Interviewee: Nelda Leon
IWY SC 636
Interviewer: Kathleen Hanna
Date: June 11, 1977
Nelda Leon was the coordinator of Greenville Feminist Theatre and an educator. She was a member of the Greenville NOW chapter and helped found Greenville Feminist Theatre with a group of women after they attended a National NOW Conference. Leon and her troupe performed on the first evening of the South Carolina IWY conference. Interview includes discussion of the skits, songs, and speeches performed by Greenville Feminist Theatre. Leon recounted performances at feminist conferences and at Fort Jackson. Interview also includes discussion of how the South Carolina conference ran more smoothly than the Georgia state conference.
Kathleen Hanna: We’re sort of starting in the middle of this, this is Nelda Leon. And it is now 3:10 on June 11th, and we were just discussing how one goes about getting into positions or opening doors, getting into the kind of work one really wants to do. Are you a student at this point?
Nelda Leon: No. I have a Master’s Degree, I’ve taught kindergarten to college levels.
KH: So you have your certification in education?
KH: Last night we really enjoyed your performance in the Greenville Feminist Theatre. Did you start it?
NL: No, I didn’t start it, I was among those who started it, a group of women who were in the National Organization for Women, Greenville Chapter had gone to the National Conference and had been exposed to concepts for feminist groups. And came in to Greenville from that Conference with the idea, the seed planted. And –
KH: The idea of what?
NL: Of, of perhaps starting such a group.
NL: This was, and the NOW chapter had just been in, the Greenville NOW Chapter had just been in existence for a short period of time and this was a very small organization. Among those few people were at least a couple of people who had some background in drama, the language arts, performing arts, but not as professional, just more of as an added vocation.
When I got involved in it, or shortly thereafter, I think I had just been to see a performance by a group of women from Atlanta, and I think their theatre was called Women’s Song, if I remember correctly. And it was sort of a collection of skits and songs and poetry that were covering some of the stereotypes and problems and concerns of women. And I enjoyed it, it was kind of neat to know that other people had those feelings and concerns, and yet a lot of it was, presented in a humorous way, parody. And so already this other group of NOW women had begun thinking about starting a group, so they opened it up to others in the organization. And I had just joined Greenville NOW at that time. And they said, you know, if you’re interested in working with us, let’s get together and get some material.
So some of them got together, I was not in on that first writing and planning session but they wrote some skits, a take-off on ‘This is Your Life’ and instead of the… it was a woman, Mrs. Marcus Welby or something like that, and ‘This is Your Life’ and it was all oriented to how, you know, she wanted to be the doctor but she ended up being a nurse. And then she managed to get her doctor by marrying one and her grand prize was a washer and dryer. And I started out very, you know, I played the role, I remember, very happy about being recognized. And then as we went through and reminisced through my life I began to kind of, things to click, you know, and I begin to see, what in the hell have I done, you know, why has this happened to me…(Laughs)
And at the very end when they present me with my gold charm bracelet and washer and dryer, I begin to cry but it’s because of the hysteria rather than, you know, the traditional, oh wow, so happy (unintelligible at 4:09). And it’s just a total breakdown. And we had some other skits, a parody of Snow White, Ms. Prince Charming, you know, what’s it like to the wife of him. And then most of the other material were little one-liner skits, much of the other material though was taken from writers, women, poets, and from Marlo Thomas’ Free to Be material.
KH: Mmhm, I remember something like that.
NL: And we still use about two or three now from this. We have written some new materials and added to and changed and our group is very flexible and informal. “Theater” is very loosely, the term, used term in this sense. We, you know, we get invitations from college campuses and from women conferences. Our first performance was the South Carolina NOW Conference in Greenville, 1973.
And we were asked to perform by Fort Jackson, and I kept saying, “Do you know what we do?” I couldn’t believe they had asked us. And they said, “Yes, we know what you do and we know what you’re about and we want you to come.” And I, we kept thinking, they don’t know what they’re saying. But the people that invited us knew, but the other folks that came, this is for the, like the people that are in Boot Camp and they were all men in that audience except for one woman who was making out with some guy in the back. It was a really incredible situation. Most of them got up and left. They weren’t very attuned to what was going on. We had prostituted ourselves in that situation cause that was the first time we’d ever been paid mileage or anything, you know, to go. We always donate our time and our services.
And we got this nice check for reimbursement that we promptly put into our treasury but we all kind of left feeling like we had sold ourselves. We didn’t go there for the money, though, that was just something that occurred as a coincidence.
KH: Well now as you play these different roles, you know, in the various little skits and dramas and so on that you do, making a point, do you find that the kinds of roles that you play spark a kind of inner experience, like oh I’ve been there? Are you –
NL: Yes. I think that, that most of our material reaches the, the audience is at least beginning to be aware, because that’s true even today that there’re people who just now find things click, the ideas goes in and comes out in a way that has raised a consciousness level just a little bit. It also addresses or is in line with the thinking that has already reached that level, that consciousness level has already been raised.
A few things we do, very few things and sometimes we change depending on the audience, but we’ve rarely had anything except for the Fort Jackson experience that completely went through and no one could identify, because if they listen there’s something in it that even the most traditional, conservative woman can identify with. And maybe that’s, what, you know, housework or what it’s like to be in certain situations, feelings, emotions that (unintelligible at 8:17). So I feel like it – it’s farce and because we use humor primarily, that seems to be a way that we can do.
