— Production photo
Four wheels bad, two wheels good.
It’s now virtuous for people to ride bicycles in the city, so this helps generate enthusiasm for Evalyn’s Parry’s two-person musical, Spin, even before her percussionist Brad Hart takes his place on stage and starts making music by deftly striking electrified parts of a 1972 CCM Galaxie bicycle, rigged with microphones.
Spin is off and rolling as soon as Parry straps on one of her two electric guitars on stage and starts playing a rudimentary but rhythmic open-tuning riff, engagingly augmented by Hart’s tasteful harmonies and his CCM-styled drum patterns.
This two-person, one narrator musical has been conceived to celebrate the role of the bicycle in the emancipation of women. Parry is not the first to do so. Back in the day, Susan B. Anthony wrote, “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It provides a woman with a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
But Parry does not claim originality. Before the show begins, we are greeted by a similar quote from Sarah Bernhardt, an avid cyclist, who made comments such as, “The bicycle is on the way to transforming our way of life more deeply than you might think. All these young women and girls who are devouring space are refusing domestic family life.”
There is no storyline to Spin, no plot. And there is also precious little about the mechanics of bicycles, how they have evolved, etc., beyond some intriguing references to Henry Ford (who got his idea for the assembly line from visiting a bicycle factory) and the Wright brothers, who operated a bicycle shop as a business venture. Mostly Parry has chosen to concentrate on Annie Londonderry.
The first woman to ostensibly ride a bicycle around the world was raised in a Jewish home in modern-day Latvia, around 1870, and became an American wife named Annie Cohen Kopcovsky. Although she had never before ridden a bicycle, she accepted a challenge from two men in Boston who were offering a $5,000 prize to any woman who could circle the world on a bicycle in 15 months. Energetically entrepreneurial as a mother of three, Annie changed her surname to Londonderry when she accepted $100 from the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company in exchange for carrying the company’s placard on her bike and discarding Kopchovsky.
With her sing-song-like narrative, as if she is speaking poetry or improvising musical rhetoric when she speaks—Parry informs us that Londonderry first cycled from New York to Chicago, where she adopted bloomers instead of skirts, and switched her 42-pound Columbia bicycle for a 21-pound men’s Sterling. We also learn from Spin that Londonderry turned back and decided she’d best circum-cycle from west to east, arriving in France from New York in 1894.
Our intrepid heroine eventually returned to the U.S. at San Francisco in December of 1894, riding to Los Angeles then onto Boston via El Paso and Denver. Spin is not without its spin doctoring. Parry doesn’t tell us that Annie was much criticized for often relying on other means of transport than her bike. Londonderry nonetheless received her prize money and later gained some notoriety as a journalist.
Parry prefers to sing about Londonderry rather than give much of a history lecture. There is a biography about Londonderry, published by her great-nephew in 2004, as well as children’s book, but the character of Londonderry is not investigated. We never know, for instance, how her husband and three children felt about her feat. Instead Londonderry serves Parry as a mythic figure and inspiration for one of her more memorable songs. Annie Londonderry is the core of Spin that enables Parry to later veer off-course into her own I Gotta Be Me performance.
Spin is light entertainment, a lot closer to busking than Shakespeare. Spin’s infectious enthusiasm for her subject is a palatable substitute for acting. She has her own songwriting style—lots of words in the verses, followed by a super-simple chorus. Most of her audience likes her, and the novelty of Brad Hart’s bicycle playing, to his credit, doesn’t lose its charm.
The 80-minute show skids to a halt after about an hour when Parry inserts a prolonged commercial for her CDs on sale in the lobby. Whatever theatrical bubble she has managed to create is burst by this blatant self-advertisement. As soon as we get the uncomfortable feeling that Parry prefers to talk about herself as much as she wants to tell us about Annie Londonderry, it’s time to go home.
But Spin is welcome nonetheless at a time when it is easy to take the emancipation of women for granted. We have a female premier—at least for a few more weeks—and there are more females in Canadian universities than males. Movies, television and music videos now prove that women are free to behave nearly as badly as men. But how many people can tell you that all Canadian women weren’t able to vote in federal elections until 1940? (Quebec was a holdout.)
We still need brave citizens to serve on hospital boards to ensure women retain the right to choose. Younger Canadians need to know the meaning of suffrage. The advances made by women are not inviolable. Spin connects us to our collective progress as a society.
-- Paul Durras