Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Interview: Actress Barbara Bates Smith on her new play, 'Go, Granny D!'

Posted By on Wed, Feb 19, 2014 at 1:21 PM

click to enlarge Doris "Granny D" Haddock
  • Doris "Granny D" Haddock

'GO GRANNY D'
Monday, 7:30 p.m. $10.


On Monday night, the Weekend Theater will present a one-night-only production of "Go, Granny D!" a new play about the activist Doris Haddock, who famously walked 3,200 miles across the country back in 2000 to advocate for campaign finance reform. The play is a collaboration between the longtime Off-Broadway actress Barbara Bates Smith and the musician and manager Jeff Sebens. I spoke to Smith over the phone recently about Haddock's life and legacy, and about the importance of Little Rock to the play.

Who was Granny D?

Granny D was famous in about the year 2000 all over the country. She was on the big network shows and all that but I missed it and it turns out that a lot of people did, and it sure is time to bring her back. Because she had a big message. Starting when she was 89 (she was 90 by the time she got there), she walked all the way across the country to DC to bring awareness to big money in politics and campaign finance reform. She’s given a lot of credit for the passage of the McCain-Feingold Bill, later overturned of course. And now we have all this trouble with Super PACS, and everything else. And she was the one who called great attention to this.

We found out a couple of years ago when we first started doing this play that people’s eyes glaze over when you say “campaign finance reform.” And that used to be the way I was—I knew it was a good thing, but it wasn’t something I got riled up about. But Granny D was trying to give the government back to the people, so that their votes could count and not be bought out. That’s why she walked.

Also, we learned when we got into this, after she completed that walk, when she was 93, she toured the country again on a voter registration tour [Working Women Vote! 2004]. This was the same van that had followed along with her on the first walk, painted by an Asheville tattoo artist—it was a very colorful trip in many ways. And they went to places like a strip club in Tampa, and the Weeki Wachee Springs, with the mermaids. She wanted to call attention to the fact that in certain places, not many women were registered to vote. She’d take over the jobs of these women long enough for them to go and register. They chose colorful places for publicity, of course. They went to a biker’s convention in Daytona Beach, with hundreds of thousands of bikers who paid no attention to the clipboards and registration forms. But Granny D put on a T-shirt, I won’t tell you what it said . . . [after some nervous laughter and haggling] well OK it said “Register, Motherfuckers.” They signed up bikers as fast as they could pass the clipboard after that, and everyone wanted a picture with her.

Later, also for publicity, she ran for Senator of New Hampshire and got a third of the vote. That’s covered in the show too. We hadn’t even known about that when we started.

The play is based on her memoir?

She wrote for two hours in a journal every night, that’s why we have all this great material. I don’t know where I got the book, I don’t even remember. You know how sometimes you have a stack of books by your bed? Who knows how long it sat there before I picked up, but I noticed the subtitle, “You’re never too old to raise a little hell,” and started reading it. What a character—it was heroic what she did, and as a writer she’s eloquent and funny and convincing. As I read it, I thought, my gosh, she’s right: campaign finance reform is the basis of all of it. Everything leads back to that. None of the other issues can be taken care of without it. It’s basic to just about everything, she totally convinced me that.

I’d been touring with one-woman shows for about twenty years, mostly stuff by a North Carolina literary writer, Lee Smith. But this became a cause for me. I’m an actress-turned-activist, I guess. I always knew bad things were going on, but I never knew what to do about it. I’ve seen more and more how great she was about getting her message out. I think it matters more every day. Lawrence Lessig had his New Hampshire rebellion. Bill Moyers, who wrote Granny D’s book’s foreward, is again very big on this. It’s a hot issue. I don’t know if people come to a theater because of a hot issue, but this thing is also an entertainment. I’m an actress, I don’t want to stand behind a lectern and tout a cause. I want to do something exciting.

How does Little Rock figure in?

She gave a speech at the First Missionary Baptist Church. She had been greatly influenced by Dr. Martin Luther King and his methods. He outlined the steps, and she took it very seriously and learned from him—he had spoken at this same church. Her speech there comes about halfway through the play, and I think it’s the highlight. I get real emotional about it. It needs to be heard again today. For me, Little Rock is very special. I would love to walk in that church and see what it’s like. We’ve tried to get in touch with them but can’t. Bill Moyers mentioned in his foreward that someone at Slate wrote about the speech, and said the people in the church seemed to view her with suspicion in the beginning, but stood and cheered at the end. It was very powerful. It’s the big power moment of the play. When she got to the church, she said, “I felt like a white bread sandwich at a Paris banquet.”

She went to Central High School also and met Daisy Bates. She asked her where she should go and what she should see in Little Rock. She stayed with a couple named Marlene and Roy Verdery. She had a bad foot problem, and Roy Verdery, who was a doctor, said she should have surgery and rest there for a week or so. She said that didn’t fit her plan, so she just bandaged it up more tightly and tried not to limp. Little Rock and First Missionary Baptist were very meaningful to her. We’re trying to get in in touch with someone from the church. Maybe someone there still remembers when this crazy old lady came through. 

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