Ground-breaker remembered in ‘Bull in a China Shop’

When Mary Woolley became president of Mount Holyoke College in 1901, it was a women’s seminary designed to train women to become wives and homemakers.

Her efforts to change that emphasis to education for the wider world are chronicled in Bryna Turner’s “Bull in a China Shop,” presented by Aurora Theatre Company.

As portrayed by Stacy Ross, Mary declares, “I’m interested in revolution,” early in the play. However, she had to weigh her ideals against the need to keep the school financially viable by not upsetting big donors and alumnae too much.

Moreover, she had a committed relationship with a former student, Jeannette Marks (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong), whom she named to a teaching post in the English department.

Hence, she had to navigate the inevitable differences that arise during what was to become a romance that lasted for more than 45 years until her death in 1947.

Standing in the way of her efforts was her nemesis, Dean Welsh (Mia Tagano), who often was the bearer of bad news about the loss of donors.

At first Jeannette lived in faculty housing, which she hated, but Mary promised that eventually they would live together in the president’s house, which took years to fund and construct.

In the meantime, Jeannette got a room in the home of another faculty member, Felicity (Rebecca Schweitzer), who was aware of and sympathetic to the relationship.

Besides living arrangements, an early source of conflict between Mary and Jeannette was the suffrage movement. Both Jeannette and Felicity were strong  supporters of the cause, but Mary was hesitant, afraid of moving too far too fast.

Eventually she joined the cause and became such an avid supporter that she spent six months with an official delegation to China to promote women’s rights there.

During her absence, Jeannette had a fling with a star-struck student, Pearl (Jasmine Milan Williams), but she assured both Pearl and Mary that she had never stopped loving Mary.

Playwright Turner, a Mount Holyoke graduate, bases much of the play on the eloquent letters between Mary and Jeannette.

Even though the script is laced with contemporary profanities, it nevertheless compactly conveys the arc of Mary’s professional and personal life over several decades.

The one scene that goes astray comes when Pearl tosses rocks at Jeannette’s window and launches into a diatribe about feeling betrayed. It goes on too long.

On the whole, though, this is a fascinating look at a brave woman who was willing to defy convention in order to advance her deeply held convictions.

Directed by Dawn Monique Williams, the acting is fine, but Ross as Mary and Mbele-Mbong as Jeannette deserve special mention.

Costumes by Ulises Alcala chronicle changes in fashion over the years. The simple but effective set is by Nina Ball with lighting by Kurt Landisman and sound by Lana Palmer.

Running about 85 minutes without intermission, “Bull in a China Shop” will continue through Dec. 8 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley.

For tickets and information, call (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

 

About the Author

Judy RichterJudy reviews San Francisco Bay Area theater and writes feature articles about activities of the Stanford women's basketball team and Fast Break Club. A longtime Bay Area journalist, she is retired from the San Francisco Chronicle, where she was a writer and copy editor.View all posts by Judy Richter →