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Arts

St. Louis Theater Troupe’s Radio Play Looks At The Rise Of A Fascist

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Jeremy D. Goodwin
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St. Louis Public Radio
Playwright Nancy Bell took inspiration for "SHE" from the story of an American actress who became a propagandist for Nazi Germany during World War II.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit last year, St. Louis-based theater company Equally Represented Arts had to scrap plans to stage “SHE,” the play it commissioned from Nancy Bell about a fascist leader who uses the power of radio propaganda to stay in power.

So Bell rewrote it as a radio play, which the creative team at ERA released to streaming services as an album earlier this month.

The show toggles between the backstage drama at the unnamed fascist leader’s radio station and her propaganda broadcasts, while resistance fighters close in on her and threaten to topple her regime.

Bell set the radio play in an alternate reality but was inspired by the story of an American actress who made propaganda broadcasts for the Nazis during World War II.

“We’re riding this rising tide of fascism all over the world,” Bell said. “I want to understand more about how that works and how it happens, and to think about it and invite other people to think about that with me.”

Lucy Cashion, co-artistic director of ERA, directed “SHE.” Joe Taylor wrote original music, including songs presented as part of the unnamed fascist leader’s radio broadcasts.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Bell about the inspiration for “SHE” and its relevance to today’s politics.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: Why was this a story that you wanted to tell right now?

Nancy Bell: This is the first time I’ve articulated this, but I realize now that what it’s really about is the making of a white, female fascist. And what creates a white female fascist? And the ways in which white women are taught to center their own emotions and use their emotions and use all of the trappings of femininity as weapons.

Goodwin: That’s so interesting.

Bell: Did you get that at all from it?

Goodwin: Now that I think about it, those elements are all in it. I don’t know if it occurred to me that that might be the seed from which the whole thing sprang.

Bell: But it is inspired by a real historical figure named Mildred Gillars.

Goodwin: What’s her story?

Bell: Well she was known as “Axis Sally.” She was a failed actress. She finds herself in Berlin right before World War II and ends up working for the Nazis in a radio station and becomes a pretty famous propagandist for them. She would put on broadcasts aimed at American troops to demoralize them, encourage them to give up.

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Equally Represented Arts
The album cover for "SHE," which is available to stream or download.

And in order to gather this audience they’d go to concentration camps and get jazz musicians and put together little jazz combos from the camps and bring them to the radio station and have them play swing music, so the troops would listen. And I was just so fascinated by that.

That’s sort of the germ of the piece, and this is my imagining of that. But it’s not really Germany, it’s not really World War II, it’s sort of an alternate reality. It’s the last night of this epic struggle between a fascist movement and a resistance to that movement, and the city is falling, and she’s determined to keep broadcasting through to the very end.

Goodwin: Listening to “SHE,” it’s not by any means a dreary experience.

Bell: Yeah, there’s humor.

Goodwin: It’s a lively show, it has music. What’s the line to walk in terms of sounding some warnings that are included in this dystopian environment you’re creating, but still creating an entertaining piece that is going to pull people through it?

Bell: I don’t want to make work that detracts from the truth, or covers up the truth, or obscures it. And I don’t think this piece does. But I don’t think, as a theater artist, you can ever afford to bore your audience. No matter what, that’s the No. 1 thing. If they’re not paying attention, you can’t really tell them anything or invite them to think about anything.

Goodwin: But underneath all that there’s a real human story here and part of it is about family, right?

Bell: Yeah, and about trauma. Family trauma.

Goodwin: And how that might get acted out upon, or make its way into the world in some way?

Bell: In political movements. Yeah, that’s my thesis — that that sometimes happens. And everybody in the play is caught up in a historical event that they have no control over. I’m always really interested and heartbroken to think about generational trauma, in terms of all sorts of things. There’s a lot of talk about intergenerational racial trauma in this country that goes all the way back to slavery. And also in wars, what happens to children in wars

And both SHE and her brother, who is also a character in the play, grew up in this conflict and witnessed violence and experienced losses based on the conflict — which then became an intimate part of their humanity, which then is acting out in the conflict.

So it’s sort of a self-fulfilling violent impulse of humanity that gets dramatized over and over again.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the show's composer.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

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