Nikki M. James explains why 'Suffs' isn't just a girl power musical

Diep Tran
Diep Tran

If Nikki M. James could review Suffs in two words, it would be these: "Fucking good!" she exclaims, with no hesitation. Suffs is arguably one of the most anticipated new musicals this season. It's written by Shaina Taub and running off Broadway at The Public TheaterSuffs tells the messy, complicated, and inspiring story of the women who fought for the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which gave women the right to vote.

Women of color didn't get the right to vote until decades after, with Black women and Native American women receiving suffrage in 1965. James plays real-life journalist and civil rights icon Ida B. Wells, who in the musical calls out Alice Paul (played by Taub) and Inez Milholland (played by Hamilton's Phillipa Soo) for excluding Black women from the fight for suffrage.

And like the real women behind them, the cast of Suffs is similarly powerful. It's all-female, and aside from James, a Tony-winning actor for The Book of Mormon, the ensemble includes ​​Jenn Colella (Come From Away) as Carrie Chapman Catt and Grace McLean (Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812) as President Woodrow Wilson.

They're led by director Leigh Silverman (Violet) and Taub, who wrote the music, lyrics, and book and stars in the show. (She's also writing the Broadway-bound The Devil Wears Prada musical with Elton John.)

"Shaina is a magical person," says James fondly. "And she still has a smile and a kind word for everyone. I don't know how she does it. It's wild."

James has been a fan of Taub's work since they worked together on Twelfth Night at Shakespeare in the Park in 2016, when Taub adapted Shakespeare's romantic comedy into a musical (James played Viola). One of Taub's songs was James's first dance at her wedding.

In 2018, Taub asked James to do a workshop of Suffs. The rest, as they say, is history. "I'm really pleased that after all this time, we're able to present it to the world," says James. "Luckily, I can't age out because I'm actually a little younger than Ida is [in the show]. I'm only growing into the role." 

The buzz has been so strong that even before Suffs officially opened at The Public Theater, the show was extended twice, now to May 29. Below, James talks about why Suffs is anything but a simple history lesson, and why she loves the musical so much that she "can do it for 10 more years."

Get Suffs tickets now.

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You sing a powerful song in the show, "Wait My Turn," where Ida B. Wells calls the suffragists out for excluding Black women. She really keeps Suffs from being a tale of white feminism.

It's so interesting that you say that because that was one of the first things Shaina said to me about it. She said, "I read this book. I realized I'd never heard these women's stories. I was so fascinated by it." But she had zero interest in turning them into full-scale heroes. It's not totally feel-good; each of the women are complicated. 

This isn't just girl power. This is about infighting within the movement. This is about a group of people who have similar goals but very different histories, experiences, and thoughts about how one gets to the end. It's so easy for us to look back and think, "Well, of course women have the right to vote." It's like, no! They fought hard; many people suffered in order for this to happen. The right to vote was not inevitable. 

And the reality is: You can't do a musical that ends in 1920 and say women get the right to vote, in 2022, without acknowledging that not everyone received the right to vote in 1920. What follows is tons of gerrymandering, poll taxing, Jim Crow, voter suppression. And still today, we're fighting this fight. 

So it's certainly not a look back in full celebration. And yet, it is absolutely a celebration of the triumph, of how difficult this was and it is something to be celebrated. 

Shaina sets one of Wells's quotes to music, "Better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or rat in a trap." What's it like to sing Wells's words?

It's so thrilling, and it makes my job very easy. We're playing real people, but none of us are doing impressions because there's no recordings of these women. But getting to speak her words, knowing what her life was, being in awe of a person who is so dedicated to their mission that she was willing to put her safety on the line — it's very easy to channel and to embody that power. 

I've played so many incredible women in my career, unbelievable women. But I'm getting to a potential turning point in my career as I age away from the ingenue roles and the innocent. And now to play a woman who has pure power and determination, it's so thrilling and exciting and it's uncovering parts of me as a performer. I feel myself standing with my heels firmly planted in the ground in a way that I have not experienced in a while. And I love that Shaina has woven in, seamlessly, direct quotes from a lot of these people. 

I think it is a beautiful way to honor them and to invite their voices into the room and into the story, which is a fictionalized version of history.

How has the theatre industry changed in the time you've been a part of it?

Early on in my career, there was more than one time in my life where someone (a casting director or director) specifically said: "We would love to cast you in X role, but we don't feel that we can cast a person of color in this role." And I remember, at the time, thinking, "Oh yeah, sure, I can see how it would be confusing for the audience." I really internalized a lot of barriers, which is completely bullshit, excuse my language.

I think the world has really changed. The business and this industry are different. Is it exactly as different as I would hope it would be? No. But I see changes. I see changes in the actors that I work with, their ability to stand up for themselves, to be clear about their needs. There's the expectation that we don't have to do what we did yesterday and I'm really moved by that. 

And I think Suffs — this cast of female-identifying performers, this femme-centered creative team, our producing partners, people of different races and backgrounds — shows like Suffs are the future. I'm excited to be sharing the stage with some of these people who I really do think are going to be bringing about change, just because they're not interested in doing what we did yesterday. 

Get Suffs tickets now.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

Photo credit: Nikki M. James as Ida B. Wells in Suffs. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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