Texans — specifically, female Texans — have a whole lot of work to do.
That was all I could think tonight as I watched Holland Taylor portray Ann Richards in her production of “Ann: An Affectionate Portrait of Ann Richards” on Friday night at the Paramount Theater in Austin.
It’d be a hell of a lot easier to go on without her if she hadn’t been so damn unique. In the nearly three hour one-woman play, Taylor weaves a lifetime of Ann Richards into a hilarious, introspective history of a woman who was “strong as mustard gas.” The opening scene envisions Richards giving a modern-day commencement address at a fictional college, speaking of her early years.
Taylor sets Richards’ tone using long, drawn out syllables, and portrays Richards as a woman trying to equally please her doting father, who never failed to tell her she was smart, and a hardened mother who “viewed her with a narrow eye.” While it becomes clear that Richards’ good ol’ boy comfort was developed through early acceptance and empowerment by her father, Richards’ mother seems to have played an equally important — albeit less-sunny — role in building a woman with a backbone who, when necessary, could wring a chicken’s (or staffer’s) neck.
Taylor introduces us to a moment that shaped Richards’ life; when her father was called into the Navy and her mother packed the family up to move to California. It was the first time Richards, at age eleven, attended a school that was desegregated and this became her first awareness of inequities. While unafraid to “hit the gas” and steer headlong toward any sort of challenge, near the end of the play Richards takes one moment to glance behind her as she ponders her core motivation for having run for Governor: “Life is not fair. I learned that when I was eleven years old. Life is not fair. But government should be.”
The play spends a good portion of time sorting through two of Ann’s greatest struggles: overcoming alcoholism (“I was the poster child for functioning alcoholics — I was functioning everywhere!”) and the end of her marriage to her husband, civil rights attorney Dave Richards. But where it really hits its stride is in her leadup to her long-shot race for governor. Likening politics to a racetrack, Richards muses, “I never did see myself as the horse. And no one else was throwing a saddle on me, either.”
Yet, someone did. “A woman? A divorced woman? A ten-year-sober alcoholic woman? In macho-conservative Texas?” Richards asks almost incredulously of herself. And, based on the string of horses Texas Democrats have bet on since, it is incredulous that anyone ever did throw a saddle on her, let alone put her in the starting gate.
Much like real life, the years Ann was in the governor’s office pass by beautifully and almost too quickly. This is really when Taylor is in her element portraying Ann, taking off her heels and dragging a phone around the office. Richards is signing off on paperwork hurriedly, all while taking calls from Bill Clinton, planning a family fishing trip, getting ready for a campaign stop in El Paso and trying to decide whether to grant a stay of execution. She gives an off-the-cuff quote to a pro-choice documentarian (“Tsk, tsk, tsk, we’re going to make you have more children you can’t afford.”) and, in one particularly touching moment, asks her assistant to track down the name of a woman she met in Brownsville whose son is growing up in a home without electricity or water. “This one’s gonna make it,” Richards says, while scheduling the little boy to come to children’s day at the governor’s mansion with all of the other “fat Capitol brats.” “We’re gonna put an arm around his shoulders.”
In the final moments, Richards speaks a few lines from the famous poem “Death is Nothing at All” by Henry Scott Holland. She had asked her press secretary to hang onto it in case she ever needed it for a speech at a funeral someday — “I never figured it would be my own.”
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity…
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you.
for an interval.
Somewhere. Very near.
Richards says at one point in the production, “Work is the best antidote for fear.” Women in Texas have plenty to fear, which means we have twice as much work left to do. It can be too easy to get dragged down in mourning the loss of one of the greatest women our state has ever known. But there is something comforting about the notion that we have not lost anything. “It is the same that it ever was.” In Ann’s absence, we still have reason to continue to push forward, to “hit the gas” in our “absolute unbroken continuity” of what she fought her whole life to achieve: equality, fairness and putting our arms around the shoulders of those who need it the most.
So I’ll continue to work, and I’ll do so taking comfort that she is somewhere very near.