Judith Kalaora: A Woman Making History

After five months of masking, social distancing, and remote working, I’ve realized a few things. First, we’re all in this together, and how we treat each other matters. Second, COVID-19 may have more to do with the number of pounds you put on than the year the virus emerged. And third, I don’t miss shopping at all. Or movies; you can find virtually any title online, and homemade popcorn is much better and much less expensive. 

But, I do miss museums and — more than anything else — live theater.

So, when a performance showed up in my Facebook feed a couple of weeks ago, a one-woman show in an open-air stable, masked and distanced, I was thrilled. I Now Pronounce You Lucy Stone would be produced by History at Play and presented at the Patton Homestead, a historic site in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, a few towns over. I even convinced my college graduate daughter to join me.

My daughter, at 22, is what is now called “woke,” or, according to Merriam-Webster, “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” She taught me the difference between performative and thoughtful allyship. She brought me to multiple Black Lives Matter protests this summer, and attended women’s marches throughout college. But I doubted that she, a card-carrying member of Gen Z, knew who Lucy Stone was.

Stone was the first woman in Massachusetts to earn a college degree, a passionate abolitionist, and eloquent suffragist. In fact, her speech at the 1852 National Woman’s Rights Convention in Syracuse, New York, recruited the now better-known Susan B. Anthony to the cause. 

I Now Pronounce You Lucy Stone was presented in a rustic old barn, open on two sides, with stacking chairs grouped in pairs of two at least six feet apart. The stage area comprised a lectern, table with portraits and books, an antique baby carriage, and other items effectively taking us back to the mid-nineteenth century. 

The actress, playwright, and History at Play founder Judith Kalaora transformed herself into Lucy Stone and spoke directly to us about her childhood, through her early disappointment at a ladies’ college to her eagerness to attend Oberlin, the nation’s first college to accept women and blacks. We heard firsthand about the challenges faced by the nation’s early suffragists (they weren’t called “suffragettes” until a half century later when they adopted the more radical activism of their British sisters), as well as the myriad inequities experienced by all women of the time. It was impossible not to root for Lucy, whose views about equality — so radical for the 1850s — are taken for granted by many of us today.

Although proudly independent, Stone did fall in love and marry, like most young women. But she kept her maiden name, unlike most young women. In her life, she was renowned for her distinctive bell-like voice (she had studied oratory at Oberlin, although she and her female classmates were prohibited from speaking in mixed company), and Kalaora’s voice did ring through the space. The actress, who is lovely and youthful, seemed to physically age before our eyes — becoming somehow shorter and frailer — as Lucy neared the end of her public career and her remarkable life. Her cause was eventually taken up by her daughter Alice, among others she had inspired. After an illuminating and quite wonderful one-hour performance, Kalaora took questions, first as Lucy and then as herself.

I caught up with Kalaora the following week and asked about her background.

“My plan was to make a life in the theater from the beginning,” she explained. “But I had very little interest in pursuing historical performance. That’s not to say that history wasn’t something that intrigued me. My father is a history maven, so it would be non-stop stories, non-stop history. Whenever any of my friends would come over to my home I’d say, ‘Get ready for a history lesson.’ My friends would say, ‘Oh, I like your dad’s history stories,’ and I’d laugh, ‘Well you don’t have to listen to them day in and day out like I do.’ 

“I started performing as a child. For their thesis project, grad students from Boston University created a drama program in my public elementary school. I was in third grade and they started with an after-school improv troupe. I thought that sounded stupid. (Of course, now I’ve taught improvisation to adults for about nine years.) I remember seeing the first group of students from the program come to our class and show us what they learned. I watched them create a human machine, and I’d never seen anything so cool. They came together to create something and I could see completely how it was functioning; they created a reality out of their bodies that was just unfathomable to me as an eight-year-old. I said, ‘I want to do this.’ So I joined the next class, and that was it. I started when I was eight and I never went more than three weeks not being in a performance until I was a freshman at Syracuse. 

