‘Spin’ review: women on wheels

Boom Arts hosts Evalyn Parry's musical theater piece chronicling connections between the women's movement and bicycling

Want to control women? Limit their freedom to get around. There are many places in the world  — even in our country — where women are virtual prisoners in their own homes, forbidden freedom by law, religion, custom, or just plain male domination.

When America’s late 19th century suffragists challenged this stultifying situation and started a social revolution, they were aided by a concurrent technological revolution. “I believe the bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything else in history,” said someone who should know.

Evalyn Parry performed “Spin” in Portland. Photo: Frederike Heuer.

That connection between two revolutions is the subject of Spin, Toronto singer/songwriter/spoken word artist Evalyn Parry’s entertaining theatrical song cycle that Boom Arts wheeled into northeast Portland’s The Sanctuary earlier this month. It was a fun if wobbly ride that didn’t quite find the right balance between between two important stories: a quick history of the historical connection between women’s equality and bicycling, and a fascinating, too-little known story of one of the early female pioneers of both.

Movement in Motion

An experienced spoken-word and theater artist, Parry has made several albums. (If her last name sounds familiar, that’s her brother in Arcade Fire.) She knows that Spin’s story is more than historical: it’s relevant today too. Conservatives still fight freedom of choice by limiting transportation equity. Parry hails from a bike friendly city whose later disgraced, now deceased crack smoking, Rush Limbaugh- style mayor made political hay in the suburbs a few years ago by transforming bike infrastructure into car-only routes and vilifying Torontans who sometimes choose to get around an often frigid city by bicycle, instead of contributing to climate change and clogged, unsafe streets by exclusively choosing cars.

Around the same time, Parry discovered the above quotation, which comes from none other than feminist pioneer Susan B. Anthony herself, intrigued Parry, who has used a bicycle to get around since childhood. Curious, she embarked on research into the historical connection between women’s struggle for equality, and the appearance of a means of transportation that gave some of them unprecedented access to the wider world outside their homes — a “movement in motion.”

Spin’s opening sequences trace that journey in songs and stories with a commendably quick, concise survey that recounts the achievements of 1890s feminists like Amelia Bloomer (who created sensible clothing that afforded women freedom of movement) and Frances Willard. In this touring version of her now well-honed 2011 show, directed by Ruth Madoc-Jones, Parry served as MC, speaker, singer, and guitarist. Occasionally making a couple of quick costume changes, like slipping a heavy Victorian skirt over her bike pants, she switched smoothly between narrating history and singing verses and choruses of her original songs.

Parry smoothly delineated the industrial, social and technological developments that dovetailed with awakening feminist consciousness — and did it all in a fun, engaging way that left several of her catchy tunes spinning through my ears. In chronicling the advent of the new “safety bicycle” (the kind most of us still ride today) and resulting Gay 90s explosion in two-wheeled transport, Parry even name-checked some of the era’s renowned bike mechanics, like Henry Ford and the Wright brothers, who apparently did some other stuff too.

Brad Hart played bike percussion in “Spin.”

Parry was abetted by bike-ussionist and background vocalist Brad Hart, whose instrument (save for a single kazoo moment) was a handsome vintage city bike, suspended from a bike mount at the front of the stage. From its spokes, fenders, frame, tuned bells and even cherry and cream two-tone seat, he skillfully coaxed a wide range of sounds, using various mallets, brushes, even bowed. Its crimson frame matched her top, shoes, and one of her guitars. Projected period photos, lithographs, clippings, even inspirational quotes (HG Wells, Sarah Bernhardt, etc.) designed by Beth Kates added welcome visual elements.

Snappily sung hootenanny style in a warm alto, Parry’s sly and funny folkie pop songs (click here to stream or buy the album) derived plentiful humor by just stating the realities of the time, like how much the clothes weighed. Many adapted period ads, pamphlets, and quotations into lyrics, like a medical warning that a woman who dared to ride a bike might “rattle the fertility right out of her womb.” Peppered with double entendre and other wordplay, her clever lyrics often extended the big metaphor of the bike being a vehicle for liberation. Even more direct addresses like “Your Political Legs” made their points with a stiletto rather a hammer.

Evalyn Parry.

The abbreviated 45-minute version I saw (the full show, which ran the first two nights, goes 75) would make an ideal educational program for kids from middle school on up, with plenty of research paper assignments possible for further exploration. It’d be hard to find a performer as charming and committed as Parry, but I could imagine an educational video that would really open student eyes to the important social history of both movements. Anyone interested in women’s rights, American social history, and of course two-wheeled transportation would enjoy taking this Spin.

