The first thing to say about The Supper Table is that it’s easy to understand but hard to describe.
Inspired by Judy Chicago’s controversial 1979 art installation The Dinner Party — where a massive V-shaped table features place settings for women from throughout history who had often been ignored, and are now figuratively taking a seat of their own at the table — The Supper Table takes Chicago’s idea, gives it a deeply South Carolina context, and spreads it across several media.
As a result, The Supper Table is not one thing, but several: not just a V-shaped table with place-settings from different artists, but also a collection of short films, a play and a book of essays.
What all these have in common is a group of subjects: 13 historic South Carolina women, whose lives and struggles are interpreted by dozens of women artists, actors and writers from around the state.
All these variations on a theme will come together this Friday, Sept. 6, at Trustus Theatre, and Sunday afternoon, Sept. 8, at Midlands Technical College’s Harbison Theater, both of which will include presentations of the art, as well as film and theater performances. There will also be an official launch of the book, Setting the Supper Table.
Cindi Boiter — executive director of The Jasper Project, a local nonprofit that spurs many other artistic endeavors — spearheaded the project from the beginning and brought the various artists together, believing Chicago’s masterpiece has long been a tempting model for addressing women from South Carolina history.
It also fit with the kind of work her organization has been doing.
“Jasper had been doing so many multi-dimensional projects,” she says. “Part of our philosophy is trying to encourage a multi-disciplinary art community that’s interdependent.”
Also, she felt, the talent was there.
“Our women artists are just badass,” she enthuses. “They’re all very connected and supportive of each other. It’s nice to have everyone in the room together, working on a communal goal.”
The historical subjects include well-known activists (Mary McLeod Bethune, Septima Poinsette Clark, Modjeska Simkins), abolitionists (the sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimke), writers (Alice Childress, Julia Peterkin), doctors (Matilda Evans), athletes (Althea Gibson), performers (Eartha Kitt), educators (Voorhees College founder Elizabeth Evelyn Wright) and lawyers (the University of South Carolina’s first female law professor, Sarah Leverette, who died just last year.)
There is also at least one guest at this party whom others might shun: the Colonial era entrepreneur Eliza Lucas Pinckney, who used slave labor to develop indigo.
For Boiter, Pinckney is an important outlier in talking about race, which evolved as a secondary theme.
“We have to talk about this more,” she says. “We have to own more of what happened to our history.”
Boiter also asked Columbia actress Vicky Saye Henderson to create a play that brought all the various histories together.
Henderson proceeded to not only cast the play, but to get every actress to read the appropriate essay in Setting the Supper Table, and to find it within themselves to connect with the character. From there the various contributions were workshopped into a script.
“It was really, really liberating and freeing,” Henderson says. “I cast all these women not only on their body of know-how and savvy as an artist, but also in their ability to crawl under the dirt, if you will, and find that stuff. They just are very intuitive to start seeing the world like these [subjects].”
On the film end, documentarians like Lee Ann Kornegay and Betsy Newman both warmed to the idea of telling the stories of the individual women in a short space of time.
“The task wasn’t to tell the story of the person, necessarily,” says Kornegay, who focused on Eartha Kitt. “It was to [ask,] ‘What is my creative way to think about her art and her life?’”
For Newman, delving into the life of Elizabeth Evelyn Wright was very much of a sobering learning experience — especially upon learning that Voorhees was her fourth attempt at establishing a black college, after three others had been torched by white supremacists.
“She built these schools and they were burned to the ground and she still didn’t give up,” Newman marvels
While she says she chose a mostly straight biographical approach, Newman’s been impressed with the wide range of approaches by other filmmakers — from animation in one to “evocative and dream-like” camera work in another.
Kornegay, likewise, appreciates the variety.
“They’re all coming at it from different angles,” she says. “That’s the takeaway for me — not only the women we’re honoring, but the women who are honoring the women.”
The Supper Table events
Sept. 6 — Premiere at Trustus Theatre, 6-10 p.m., $50-$250
Sept. 8 — Premiere at Harbison Theatre, 2:30-5 p.m., $15-20
Sept. 19 — Readings at Curiosity Coffee Bar, 6 p.m.
Find out more at facebook.com/JasperProjectColumbia