Bay Street Theater is following up their fascinating exploration of the infamous Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a deep dive into the life of another boundary-breaking woman of politics: the woefully unfamous Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968, as well as the first Black woman to run for president.
Coming to Bay Street for a public performance this Sunday, February 19 at 2 p.m. is Unbossed & Unbowed, a one-woman play written and performed by Ingrid Griffith.
Ingrid Griffith on Shirley Chisholm
“I didn’t know anything about her until about 2015,” Griffith admits. “I saw a documentary about her run for president of the United States in 1972, and that got me thinking, ‘How did she get there in the first place? What were her circumstances like?’ … Feeling like an outsider as a teenager when I came to the U.S., I was always curious to hear how other people like myself and African Americans get far, because I wasn’t seeing that on television or seeing people in leadership roles.”
Griffith goes on to explain that growing up in Guyana, many of her Black neighbors held prestigious roles as doctors, principals, heads of the ministry and relatives of the president of Guyana.
However, when her family moved to the United States when she was 12, to Wyandanch on Long Island, she was surrounded by people like her, including her parents, working two jobs just to make ends meet.
Griffith’s story mirrors that of Chisholm’s (St. Hill at the time). At age 10, Chisholm returned to the U.S. after spending seven years with her grandmother in Barbados while her parents weathered the Great Depression in Brooklyn.
Expecting to see the fruits of her parents’ labor, she found them just as she left them — working two jobs to afford living in a less-than-ideal neighborhood.
“For me, it felt very much like my experience,” Griffith says of Chisholm’s adolescent arrival in the U.S., which influenced her decision to begin Unbossed & Unbowed at this point in the Congresswoman’s story.
After producing a successful one-woman-play about her personal immigrant story, Demerara Gold, Griffith knew she was ready to tackle Chisholm’s story with the same grassroots fervor, but it would take years of research.
“I’m doing this on a very grassroots level, and I think that’s what solo genres help us do as artists — to tell our stories and make it feasible for ourselves and also for the communities we’re trying to reach,” she says.
When Griffith began the process in 2015, her friends and family questioned why she was writing about a historical figure who was barely known, which was discouraging. Then in 2018, Griffith noticed a wave of Black congresswomen crediting Chisholm as an inspiration, and she felt her passion renewed.
She finished the script in 2020 and began to tour the show across the country, building connections in many states and communities she’d never visited before.
“This is like my purpose to be telling this particular story out of any story — a story about social justice, making positive change and us being the ones to do it, inspiring youngsters,” she says, adding that through the countless connections she’s made via this show, “I don’t feel like an outsider anymore. … There’s something about that that’s inspiring and empowering me to own me; I’m becoming more of who I think I should’ve been all along.”
In Unbossed & Unbowed, Griffith tells of a young Chisholm inspired by her father who, overworked as he was, became an advocate and spokesman for their community.
When the decision was made for her to stay in Brooklyn for college, because her parents couldn’t afford the tuition prices offered by Vassar College and Oberlin College, she switched her primary goal from becoming a teacher to becoming a community leader like her father.
She would go on to graduate from Brooklyn College, marry private investigator Conrad Chisholm, earn her master’s degree at Columbia University and join the League of Women Voters, the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Chisholm’s career in politics began in 1964, when she became the second African American to join the New York State Legislature.
She then won a seat in Congress — putting motherhood on hold to introduce legislation aimed at supporting gender and racial minorities and the poor, commuting to Washington, D.C. from Brooklyn — and later co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus.
“We see the things she had to give up in her personal life to fight for the bigger picture, the larger community,” Griffith says. “She was going after the status quo, whether it was Black men, the white patriarchal system or women — she was fighting the status quo on all levels because she knew that things had to change, and she couldn’t wait.”
While her political career was impressive, it wouldn’t help her much in her ill-fated presidential campaign. Hit with racism and sexism from all sides, she wasn’t even allowed to participate in Democratic primary debates until she sued for the right to do so. Of course, Griffith have more to say regarding that eye-opening story.
Throughout the fast-paced show, Griffith plays 18 characters and weaves in humor with the history. “It’s not just a history lesson, I have to say. It’s very entertaining, funny at times, and the music is great, very uplifting,” she says.
Before the public performance on Sunday, February 19, Bay Street Theater will present a performance exclusive to schools so that students can get an immersive lesson on an underappreciated trailblazer of Black history.
“It’s good to engage people of all ages, but the younger generation in particular is what I want to connect to because they’re the ones that are going to have to make a difference and need to know now rather than later, like I did,” Griffith says. “It’s America’s history, and we need to know the full story. And that’s how we move forward.”
Tickets are $35 and are available through the Bay Street Box Office by calling 631-725-9500 and online at baystreet.org.