“Speranza” means “hope” and whether or not you were prepared for an Italian lesson today, you’ve gotten one! The Italian word was adopted as the name and calling card for Speranza Theatre when a group of young New School for Drama graduate students were looking to name their newly minted theatre collaboration. In search of a word carrying meaning, that rolled off the tongue, some Italian words were bandied about, and “speranza” was the clear winner. (Just imagine Sophia Loren pitching the efforts of Speranza Theatre to you for the full effect). 

For a theatre founded by and for women, “hope” seems an inevitable choice. In a world where women are still fighting for basic bodily autonomy and equal pay among other basic human rights, hope is required for those who menstruate. 

In my conversation with Heather Wahl, one of the original founders and current Executive Artistic Director of Speranza Theatre, we discussed the different ways in which that word continues to support the mission of the organization. The existence of a woman-led theatre alone offers hope to a younger generation who may hope to emulate their path one day. Likewise, it offers hope to those of an older generation who see the fight for equality continue on. To inspire audiences with the stories they tell is to provide hope to their audiences, even when that means watching a historical play that highlights a tragic past. However, history has taught us that progress is attainable and that the fight for equity and equality is worthwhile. Hope is inherent. 

Several women rest on top of boxes onstageSperanza’s mission is “to create evocative theatre, by and about women, and educational programming that promotes equality, community, inclusivity, and collaboration.”

While their work is centered around women year-round, each March they host a special event in honor of Women’s History Month. This is the third year celebrating the Women’s History Event at City Hall in Jersey City, but the first year that the event is entitled “IN HER FOOTSTEPS: a celebration of women’s history,” a title coined by Speranza Treasurer and IHF Chair, Diana Basmajian. If you’ve had the pleasure of attending the event in the past, rest assured that the name change speaks only to the program’s growth. The two-hour event will take place from 1pm to 3pm on Saturday, March 23rd at Jersey City City Hall offering a varied lineup of entertainment. The event description reads: 

“Step into the captivating world of women’s history at Speranza Theatre Company’s annual event IN HER FOOTSTEPS. Join us for an unforgettable journey celebrating the remarkable achievements of women throughout the ages. Get ready to be inspired, empowered, and entertained. 

Experience an array of engaging activities, unleash your creativity with hands-on crafts, and immerse yourself in thought-provoking videos showcasing the incredible contributions of women. But that’s not all! Prepare to be transported through time as talented actors bring to life the stories of significant women who have shaped our world. Get autographs, take pictures, and win prizes. 

Whether you’re a history buff or simply curious to learn more, this event promises something extraordinary for everyone of all ages. Bring photos of people from your life who you feel should be recognized to add to our lobby display honoring women’s history. Don’t miss out on this celebration of resilience, courage, and female excellence.” 

Founder Heather Wahl couldn’t contain her excitement when speaking about the event, and all of Speranza’s programming. Passion is at the heart of their organization. With a contagious joy in her voice, Wahl says, “We are always focused on women and women telling women’s stories but this [IN HER FOOTSTEPS] is more of an interactive event. It’s not necessarily sitting down and watching a scripted narrative like you would when you see one of our plays.” 

Four actors performing on an outdoor stageThis particular production is a family-friendly affair with plenty of opportunities to stay engaged while learning. Featuring Nellie Bly, Alice Paul, Dolores Huerta, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Katherine Johnson, and Yuri Kochiyama as presented by skilled actors who will remain in character throughout, attendees can engage with and ask questions of these pioneering women. If you don’t have questions for them, they will be more than happy to pose for a photo and share their autograph. 

When asked how the Speranza team curates their unique programming, Wahl had this to say, “The stories come to us in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s a newspaper article that someone will send us, or a person from history that someone thought might be interesting to us. Or we may happen upon tidbits of information that we didn’t know. For example, when I went to the Statue of Liberty, years ago, with my family - I happened to be listening to one of those audio tours and something that really stuck out to me was learning that women were not permitted to attend the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty and I was shocked by this. So I called Jennie and that ended up becoming ‘Unveiling Liberty.’ We don’t necessarily go out looking for inspiration but, it finds us.” 

Jennie is Jennie Contuzzi, Speranza Theatre’s Managing Director and resident playwright who went on to write “Unveiling Liberty” alongside Charlotte Rahn-Lee. The thirty-minute play focuses on ten-year-old Isabelle who is, as the synopsis reads, “enamored of the enormous statue about to be unveiled in New York harbor. Her father and brother are going to the dedication, and Isabelle doesn’t understand why, as a girl, she’s not allowed, even though a woman has been chosen to represent liberty. That has also drawn the attention of the Woman’s Suffrage Association. They have something to say about it and a daring plan to make themselves heard.” 

Three actors performing on a stage outdoorsIt is historically inspired narratives like this that drive the popular programming of Speranza Theatre. Other featured works include “A Chain Around the World” focusing on the one and only Nellie Bly as she races to beat the fictional record established in Jules Verne’s novel “Around the World in 80 Days,” “Walk by the Way of the Moon” the story of an enslaved family choosing their freedom, and “Votes for Women” highlighting the 1913 march for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. 

As Wahl affirms, “We hope to let our audience draw their own conclusions from the stories we tell. We share them in a way that is truthful, as truthful as we can be. We don’t want to point you in one direction or another.” 

And what else can we ask but to be presented with information and allowed to form our own opinions? Perhaps to formulate a new hope of our own? 

This Women’s History Month, delving into our past through the performing arts could be your new favorite way to celebrate with the family. 

How do you plan to support the women in your life this month? May I suggest supporting women-led arts organizations? If you have a story to tell, with women at the core, Speranza Theatre accepts short and full-length play submissions. If you have some extra cash to play with, they will also accept donations! 

If you’d like to contribute to Speranza Theatre, whether financially or otherwise, please reach out to Heather Wahl at speranzatheatre@gmail.com