‘Emma When You Need Her’: An enrapturous romp through the life of Emma Goldman

There are some plays where, the moment you step into the theatre, there’s an enthralling energy that grabs you immediately. When you first walk into the Vortex Theatre for “Emma When You Need Her”, and you’re literally greeted by the cast, dancing to eighties music, the audience writing their hopes for the future on the wall, you know you’re in for something special. Director Rudy Ramirez, along with the rest of the cast, has come together to create a celebration of the life of famous anarchist protestor Emma Goldman, based mostly on her memoir “Living My Life”, while also pulling from other writers of the time to give a briskly-paced, post-modern look at one of the most troubling periods in US, and World, history.

We first meet Emma Goldman as she is arriving in Russia, during a quite tumultuous period, where anarchists and protestors are being sent to the gulag. From here, we flash back to several different, pivotal parts of her life, during which we see the many sides to this complex figure. We see her from her first arrival in New York, through her time in prison, through her many world tours, and during this time we see her grow and change into the infamous figure we recognize today. This is never a dull experience, thanks to Ramirez keeping the action constantly moving. Even during the many speeches that populate the piece, we see the story presented in a fast-paced, riveting way that keeps us rapt. The proceedings are underlined with a bevy of dance tunes, mostly pulling from the eighties and nineties, shaking the audience and keeping them on their toes. Even as the play ends, the dance party doesn’t end, as the cast invites the audience themselves to join in.

Emma Goldman is presented in many different ways throughout the play, and as such is portrayed by several different actresses (and one actor). The Emma we see here is not just the stalwart defender of rights, but also a woman, with her own desires and needs. We follow her through her several loves and lusts, and see how they shape the way she lives, and even protests. She’s never shown as the perfect paragon, either, as we see several moments of weakness, as her methods, and her very ideals, are allowed to be tested, and there are moments we don’t see her win.

All of the performers bring something special to their performances as Emma, whether it be her youthful innocence, her fiery protesting, or her righteous anger, but the most paramount and important of these performances is Shannon Grounds, who plays Emma during her time in Russia. It’s here that we see each of the sides of Emma we’re shown in her past, her joyful brightness, her furious anger, her dejection in the face of injustice, and Grounds carries it all with remarkable skill. In the past, Grounds has also shown a high degree of versatility, and here she puts these chops to the test and comes out with a strong performance.

“Emma When You Need Her” is a piece bursting with energy and fire, a piece of dynamite and dance, celebrating the life of this history-making revolutionary, while always reminding us of the harsh things she went through, and the hard times our nation, and the world, were facing. It’s also a ringing reminder of how far we have yet to go, especially in its clever “Speech” scenes, in which the cast members pull from their pocket actual messages from everyday people, and it’s startling how far we are from a truly free society. It’s one of the most powerful pieces I’ve seen in some time, and one that I cannot recommend enough.

“Emma When You Need Her” is playing at the Vortex Theatre through May 16th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit the Vortex Repertory website at vortexrep.org

Photo Courtesy of Shrewd Productions

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