A Timely Portrayal: Pamela Daly as Margaret Sanger

SangerTiming is everything. Acting teacher and professional veteran of film/TV, Pamela Daly, appreciates the divisive climate as she prepares to bring women rights activist Margaret Sanger to the stage in her one-woman show at the El Portal Theatre in NoHo succinctly called “Sanger.”

“It’s so charged!” Daly utters with a wide-eyed expression of wonder tinged with apprehension. “I always wanted to portray a strong, historic woman and in a way, Sanger chose me.”

This idea of choice is one Ms. Sanger fought for stridently as an early activist for birth control, legal abortion and the quagmire of eugenics—a social philosophy tinged with racist undertones in the reproductive pursuit of superior genetics to obtain a more fully evolved human species.

The name Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) may not immediately set off any bells of recognition, but like other rebels and suffrage leaders of the age, she was a woman with fearless conviction.

It’s been almost a century since Ms. Sanger opened the first birth control clinic run by female doctors in NYC, which in 1942, would become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Since then, the dialogue has grown fiercer and louder on both sides of the hot-button issue. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a Massachusetts law providing buffer-zones for protestors on the grounds that such limitations violate 1st Amendment rights. Days later, on June 30, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of restricting coverage for contraception to employees due to the business owners’ religious beliefs in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. The rulings have ignited a firestorm of debate.

Pamela Daly finds herself in the middle of a heated row as an artist first and foremost, but conscious of the lightening rod effect the name Sanger can illicit. For her, this is an act of love. “I want to avoid polarization. I’m not interested in picking a fight. That’s not what it’s about for me.”

Divided between her busy working schedule in Los Angeles and raising her children in Ohio, Daly is in many ways a perfect fit to play Sanger. Her big brown eyes flicker with passion as she talks about returning to the stage by inhabiting a woman whose biography is steeped with misconceptions, colored by mystique and viewed either harshly by opponents or with gratitude by supporters. It is an odd mix, and one Daly acknowledges is throughout the show.

“There’s a tension with Sanger and the abortion issue. No one knows the real story. The play is not an interpretation. It is her words. I want people to hear them and form their own opinion.”

Seven years ago, Daly felt a strong, but inexplicable pull towards Sanger. In the midst of her inspiration, Daly continued to act, teach and be a mother and wife—all the while with Sanger whispering in her ear. Earlier this year, the timing was right for Daly to devote her full energy to taking on the role.

What she discovered along the way was her own personal feelings on the subject matter and Sanger herself. “I am equally empathetic for women’s rights and for the unborn. She’s a great woman in so many ways, but imperfect too. There are so many facets to her personality.”

As to her approach, Daly looks around the empty stage at El Portal, clearly picturing the show in her imagination. “I’m involved as an artist/actress but removed from the controversy in order to play her honestly. I believe in following your intuition as an artist. I teach that to my students, and playing Sanger means, without being corny, following my heart.”

Her goal isn’t one to fan the flames of discord but rather to continue the conversation as openly and frankly as possible. “I want to bring both audiences together. Those who might have opposing views and those who support what Sanger sought out to do for women. In this way, through theater, we can merge these people to share an experience and come up with their own conclusions. There will be a talkback on August 24 and 31. It’s very exciting and rewarding as an actress to encourage dialogue in the context of art. I’m not afraid of it. I want the audience to appreciate being able to hear her words, maybe for the first time and see her represented.”

“Daly is the vessel for this controversial piece,” her marketing director, Benjamin Kemp adds. “We’ve already received a huge response on our Facebook and Twitter accounts, both positive and negative. This is good though. It is topical. Like Malcolm X, Larry Flynt, and other notorious people reimagined creatively, there will be those who have already formed an opinion. This isn’t about changing anyone’s mind. It is about the transformation and the artistic motivation.”

No matter where one sits on either side of the issue, Daly feels there is room for everyone to listen and familiarize themselves with a woman whose actions first sparked the ongoing dispute and has left us with still unanswered, but provocative questions. As the lights go up, Margaret Sanger will appear. And for Pamela Daly in “Sanger”, it’s about time.

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and footlight.click. While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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