Black Women Lead: From the Stage to the Streets

The seven actors in POTUS. Julie White (left, top), Lilli Cooper, Rachel Dratch, Vanessa Williams, Lea DeLaria, Julianne Hough (front left), Suzy Nakamura. (Jenny Anderson / POTUS)

Sen. Lindsay Graham’s recent introduction of legislation calling for a federal ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy signals the latest wave of attacks on abortion rights since the Supreme Court ruled in June to end Americans’ constitutional right to an abortion. While our focus is on building the leadership capacity and political power of Black people and women, we are struck by the complementary activism taking place in the arts to underscore this moment in history and to inspire progress.

Broadway’s Tony-nominated POTUS, Natalie Moore’s The Billboard and Molly Smith’s upcoming Arena Stage production, My Body No Choice, remind us to trust women as we collectively work to get our republic back on track.

POTUS‘ full name is POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive. Written by Selina Fillinger, the play follows the women behind the U.S. president—the ones who keep him safe, upright and successful. It’s farcical and hilarious, but for those of us on the front lines of American activism and political organizing, it’s strikingly grounded in reality.

Beyond the satire, the play affirms a vital narrative about the rights, capacity and dignity of Black women in this country. Vanessa Williams’ character in POTUS, despite graduating from Stanford undergrad and Harvard Law, running five nonprofits and solving world hunger, wonders aloud: “When is it going to be enough? When is what we bring going to be enough for us to lead this country?”

It’s a question Vice President Kamala Harris has to be asking herself daily—as even from her exalted position, remains a constant target for gendered and racists attacks on her character and ability.

Black women have always had to fight for legitimacy while searching high and low for our authentic narratives to be shown in the light of day. It’s why the arts matter when building a movement. Because we can register every voter in this country and run eminently qualified women of color for high office, but unless we are consistently challenged to dream outside the boxes we’ve been placed in by society, our voices will fall silent.

‘POTUS’ is farcical and hilarious, but for those of us on the front lines of American activism and political organizing, it’s strikingly grounded in reality.

In The Billboard, which opened in June, author and journalist Natalie Moore, tells the fictional story of a women’s clinic on the South Side of Chicago embroiled in the debate over abortion rights in the Black community.

A candidate for City Council puts up a billboard saying, “Abortion is genocide. The most dangerous place for a Black child is his mother’s womb.”

The clinic responds with a billboard of its own: “Black women take care of their families by taking care of themselves. Abortion is self-care. #TrustBlackWomen.”

The Billboard. (Haymarket Books)

In a play emphasizing Black women’s well-being, Moore said she didn’t want to tell people what to think, but rather what to talk about.

Molly Smith’s My Body No Choice opens in Washington, D.C. in this month, featuring monologues from eight American playwrights on women’s choices about body autonomy.

As playwright Sarah Ruhl wrote in DC Theater Arts, “This moment in America is an all-hands-on-deck situation; artists, thinkers, activists, providers, patients, politicians—we ALL need to do our part to create visibility around the importance of women’s health and reproductive justice for all people in a post-Roe world.” We couldn’t agree more.

(Arena Stage)

Through our work at Black Voters Matter and Supermajority, we work to strengthen our freedoms in the face of generational headwinds from voter suppression and misinformation, to desperate threats to our election systems and literal attacks on our Capitol. We recognize that simply registering voters and clearing barriers in their path will only get us so far. To truly activate voters, we must activate imaginations—which is why POTUS, and pieces like it, are more important now than ever before.

It’s not enough to tweak existing systems or create entertaining solutions seen through the same old white patriarchal lenses. We need to imagine new systems that work for all of us—and to do so without limiting our line of sight.

It is vital that we see and internalize democracy that is reflective of the world we live in and want to live in. More women in every office, more people of color, more young people with the capacity to lead. This is about shifting the power base and activating a new coalition to move America forward. And we know who will lead such an effort, whether it’s acknowledged or not, because we always have.  

No matter who we see in our history books or in the news, Black women have always had our hands on the helm of history. From civil rights to the suffrage movement, from the continued fights for workers’ rights to climate action. And still, we sit at the intersection of sexism and racism to be consistently told to sit back down and wait our turn to lead.

Our stories are both grand and grounded; humble and historic. But even as they continue to unfold in the real world, we must support them coming to life on stage, on screen and throughout the artistic sphere to confront America’s racism and sexism. The quickest way to manifest the world we hope to create, including imagining more women and people of color in power, is to first see it in our minds. That means telling our stories—and revealing what’s possible to build a country and democracy that truly works for everyone.

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

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About and

Amanda Brown Lierman is the former executive director of Supermajority Education Fund, which helps build women’s power through research, education and leadership development programs that support women in growing their innate skills and making change in their communities. Lierman has also held roles with the Democratic National Committee and Rock the Vote.
LaTosha Brown is a community organizer, political strategist and consultant. She is the co-founder of Black Voters Matter.