Actress Caroline Clay Discusses “Let It Flo,” Her New One-Woman Show About Late Feminist, Activist and Lawyer Florynce Kennedy
By Annamarya Scaccia/Photos by Sheila Peake
When Caroline Clay was first introduced to Florynce “Flo” Kennedy over a year ago, she wasn’t familiar with her legacy.
She didn’t know Kennedy was the second African American woman to graduate from Columbia University, or that she negotiated the estates of Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday. She didn’t know Kennedy was an accomplished lawyer, or that she was active in civil rights, women’s rights, reproductive rights and performer’s rights. She didn’t know Kennedy co-wrote the 1971 book, Abortion Rap, with Diane Schulder or that she fought to get Holiday monetary, health & pension benefits owed to her by her agents. Clay also didn’t know that she filed a lawsuit against the Catholic Church challenging its tax-exempt status on the grounds it used its money to influence legislation, specifically in regards to abortion, or that she founded the Media Workshop in 1966 to advocate for the representation of Black people in the media.
But when the accomplished actress saw Kennedy for the first time on television, she was “riveted.”
It was during a showing of Gloria: In Her Own Words, HBO’s 2011 documentary on feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem. There, playing out on her screen was Kennedy being “man-handled” by security guards. “Get your mother f—ing hands off me!,” Kennedy yelled from the old grainy black & white footage—a symbol of the activist’s unceasing valor.
“I fell in love,” the 44-year-old thespian says with a laugh. “I thought it was the most amazing thing because there was sort of all of this going on. Then this woman is just going off for, what I could tell, no reason in particular.”
Thus began Clay’s year and a half odyssey of unearthing everything she could about the feminist and activist, who died in 2000 at 84. In addition to research, she became close to Kennedy’s surviving sisters, 84-year-old Joy and 82-year-old Faye, and fostered a digital relationship with Steinem. And what the native Washingtonian learned was that Kennedy was a “true lady of the ‘70s with high heels to boot and full makeup”—a daring, charming woman who was polished and fervent, fighting furiously against injustice. “I’m utterly seduced by her legacy. Utterly seduced,” she says.
It’s a journey that accumulated to a mesmeric one-woman show, titled “Let It Flo,” which functions as Clay’s thesis for University of Maryland’s MFA in Performance program (MFAP), a cross-disciplinary curriculum that trains mid-career theatre professionals to write, direct, produce, act, and teach. In narrating Kennedy’s story, Clay starts at the end of her days, setting the play in a storage facility that houses the belongings of her and her family. Outfitted with a cane and hospital gown, she unveils Kennedy’s tale through recollection, moving backwards from her 80’s to her early years in Kansas City. But the actress doesn’t embody the late lawyer as old; rather, she portrays Kennedy as someone “infirmed through life punctuated by illness.”
It’s a theme that flows throughout the script, representing a woman that, while petite, was “sturdy” and persevered despite the countless surgeries and disease that rage against her body (by her own admission, Clay is not petite but says she shares Kennedy’s strength.) “Let It Flo” was staged February 1 & 2 at UMD’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center as part of the Festival of New Works [view photos from the dress rehearsal here.]
What’s most telling of Clay’s work, though, is how it begins—in total darkness. It was a deliberate choice representing how she—and, by extension, Kennedy—is “literally and metaphorically emerging from the pages of history.” “[Steinem wrote to me], ‘I am thrilled that now Florynce is becoming a part of the women’s studies conversation,’” says the 30-year acting veteran, who also works as an MFAP teaching assistant. “It wasn’t that she’s becoming a part of the women’s studies conversation again. She’s becoming a part of the women’s studies conversation for the first time.”
In many ways, “Let It Flo” also signifies a reemergence for Clay, who put her career on hold to join the inaugural MFAP class three years ago. The award-winning actress, who’s lived in New York City for the last 20 years, has performed both on and off-Broadway, appearing in Doubt and The Royal Family, as well as acted in television and film, with roles in All My Children, Morning Glory, Everybody’s Fine, and Sherrybaby. But when the chance to take part in UMD’s program came her way, she needed in. She wanted to elevate her already-astounding skills, and learn the tools to produce her own works.
“It’s time for my voice to emerge because I now have things that I want to say,” she says.
Ultimately, Clay hopes to develop “Let It Flo” into a “true one-woman show,” and is actively identifying venues to perform the work. Its new incarnations will possibly involve more media components, including interviews with surviving friends and family.
“This is a testimony I believe needs to be heard,” says Clay, who currently lives in Silver Spring, Md. “The thought that they’re still talking about Roe v. Wade, that they’re still talking about these same issues that [Flo] was…fighting for, I could not be more convinced of the timeliness and the need to share her story. But it’s not just a story to move people with and incite conversation. In many ways, it’s a public service announcement.”
Why do you believe Flo Kennedy is not as acknowledged as she should be?
I think because she played to the fringe. I think it was easy to not take her seriously. When she her autobiography in 1976 [Color Me Flo: My Hard Life and Good Times], a lot of things that she said were kind of out there…She wasn’t the only one saying the things she was saying but she was a champion of a lot of fringe causes, as well. She had no problem getting there and not being on the popular side…I had some friends comment, “Well, she was really kind of considered an irritant,” and I said, “Well, if this is what you call an irritant then I’ll be irritating.” She didn’t play to the mainstream and she had a colorful mouth. She knew how to behavior and elected not to…It was a technique, just like any other activist. Everyone had different ways of tearing down the master’s house and this woman was an incredibly brilliant and articulate attorney but she made a choice to deal with things the way she dealt with it.
