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On Stage

Grannies With Gumption

Art imitates life at BUF

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

“I was reading from the Declaration of Independence to make the point that we must declare our independence from the corrupting bonds of big money in our election campaigns.”
—Doris “Granny D” Haddock

Although she’s never walked more than 3,000 miles to prove a point, Barbara Bates Smith has more than a passing similarity to Doris “Granny D” Haddock, an elderly woman who gained national attention when, in 2000, she journeyed on foot from southern California to Washington, D.C. to draw attention to campaign finance reform.

In addition to the most obvious similarity—Smith portrays the outspoken activist in her one-woman show, Go, Granny D!, which can be seen Mon., July 21 at the Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship—the two women seem to have led parallel lives. Like Haddock, Smith found her passion later in life, after her kids had left home and acting became something that helped fill a void in her life she didn’t even know was there (coincidentally, Haddock also had more than a passing interest in the theatrical arts).

Activism is another commonality shared between Smith, 84, and Haddock, who turned 90 during her historic excursion (she died at 100 in 2010). In fact, Haddock’s plan to traverse the country discussing ways to get big business out of political campaigns provides the grist for Smith’s one-woman show, which is based partially on Granny D’s memoirs.

“When she was driving to Florida with her son, she told him she was thinking about walking across the country for campaign finance reform,” Smith recounts. “He finally decided he’d help her if she proved she could walk 10 miles a day wearing a 25-pound backpack. Eventually, he ended up buying her a ticket to Los Angeles.”

By sharing Haddock’s fascinating life story, Smith has become an activist in her own right. Performances of Granny D are typically followed by discussions focusing on how regular citizens can respond to political injustices, and giving them ways to make a difference.

“We have topics in mind for these discussions, but we don’t use those unless we need to get things started,” Smith says. “The performance provokes discussions. It’s entertaining, but it also seems to be empowering, and the idea is for people to feel empowered and wondering ‘after what she did, what can we go out and do?’”

With the topic of campaign finance reform again in the public spotlight, Smith says those whose eyes may have glazed over when she previously talked about Granny D’s activism have changed their tune, and instead view the tale as a way to get further involved in making a change—or, at the very least, voting in local and national elections.

When Smith and musician Jeff Sebens highlight the story of the nonagenarian crusader at the BUF, members of the League of Women Voters of Bellingham/Whatcom County, Bellingham Friends, and the Whatcom Peace & Justice Center will be on hand to help point people in the right direction on the path to making their own changes.

When asked if there will come a day when she decides to stop touring the country and retire from both acting and activism, Smith is likely thinking of Granny D when she gives her answer.

“Every year, I think it might be the end,” she says. “I don’t say so anymore, I just keep going. And I will as long as I have the energy.”

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