the play to be didactic,” said Welsbacher, a published playwright and daughter of retired local theater legend Dick Welsbacher, who built and ran the drama program at Wichita State University for decades. “We didn’t want the women to just stand there and spout off at the audience. There is a lot of humor along with the drama. My goal as a playwright is to want people to have a good time.”

“But it’s also important to remind people in this generation of how recently these freedoms happened,” Welsbacher said. “It’s not about being self-congratulatory but to make sure people know that the work is not done. There is still a ways to go.”

From the dozens of essays in Roe’s book, Welsbacher and Austin-Fresh chose about 20 women as touchstones for their play, from local celebrities like former District Attorney Nola Foulston, former Wichita Mayor Elma Broadfoot and newspaper columnist Bonnie Bing, to political activists including Dorothy Billings, Colleen Kelly Johnston and Jo Ann Potorff, to “ordinary women doing extraordinary things.”

Playing the fictional Everywoman mother and daughter are Suzanna Mathews and Maddie Shonka. Among the ensemble bringing historical figures to life in their own words are Danzel Muzingo Bond, Deb Campbell, Kay Carroll, Joyce Cavarozzi, Sanda Moore Coleman, Trisha Garnes, Terri Ingram, Teri Mott, Carol Wilson and Beth Wise. The ensemble also takes many smaller roles, male and female, to interact with one another and act out their words rather than fall back on just monologues.

Co-playwright Austin-Fresh also is directing, with set by Ricky Lee, lights by Sean Roberson, props by Wise and costumes by Campbell.

Austin-Fresh doesn’t think of the play as “provocative,” but more as a “conversation starter” for people too young to remember the 1970s.

“We deal with issues like violence against women, pay equity, reproductive rights, harassment in the workplace, identity and career choices,” said Austin-Fresh, longtime theater teacher at Wichita West High School who has been teaching and directing at Butler Community College for the past 10 years. “What I want, what I hope is that the play starts conversations among people who think the battle is over — not just among younger women, but also men, who should be interested in things that affect the women in their lives.”

While the stories are all based on happenings and people in and around Wichita, Austin-Fresh said that the play strives to be more universal.

“It’s always fun when you hear a reference to Wichita or Kansas in plays or movies. We do use local references, but this isn’t a ‘Wichita play,’ ” the director said. “Wichita’s struggles were everybody’s struggles. Wichita was a hotbed for feminism in the 1970s, but what these women were hoping to achieve is universal.”