How has she influenced you as a person and an actress?
It’s interesting. I feel that Flo found me. I don’t mean that in a spiritual [sense]. I mean that concretely, in everything that I am…Coming back to this region has been, and I say this cautiously, a bit of a culture shock. I’m the only African American woman in my cohort [which is comprised of seven MFAP Performance students]. It has been interesting to me having to stand up for myself in a way…There are some pockets of ignorance, and there are some pockets of lack of knowledge and awareness around cultural diversity that raised its head around me and my experiences here that I’ve been confronted with. It just caught me by surprise. I don’t know why I was surprised but I was. Flo has given me the words that I don’t know I was going to say on my own…the words that say “Rattle the cage door of your own life. Let them know you’re in there and you want out. Make trouble, make noise. Do the things you have to do to be true to yourself”…In many ways, doing “Let it Flo” has been a statement. With that said, the flipside is the very fact that they let me do it [laughs]…Not once was I ever asked to cut, to amend, to shift the content of my show and that is a tribute to the School of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies. For that, I will be forever grateful. In a way, maybe it’s great I’ve been confronted with some of the things I’ve been confronted [with] here because I don’t know had I continued to be comfortable in a more sort of cosmopolitan environment that this show would even come up.
Do you mean that if you stayed in New York City, you wouldn’t necessarily feel the need to tell Flo’s story?
Not that New York City doesn’t have its pockets of that sort of thing [but] that’s exactly what I’m saying. What I was confronted with here—and I’m going to stop short of racism because I think that’s too easy. I think it’s a lack of cultural awareness and a lack of exposure on the part of several people. If I had a dollar for every [cultural assumption]—I think sometimes it’s been innocent. “Oh, it’s a Black woman. Things must be very difficult for you because of x, y and z.” That is a pure cultural assumption. You know nothing about me. I’ve actually had quite a great life, quite a blessed life. I’ve done TV, film and Broadway. I’ve done classical work. I’ve done contemporary work. You know nothing about me. So to project what you think the life of a person is because they are of color, because of your lack of larger exposure, that is culturally insensitive. All of my years in New York City, I’ve encountered a lot of things [like] rude cabbies [laughs] but never, “Gosh, as a Black woman…” I found here that I was being looked to be a spokesperson because there is such a lack of diversity. I think, in many ways, “Let it Flo” is my response of “You think it’s hard? I’m gonna show you just how hard it is but my way.” It’s a response of defiance and laughter.
How can Flo’s legacy influence and push forward the movements of today?
It’s to keep the discourse going. I came out after [Feb. 2] show and there were a bunch of students in the lobby going at it. Three of the girls were talking in very high pitches to two of the young men…One of Flo’s coined phrases is “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”…One of the guys got really angry at that quote and these young women were saying, “You don’t get it. How could you not understand it? How could you possibly make any comment on our bodies? You can’t imagine what it’s like to have a period every month.” They were just going for it and going for it. I’m not saying it was right. I’m not saying it was wrong. I didn’t say anything. I just stood back and watched as these flushed 21-, 22-, 23-year-old faces talk and get loud. I sat there and said, “This is what I’m talking about. Limitless discourse.” They were actually engaged, like they were punched in the stomach by something. [My mom and I] are huge fans of Rachel Maddow. It’s must-see TV every night. Maddow is in that tradition, asking the questions. We might not get the answers today or tomorrow but I’m going to ask the damn question and I’m going to continue to be the flea in your ear. I’m going to continue to execute, and if that makes me an irritant, if that makes me bothersome, if that makes me crude and rude, so be it.
What can young women of color learn from Flo?
“To thy own self be true.” To all of her audaciousness, she was true to herself. She was married to a Welshman with a drinking problem. She would say, “Anyone who married a drunk Welshman deserves no sympathy.” She was just so self-deprecating and, yet, she had problems just like everyone else. Why she would elect to get into a co-dependent relationship, she also elected to be a part of an interracial relationship. She said throughout her life, Black men were never really attracted to her. They didn’t find her attractive. They found her too bossy, too this, too that. So she had her own demons. If there is anything young women of color can see in her is someone who is not perfect, who did not see herself as someone [who was] classically attractive, who saw her flaws and, yet, was always steeped in her sexuality, who was audacious, put one foot in front of the other and said, “Let’s go. Whatever this means, let’s go.” I teach acting to sophomores [who are] predominately women…There’s so much [they’re dealing with] and all I do every day is try to encourage and invite a little space of allowance for self-love. If Flo can do that for anyone, regardless of race, creed, color, sexual orientation, then her job would have been worth it. There’s so much right now, especially with social media, so many images, so many things telling young women what they are not, who they are not, what they are lacking, what they could be more of. Flo, who was clearly lacking, [who had issues] that she chose not to address, put her hand on her hip and said, “I’ll deal with that later. In the meantime, F— U—.” [laughs]
That’s my kind of lady.
Yea [laughs]. I just think it’s so needed right now.
Photos by Sheila Peake / Third Photo: Florynce Kennedy/Wikipedia Published on Prince George’s Suite – Monday, February 18, 2013