The U.S. Constitution has been enormously divisive throughout history. But Cathy Simpson considers it an honor to tell its story because of its crucial role in building the country.
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The U.S. Constitution has been at the forefront of Americans’ minds in recent weeks, as the Supreme Court delivered divisive rulings on guns and abortion, and the state of U.S. democracy continues to debated.
But the document has also long been an object of fascination for travelers to Philadelphia seeking to learn more about U.S. history. And it’s something Philadelphia-based actor Cathy Simpson is honored to present to roughly 250,000 annual visitors to the National Constitution Center via Freedom Rising, a 17-minute theatrical production featuring a sole performer telling the story of the U.S. Constitution and how it’s shaped the country’s history.
The National Constitution Center is expected to see a surge in visitors over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, which Simpson believes is an opportune time for Americans to learn about the critical document.
“I think we can be proud of it. We’ve had some victories and we’ve had some failures,” said Simpson who politely says she prefers to be called an actor rather than an actress.
“But because of the victories, we can be proud of the Constitution and what it represents to this country in a lot of ways.”
The 75-year-old Simpson, a veteran in theater, has informed and entertained guests at the National Constitution Center since 2006. She admitted to being surprised about developing an emotional attachment to the U.S. Constitution, largely because she, at first, primarily considered Freedom Rising to be a lucrative opportunity. She also had negative feelings about the Constitution’s creators.
“My idea of the Constitution and how I felt about (it) was this group of white men got together, excluded the Native Americans, took over this land and did all kinds of horrible things,” she said.
“Well, they did do that. But in the process of doing that … even though there (were) some great negatives, there (were) some great positives. They did lay the ground for this land to be created. Even though there were lots of lumps and bumps — (including) Native Americans and African Americans — the founders of this country played a tremendous role in getting this baby on the map.”
Simpson added the U.S. has come a long way as a country, which could also be said about her career. A native of St. Louis, she graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with a bachelor of fine arts degree. Simpson then spent 25 years in Washington, D.C., and during her time in the city — in addition to performing in theater — she waited tables and held administrative assistant roles at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
She moved to Philadelphia in 1994 after accepting membership in the People’s Light & Theatre Company, based in the city’s suburbs. Simpson has enjoyed tremendous success in the city, having been nominated three times for the Barrymore Awards, the most prestigious honor for members of the Philadelphia theater community. She won the 2001 Barrymore for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Play for her performance in The Old Settler, a story set in mid-1940s Harlem.
Simpson credits her theater experience for giving her the belief she could thrive doing the Freedom Rising presentations. “By the time I was hired an actor at the Constitution Center, I was well (ingrained) in the theater community,” she said.
“I had a great amount of confidence and after I read the script, I fell in love with the story. And once I became emotionally attached to the story, then I think that’s what gave me the impetus to do as well as I could.”
But how did she land the role? Simpson said the position was already on her radar because she believed, upon finding out about it, that it would fit perfectly in her schedule between shows. But it was a chance meeting in the bathroom of Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater 16 years ago that helped get the ball rolling. She ran into Nora Quinn, the head of the National Constitution Center’s Theater Department, whom she had been trying to contact. The opposite was true as well.
“So we made an appointment to see each other,” Simpson said. “We hooked up and she gave me a script. I learned it and I auditioned. I didn’t get the gig at the first audition. But the next time I auditioned, I got the gig.”
While Simpson chuckles about that encounter, Americans’ divergent views on their country’s history is no laughing matter. She says Freedom Rising attracts attendees from both sides of the political aisle, adding she believes spectators view the presentation differently from a white actor than a Black actor.
“Even though we’re saying the same words, you see a black face. And so you’re focused more on civil rights and equality or equal rights,” she said. “When you see a white face doing it, you see a broader picture of White America and your focus is on white America.”
Simpson performs Freedom Rising over two weeks a month on average. She said she gets praise from attendees after each session, a feeling she describes as humbling. And Simpson believes those accolades are a result of approaching Freedom Rising as a performance.
“You have to have an emotional connection to what you’re saying,” she said. “If you don’t believe it, if it’s not real to you, it won’t be real to your audience.”
So how much longer does she herself being able to connect to audiences? When asked that question, Simpson didn’t give a timeframe. “I fully expect to walk across the stage on into glory,” she said.
However, despite the dismay of many Americans regarding recent Supreme Court decisions, Simpson is clear about her optimism regarding the future of the country.
“I honestly believe that we will get back on top,” she said. “I honestly believe we can and will because of the basis of the Constitution (and) the way it’s constructed. We can and will win these battles.”
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