“I was accepted to the conservatory acting program there, and freshman year, they don’t allow any of the acting students to do performances. You’re basically on a sabbatical so you’re all on equal footing. That was the longest time I went without performing in front of an audience until COVID. But I was learning stage combat and Alexander technique and Kristin Linklater and Skinner’s Speak with Distinction, and so forth.” In addition to conservatory training, Kalaora’s college years also included a semester in London at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

But, as any drama major will quickly tell you, getting a degree in acting — even from an excellent program — doesn’t automatically make you a star . . . or even employed. So Kalaora took matters into her own hands.

“When I graduated from college, I moved back to Boston and was watching TV at two or three in the morning, thinking to myself ‘What am I going to do with my life? I have a BFA in acting and a BA in Spanish language, literature, and culture. What can I do?’ I didn’t want to wait tables anymore. I was watching PBS and a public service announcement came on for the Freedom Trail: ‘Our talented cast of actors and historians will provide you with an entertaining and educational experience,’ and I thought, ‘That’s it!’ So, I wrote a letter and was hired shortly thereafter and I ended up portraying the life and legacy of the first woman in the US to fight in the military in disguise as a man during the Revolutionary War, Deborah Sampson. 

Judith Kalaora in the role of Deborah Sampson in  Revolution of Her Own. (Photo: Vincent Morrealle)

“From that point on, every time I did a tour, people would come up to me  — it might be a six-year-old girl; the next day it would be an eighty-year-old man; next it would be gentleman from Africa; then a woman from China. It didn’t matter where they were from, what their age, identity, demographics, it didn’t matter . . . everyone said, ‘Tell me more about Deborah.’ So I wrote a one-woman performance about Deborah Sampson, called A Revolution of Her Own, and I started touring it to independent living facilities, senior residences, and retirement homes. And, every community I went to, people were just blown away by this woman’s story, ‘How could we have not known about her?’ Then, I’d get a call a week later from the activities manager or the life enrichment director and they’d say ‘What other women do you portray?’ When I told them, ‘I don’t portray any other women,’ they said, ‘Well, you should.'”

Judith Kalaora in the role of Lucy Stone in I Now Pronounce you Lucy Stone. 

So, Kalaora wrote her next program: I Now Pronounce you Lucy Stone. This was followed by new productions, including Victorian Gossip Girl: Annie Fields, Tinseltown Inventor: Hedy Lamarr, CHALLENGER: Soaring with Christa McAuliffe, and World War Women: The Unsung Heroines of WWII. In 2018, she received a commission from the Paul Revere House to create a show about Rachel Revere; and in 2019, a commission from the city of Boston to create an ensemble piece for the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. She’s currently working on Diana of Love, about Lady Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales. 

History at Play is a wonderful resource for historians, history buffs, and people interested in women’s history. But Kalaora also recognizes its value as what she calls, “Educational Escapism.” 

“We’re so inundated with fear-mongering right now,” she observes. “I always say that the more you know about history, the less freaked out you get about what’s going on right now. You become much more aware of historical trends and you also become more aware of the sensationalized press being nothing. In fact, we’ve been in the sensationalized world for a long time here, ever since the press changed ‘the unfortunate incident on King Street’ to the ‘Bloody Boston Massacre.'” 

The pandemic has made it nearly impossible for Kalaora to pursue the engagements she had in previous years. “It’s definitely been a challenge, I would say. It’s been heartwarming to get so much support. But it’s also been heartbreaking to see the museum community and the performance community suffers so much. We fell through the cracks.”

But, despite the challenges, Kalaora is still dedicated to ensuring that the stories of some of history’s most interesting women don’t fall through the cracks. These days, most of History at Play’s productions are presented online via Facebook Live. They’re on Friday nights at 7:30 ET (and available to view until Sunday night at 10). Kalaora calls the ongoing series “Pay-Per-HAP,” asking $10-$25 per show on a pay-what-you-can basis. She also posts related links to the primary sources she uses to create her programs.

You can find Kalaora’s upcoming schedule and additional information at or

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