Detour

Because the show skims through history, though, none of the historical figures Parry illuminates really come alive as a characters, and they’re not really meant to. Spin’s first half is primarily a series of snapshots, without much effort to show how these admirable figures and the social movement they were part of actually changed things for women. That’s fine in a school history setting. But it doesn’t make for compelling character drama.

The main problem is that Parry’s journey through women and bicycling took an attractive detour that was so fascinating that she never got back on the main course. It happened when her parade of historical figures landed on one character I really, really want to know more about.

Parry’s journey really began in earnest after her early research, sparked by the Anthony quote, led her to a figure I admit I’d never heard of. In 1894, an intrepid voyageur known as Annie Londonderry left Boston — and her husband and three young children — on a quest to become the first woman to bicycle around the world. The 5 foot 3 inch Latvian Jewish immigrant who’d never ridden a bicycle before accepted a $5,000 public challenge issued by wealthy sponsors, a not infrequent occurrence in those heady days of many firsts in exploration, aviation, motoring and more. Sporting a heavy women’s bike and conventional women’s clothing (which she eventually switched out for more practical accoutrements), and a substantial dosage of PT Barnum blarney and exaggeration, she faced a deadline of 15 months to circumnavibike the globe. Giving speeches along the way to raise funds, she also toted a placard bearing the name of her corporate sponsor, a New England bottled water company. In a further foreshadowing of today’s prominent branding that infests sports outfits and equipment, the company also required her to to adopt its name as her own. Thus did Annie Cohen Kopchovsky become Annie Londonderry. (Update: read more about her in Peter Zheutlin’s 2007 book, Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride.)

Understandably smitten by Annie’s story, Parry composed several songs about her on the way to creating Spin. Those songs made their way to the pioneering rider’s granddaughter, whose subsequent letter to Parry provided both the lyrics to a new song — and an unexpectedly poignant twist to the story that was never properly explained in the show. (I learned about it later.) The show gave us just enough about Annie to tantalize without really dramatizing, and Parry’s obvious fascination with Annie overshadows the preceding material.

The production I saw never really makes up its mind whether it wants to be the quick engaging history of the first half or the profile musical of the second, and therefore didn’t fully succeed as either. I hope Parry will develop two different shows: an educational one oriented toward history, and a full-length musical based on Annie Londonderry’s life and adventure. If she does, I hope her bike route includes Oregon.

Community Connections

One way this production of Spin really succeeds is in connecting art to community action, an announced goal of Boom Arts’s season, “Culture as Resistance.” Portland is one of North America’s leading bicycling cities, and Oregon a national pacesetter in female political leadership (our governor, house speaker, and both Senate party leaders all XXers, among many others), so in many ways Spin is an ideal show for this time and place. With women resisting sexual harassment and other controlling behavior ever more fiercely these days, Spin provides a welcome reminder of the role freedom of movement plays in achieving gender equality.

The short, three-performance run featured pre-show talks by a couple of indefatigable sheroes of Portland’s potent alternative transportation movement, Microcosm Publishing author/advocate Elly Blue and civil servant Linda Ginenthal, a founder and program manager of Sunday Parkways who has smoothed Portland’s path to transportation equity in innumerable ways. Other local bike-oriented organizations and businesses also participated, including Gladys Bikes, the fabulous Sprockettes dance troupe, the Street Trust, and the city’s Biketown bicycle share program offered a code good for a free bike ride to the show. And offering an educational, kid-friendly show is a great way to connect to parts of the community that can’t always make it out for a night at the theater.  It’s great to see Boom Arts, whose mission is to “imagine new social and political possibilities through live performance,” bringing such community connected theater to Oregon.

Portland’s Sprockettes performed outside The Sanctuary before one showing of “Spin.”

Boom Arts’s next production, Change, runs December 7-10 at Portland’s Headwaters Theatre. For more connections between bicycles and art, check out this year’s BikeCraft December 15-17 at Bike Farm, 1810 NE 1st Ave, Portland.

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2 Responses. Have your say.

  1. Enjoyed this review and truly enjoyed the full show which I saw in Toronto a couple of year ago. I am familiar with Annie Londonderry’s story as I am both her great-grandnephew and the author of a book about her adventures, “Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride” (Citadel Press, 2007). For those wanting to know more about this enigmatic woman, virtually everything I know about her is in the book.

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