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Votes

Bringing History to the Stage

New modern dance performance tells the story of suffragettes at Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton.

Just under 90 years ago, a group of women fighting for the right to vote were imprisoned in the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton for protesting in front of the White House.

Now, the Kathy Harty Gray Dance Theater is preparing to retell the story of Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, Mabel Vernon and Doris Stevens, part of a Spring Concert and a tribute to the suffragettes.

“Whatever Alice wanted to do, Lucy did,” said Kathy Harty Gray during a rehearsal at the Northern Virginia Community College’s Alexandria campus Monday night. A group of students practices their steps through “Women Win the Vote.”

Alice Paul and Lucy Burns were friends at school in London, Gray said, and became involved with the Women’s Party there before bringing the battle for suffrage to the United States around 1914.

Presented with music by Bill Barner, the four-movement modern dance performance tells the story of Burns and Paul and their supporters, protesting for the right to vote in front of the White House in the early days of World War I and their 60-day incarceration at the Occoquan Workhouse.

“You can see from the movement that the other suffragettes don’t want Alice to get arrested because she’s so much the leader of the movement,” Gray said, watching her performers dance.

At one point in the struggle, the women began to protest the poor conditions for workers, thereby widening their targets to include safety reforms after the death of 146 women workers in a building fire, Gray said.

As the performance continues, the audience will take cues from lighting, signs carried by dancers and notes in their programs to follow them through the women’s’ incarceration at the Workhouse, Alice Paul’s hunger strike in protest of the poor treatment of prisoners, their release and eventually winning the vote, Gray said. “The dancing is abstract, but I think it moves and tells the stories well. It gets very emotional during the last movement,” she said.

“Women Win the Vote” is part of a project portraying Virginia women who have a prominent place in history, Gray said. “Given our proximity to Lorton, I thought it was important to tell the story. I don’t think a lot of people know about what happened in Lorton,” she said.

IT WAS ONLY a short time ago women didn’t have the rights they have now, Gray said, something most women today take for granted.

“I grew up in the 1960s and never considered myself a bra burner, but this is an important story to tell,” she said.

In the role of Lucy Burns, Arlington resident Cathy Malin said she’s learned a lot about the suffragette movement while studying this role.

“Lucy was very close to the movement and supported her friend. Lucy was the one who was originally taken to jail, but Alice came to her rescue and they worked very hard together,” Malin said. “All of their work was done in our backyard.”

A member of the Kathy Harty Gray Dance Theater for nine years, Malin said she and the other dancers got a history lesson in preparation for this performance.

“The entire story is told through music and dance,” she said. “Kathy is a storyteller. She’s told about so many powerful stories without words. She educates her audience.”

Working on this performance has been “a wonderful thing to be a part of,” Malin said. “The historic involvement just furthers the enjoyment.”

Lorton resident Suzie Celentano has stepped into the role of Alice Paul, leader of National Women’s Party and one of the most famous inmates ever at the Occoquan Workhouse.

“She was remarkable,” said Celentano of her character. “I read that she was taken to women’s party meetings as a girl and that she and Lucy Burns used Progressive measures to catch attention and create sub-political parties to gain support for women’s suffrage.”

In addition to protesting with placards in front of the White House, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns did some quieter, “tea and crumpets- style” campaigning behind closed doors, Celentano said. It was the combination of the two that helped the women gain support before winning the right to vote in 1919.

Celentano admitted she “knew of the suffrage movement” and the Occoquan Workhouse before rehearsal started on “Women Win the Vote,” but she’s learned a great deal about the movement and the women involved in the past few months.

“There was just one vote that decided the issue,” she said. “This really opened my eyes in terms of how important all of this was. Alice was an incredible woman.”