Nancy Madden will play the title role in Lynne Kaufman’s Exposing Margaret Mead, presented live Aug. 15 7:30 p.m., (and available to stream Aug. 16) via The Marsh’s MarshStream. Photo: Lisa Keating

The classic anthropological text, Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization, was first published in 1928 when its author, Margaret Mead (1901–1978), was only 27. The groundbreaking book described how young Samoans enjoyed casual premarital sex with little guilt and jealousy before they settled down. From that one slim study, Mead became a lifelong, nationally recognized authority on all aspects of progressive cultural life.

But then, in what made front-page news in The New York Times, Derek Freeman, a New Zealand anthropologist who lived in Samoa, published Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, in which he challenged and criticized all of Mead’s significant findings. Although the book was published in 1983, five years after Mead’s death, Mead was aware of Freeman’s opinions during her lifetime, and they spoke about it. Later, other social scientists chimed in, including, on the pro-Mead side of the dispute, Alice Dreger’s Galileo’s Middle Finger, and Paul Shankman’s The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy.

Lynne Kaufman, noted novelist and author of over 20 plays (including three recent plays produced at The Marsh: Acid Test, Two Minds, and Who Killed Sylvia Plath) is the creator of Exposing Margaret Mead, a new one-person, 45-minute play about Mead. Author Kaufman uses the anthropological tempest as context to explore Mead’s reaction to the character assassination and as an opportunity to reflect on her life’s works.

She got a lot of flak for her bisexuality. I so admire her for taking the spear through her heart, pulling it out, looking at her major works and life decisions, and coming up with how to deal with this.” — Lynne Kaufman

“Mead turned what could have been infuriating, damning and destructive for her psychologically, into a way to self-examine and grow in an open way,” Kaufman said a telephone interview with Berkeleyside. “In the play, she has that moment, questioning all her certainties, and wondering whether she is trying to justify her own life, as Freeman had said. She got a lot of flak for her bisexuality … I so admire her for taking the spear through her heart, pulling it out, looking at her major works and life decisions, and coming up with how to deal with this accusation.”

Kaufman directs this world premiere with assistance from David Warren Keith. Mead will be acted by Nancy Madden, who most recently appeared with Lorri Holt in Training Wheels at the RAVE Theatre Festival in New York.

Speaking about her admiration for Margaret Mead, Madden said, “Margaret Mead started her career in the 1920s and was in the public eye until she died in the 1970s. You could take her today, put her on stage with any of the speeches she gave over those years, and it would be so timely as if she were writing in 2020. The issues that were quite revolutionary and novel when she brought them into the public eye are talked about daily — racial equality, gender fluidity, and the effect one’s culture has on behavior. Those were basic truths to her. Exposing Margaret Mead is the product of Lynne Kaufman’s ingenious use of Freeman’s work to propel the play and give Mead a chance to consider Freeman’s accusations, to review her life, to look at her life choices, and try to sum up the beliefs she fought for and studied.”

Exposing Margaret Mead streams live on MarshStream, at 7:30 p.m,, Saturday, August 15, 2020. Immediately following the performance will be a Q&A with The Marsh’s Founder/Artistic Director, Stephanie Weisman. The recorded performance will be available for streaming all day on Sunday, Aug. 16, and likely after that as part of MarshStream, which has many exciting offerings via Zoom, YouTube, Instagram, Spotify, Google Podcasts and iTunes. MarshStream viewers are asked to contribute whatever they can. Donations can be made by joining The Marsh’s membership program and via a virtual “tip jar” on the website, with funds going to support and sustain The Marsh and its performances. For more information, visit The MarshStream.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...