The spark, strength and tenacity of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress, is a piece of American history that deserves far more attention than perhaps it’s been given. And that’s part and parcel to what inspired writer and actor, Ingrid Griffith, to create her one-woman show, “Unbossed & Unbowed: The Shirley Chisholm Story.” Griffith’s one-performance stop at the Bay Street Theater Sunday, February 19th, part of her national tour, is not to be missed, as much to learn about the incredible Chisholm as to catch Griffith’s impassioned performance.
“She was what I wanted to be… she’s got courage, vision, persistence, I mean wow,” says Griffith. “I wanted to give Shirley Chisholm her due, to inform and empower audiences especially in celebration of Black History and Black History Month.”
The show begins as a young 10-year-old Chisholm, who’d spent several years of her childhood in Barbados, rejoining her parents in the United States. The story then travels through time, following her rise in politics and activism. The powerful close of the show lands at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, where Shirley gave her concession speech after running for President of the United States—the first Black woman to do so.
“The play follows her development as a woman, educator, activist and politician,” says Griffith, “weaving together the personal, political, public and historical events of her life.”
An excellent Sunday afternoon option for the entire family, “Unbossed & Unbowed” became a calling for Griffith. We caught up with her on her way to perform in New York to hear more details about creating the show, over two years in the making, and what inspired her about Chisholm’s incredible life. No surprise: Griffith is pretty inspiring herself.
Southforker: What about Shirley Chisholm inspired you to create your play?
Ingrid Griffith: I was curious to know more about this trailblazer [who] I had not read about in textbooks. Part of what drew me to Shirley Chisholm initially were the similarities between her and me. She is of Caribbean background, like I am. And as trivial as it might seem, she is lean and spare physically, and so am I. I felt a kinship with Shirley Chisholm immediately.
SF: How did you go about researching Chisholm’s life?
IG: I started my research at the Schomburg Center in Harlem and at Brooklyn College in Flatbush, Shirley Chisholm’s alma mater. I read every book by and about Shirley Chisholm and poured through as many audio, videotapes and articles I could find over a period of two and a half years. The interesting thing is even after the show was [first] staged, I continue to meet folks that knew her. The things I learn from them also inform my performance.
SF: Chisholm was born in the United States, but spent several years living in Barbados, where her parents were from and was very proud of her heritage. At a time in the United States when we’re seeing a notable backlash against immigrants and growing xenophobia, what are you hoping people will draw from this aspect of Shirley’s story?
IG: Shirley Chisholm was an outsider as a woman and person of color. She spoke with a Caribbean accent. She paid a price for that outsider status. But there was also an advantage to her position. She saw the system for what it was and unfortunately still is.
SF: Chisholm won seven terms in Congress after starting her political career in the Assembly in 1964—no small feat at any time in history, but it was incredible for a Black woman in the mid-60s. What did she go through?
IG: Shirley Chisholm’s political battle was unrelentingly difficult. But she was up to the challenge and then some. Time after time, she gave her opponents more than they bargained for. What a warrior. Shirley faced not only political headwinds but betrayal and somehow she managed to keep her dignity, stayed focused on her agenda and made change happen.
SF: Tell us about your own career as a writer and performing artist.
IG: I moved from Wyandanch, Long Island where I grew up to New York City right after I graduated from a two-year community college. I was working during the day, started studying acting in the evenings, and then began auditioning. I knew there was more to my existence than the traditional path. I wanted to act. … I didn’t find immediate success on the stage so I went back to college and got a master’s degree in Creative Writing. I realized that one way to express myself would be to write about my own experience.
SF: What was the first play you wrote?
IG: I started writing a one-woman show about my immigrant experience. “Demerara Gold,” my first solo show, was a breakthrough for me in many ways. The story deals with a girl finding the courage to break the silence about the domestic violence she witnesses when she reunites with her parents in America. People of all ages and backgrounds resonate with the story, especially young girls and women.
SF: As a performer and a writer, what drives you?
IG: My goal is to write and perform both my own work and the works of others in the services of a healthy and vibrant society. I want to get involved with projects that make me jump out of bed every morning. I want to play characters and tell stories that have a positive impact on my community’s psyche… stories I didn’t often see on tv and in the movies when I was growing up.
SF: What’s Chisholm’s legacy?
IG: Her legacy is wide and deep. Voting rights, women’s rights, equal opportunity. The SEEK Program is a bill she helped pass that helps CUNY students from disadvantaged communities who are unprepared for college. Shirley Chisholm had the guts to speak up for women, recruiting them to become leaders. She helped the working class and improved the educational system. Another important part of Shirley Chisholm’s legacy is that she stressed the importance of forming alliances and coalitions. And, she personified the courage it takes to fight against the injustices of our world.
The performance of “Unbossed and Unbowed: The Shirley Chisholm Story” will be at 2 p.m., Sunday, February 19th at the Bay Street Theater. Tickets are $35, and can be purchased here.