Theatre Tulsa’s production of ‘1776’ triumphs despite opposition

The Collegian had the chance to speak with MaKayla Baxter — Edward Rutledge in the production — about the intense backlash the musical has faced and the power of theater.

Theatre Tulsa’s highly anticipated production of “1776” opened this past weekend despite the numerous threats of violence to the cast and creative minds behind the production. In this reimagined version of the famous musical, Theatre Tulsa’s production stars an all female and non-binary cast. Tulsa Performing Arts Center describes the musical: “It’s the summer of “1776,” and the nation is ready to declare independence… if only the Congress can agree to it! Witness the birth of a nation with our all-female and non-binary cast of founding ‘fathers.’”

A now-viral post on the production from FOX23 News has thousands of comments filled with prejudicial hate from Facebook users, many of whom confess in their comment(s) they have little to no prior knowledge of musical theater or the production itself. The production has even received numerous death threats, causing Theatre Tulsa to implement stricter safety precautions.

The Collegian spoke with MaKayla Baxter who plays Edward Rutledge — the youngest signatory of the Declaration of Independence — in this production running until Jan. 29. She talked to us about her excitement for this production, the backlash and much more.

What excites you most about this production of “1776?”

There are so many aspects of our production that excite me, but one thing I find particularly interesting is the way the ensemble dynamic changes when women and non-binary actors portray these iconic figures. When ‘traditionally’ cast, the majority of “1776” takes place in a single room where the most powerful men from each colony engage in open debate over several issues that will dictate our country’s future. There are very few instances of women being depicted as having that kind of innate, unquestionable power and influence in the theater canon (especially in musical theater), and, of course, we have never had a congress made up entirely of women in real life.

We have seen the journey toward American independence portrayed numerous times with men, since it is historically accurate and, frankly, all we know. However, switching it up can force us to pay closer attention to the struggles, triumphs, and failures these figures faced. We were told to bring the souls of these figures to the forefront of our performance and to portray them as if the audience has no prior idea of who they were or what they accomplished. This concept greatly complements the text and creates an exquisitely engaging performance. Having run the show multiple times and knowing how the story ends, I still find myself wondering, mid-show, how Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson will ever possibly achieve a unanimous vote on American independence.

It is also just exciting to be able to play a truly powerful character. As a female performing artist, I have played multiple roles in my career, but not once have I ever been able to play a role that is not under the authority of another character in some way, shape, or form. It’s such a freeing, empowering feeling, and I know many in the cast feel the same way. One line the conservative delegates sing in the show always stands out to me:

“Come ye cool, cool conservative men, our like may never ever be seen again. We have land, cash in hand, self-command, future planned. Fortune thrives, society survives in neatly ordered lives, with well-endowered wives.”

Although that song is filled with irony, it fascinates me how, in this production, I am the one onstage singing these lines, but if I do this show again playing Martha Jefferson or Abigail Adams, the only two canonically-female roles in the show, the male cast will be onstage singing this line, while I will be sitting backstage for 90% of the show.

What has the backlash to this production been like?

Art is divisive and inherently subjective. People will always disagree with the art being created around them, and that is perfectly fine.

I am not speaking on behalf of the theatre company and this is all just my opinion, but I am not shocked, but very disappointed by the fact that we have received death threats and other threats of targeted violence over this show. No expression of art deserves those kinds of threats, but I am especially surprised that this show, out of all musicals, is receiving this kind of attention. Although this is the first production of its kind in Oklahoma, people have been producing “1776” with nontraditional casting choices, including all-female casts, for decades. Nothing in the script has been changed or altered whatsoever, and we have worked tirelessly to research these figures in a distinct effort not to make a mockery of them or turn them into caricatures, just as we would while portraying any other historical figure.

Many stagings of classic musicals share this idea. Just as we’ve done with Shakespeare, operas, and Greek tragedies, human beings are always drawn toward finding new, engaging ways of presenting beloved works. That doesn’t mean traditional stagings cannot or should not exist, just that we are doing what we have always done and always will do: finding new ways of expressing ourselves through art.

It has been incredibly inspiring to see the outpouring of love and support from our community throughout all of this. People from all across the country, and even the world, have sent us words of encouragement and shared our story. I am so thankful for them and each and every person in the audience every night.

What are you most proud of about this production?

I am incredibly proud of our cast, crew, orchestra, and creative team. We have faced so much hatred and many trials throughout this process that were out of our control, but we have still managed not only to create one of the absolute best shows I have ever seen in this city but also to build a magnificently strong bond, unlike any other production I have ever been a part of. Although we all come from different backgrounds and walks of life, we continually lift each other up and genuinely take care of one another. The best part for our audiences is that the electrifying synergy we have created offstage has followed us onstage, creating something truly beautiful, exquisite, and simply delightful.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“1776” runs until Jan. 29 and tickets can be purchased here.

Post Author: Madison Walters