KH: Yeah. What I was wondering is when I first heard Marlo Thomas’ record, Free to Be, I actually bought it for my children, and was listening and when they got to the, you know, “I am a real little lady” and I thought, oh my goodness, you know, that’s me. And I think if I were ever going to play that role, you know, the role of the little lady, I would do it right ‘cause I’ve been there, I know, you know, what that’s all about. And I was wondering if you feel that, that the performance of the roles that you perform in is –
NL: Oh, I see. Well, I think it, roleplaying is a fascinating thing anyway. You can get into all kinds of roles, because if you personally haven’t been there you’ve seen it. And it’s just incredible to how that happens, so for a lot of us it is a roleplaying, not necessarily reflecting roles that we are ourselves have played in the past, but certainly ones that are entrenched and we’ve been surrounded by. So when I do Agatha (unintelligible at 9:34) to take off on the etiquette, I know I’ve never ever been anything like that but I have seen it and have –
KH: And been exposed to it.
NL: – been exposed to it and affected by it to some degree so that there’s no role that we don’t identify with to some degree.
KH: That’s right, that’s right. And if you haven’t ever played the role you’ve been expected to incorporate things that –
NL: There being plenty of models, right.
KH: Right, right.
NL: Yes. And even though some of those are so far from most of our lifestyles today, we are not so alien from it we don’t know how to play those roles. (Laughs)
KH: The fact that we can play them with such ability is kind of indicative of, you know, that it’s prevalent.
NL: And it’s also easy to do some of the serious poetry, a lot of anger sometimes and a lot of frustration and sadness. I, I guess I’ve heard the Sojourner Truth speech 50 times and I, I personally never fail to get cold chills and to just feel a sense of, of sadness and pride and all those mixed kind of feelings that whoever does that can, can create in me. So you know, even though I’ve heard it over and over and over again, it still touches me and that’s why I’m saying it touches people out there whose consciousness has got to have been raised already.
KH: What have you thought of the conference so far? To change the subject.
NL: Oh. Well, I unfortunately got in late last night and so the first thing in the conference was what we did. And I felt really good about the audience reaction and about the comments that women and men, all ages and different backgrounds and lifestyles apparently have said about what they thought of our performance. And that started off really nicely.
I have been involved in so many workshops and so many conferences that a lot of the information is not new, it’s just very gratifying to me to look around and see right here in South Carolina now, you don’t have to go to Philadelphia or Atlanta, we can look right in our own State. And see women and men that again cross and I’m so excited about the number of minority women that are here and older women and people in the mainstream of society who are asking questions and expressing anger and frustration and hopefully doing something about it so they’ll feel good about it. I don’t think it’s affecting my own personal life as much as it might’ve someone who’s sort of new at this. And that’s okay because the identity thing is good for me, that’s what I get.
KH: Yeah, so you feel like you’ll take from the conference the, a kind of a renewed sense of identity.
NL: And a faith that, you know, it’s happening right here in South Carolina. It’s taking a long time but some of the questions we’ve been asking, some of the concerns we’ve been talking about, and then kind of like voices crying in the wilderness, now we’re finally in good company. That’s good.
KH: Yeah. I was, met with all kinds of trepidation and doomsday crying before I came here and they said, “Oh, there’s going to be trouble, there’s going to be trouble. The Georgia Conference was just miserable. You know, people really got into their angry place about it and the anti-ERA people came out in droves and the whole thing turned into a fiasco, and you know, they tried to hold up – and it’s just gonna be terrible. I don’t envy you one bit.” (Laughs)
You know, so I got my hair styled and I wore my most feminine, you know, because I just felt like if you’re going to come down on the opposite of the controversy then you might as well look like the opposition. You know, it’s just a little tactic that’s made things easier for me ‘cause I’m a very outspoken person, so rather than discounting, “Oh well, you know, she’s got long hair…”
I decided to do it, and when I got here lo and behold there’s this beautiful atmosphere and people are respecting each other’s opinions and there was just one little bit last night and it was immediately shut off by the great majority of the women here. There’s not been any need for the Sergeant-at-Arms or the police, which were called up. And I’m just so proud of South Carolina for being able to host a conference like this and have it turn out right, you know, have it be a real forum for expression.
NL: Right. I think the fact, or you say that you, we all have heard that and we all were with a concern, but I think we were prepared for it and we were determined that it was not going to disrupt the purpose of this Conference. And the purpose of this Conference is not to set women’s issues and advancements backwards, it’s to carry them forward. And we don’t want the State of South Carolina to go on record of having resolutions that would set us back and put us at the bottom of the pile, and I think there’re just enough people here to determine that that is not going to happen. We’re going to be ready, the strategy. And maybe, you know, a little compromise and cooperation from groups that have not in the past been in communication and dialogue, as we pull together.
KH: Yeah, I have been really impressed with the group sanity, you know, just this constant clearness about clarity, you know, about where we are, what we need, where we need to go. And it’s very hard for people who have built up a lot of anger and created an issue to maintain that for very long, I think, in the face of that kind of mass clarity.
NL: The divide and conquer was such a devastating, frustrating, you know, I think we, you know, put our energy into concerns that are not (unintelligible at 16:09) so far. I haven’t seen a whole lot of energy and friction. And I’ve seen those problems even in a body that is supposedly homogeneous and I’ve been to national NOW conventions for a lot of them. So it’s just sisters that were really all there for the same purpose, it was just a matter of who’s gonna be the one to carry it forward, you know. So that’s interesting. And there are a lot of people here who’ve not affiliated with organizations who didn’t have the, maybe the background…
End of Interview