The theatre has long been a place where we gather to witness characters persevere in the face of adversity. Through this communal experience, the hero’s journey becomes our own. It is a touchstone for our own humanity, a reminder and a celebration of what we can achieve.
Those themes resonated throughout the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre September 19, when First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a musical event to spread the message of Let Girls Learn.
Launched by President Obama in 2015, and spearheaded by the First Lady, the Let Girls Learn initiative sheds light on the fact that 62 million young women around the world are not in school. Adolescent girls, especially in developing countries and regions in crisis, face numerous challenges in their pursuit of an education.
Let Girls Learn is the First Lady’s final initiative while still in the White House, and it’s one that hits close to home. “For me, this issue has always been personal. See, back when I was a girl growing up in a working-class neighborhood, most of the folks I knew — including my parents — didn’t go to college,” Mrs. Obama said to a crowd of young girls from the New York area who gathered at the Jacobs Theatre along with spouses of visiting world leaders from the 71st United Nations General Assembly.
“But with a lot of hard work — and a lot of financial aid — I had the chance to attend some of the finest universities in the country,” she continued. “And I can tell you that education was everything for me. It opened doors. It gave me the confidence to pursue my ambitions and make my voice heard in the world. For me, education was power.”
Mrs. Obama said the crises young women face across the world became personal when she met Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman who was shot in the head for trying to attend school under Taliban law. “The terrorists who nearly killed her were trying to silence her voice,” Mrs. Obama said. “They were trying to snuff out her ambitions and take away her power. And that’s why I decided to work on global girls’ education. Because there are girls just like Malala in every corner of the globe — girls who are so bright, so hardworking and hungry, some who are even willing to risk their lives just to get an education.”
Those powerful words were followed by a series of performances by leading female artists from Broadway, each representing a musical in which the female protagonist defies the odds: Beautiful, The Color Purple, Waitress and Wicked.
In Beautiful, a songwriter finds her voice; with The Color Purple we witness the triumph of the human spirit; in Waitress a woman finds the soul-nourishing ingredients to stake out a better life for herself and her unborn child; and with Wicked, a fiercely intelligent and misunderstood outcast soars to new heights by believing in her own abilities.
These aren’t just Broadway’s onstage stories. There are countless women in theatre whose journeys chart similar paths. The theatre is a forum that honors the work of extraordinary women whose perseverance has led them to the greatest stages in the world. Broadway celebrates their work eight times a week, and young women from across the world journey here to witness what is possible.
As Fun Home composer Jeanine Tesori said during her acceptance speech for the 2015 Tony Award for Best Original Score, “For girls, you have to see it to be it.”
On October 11, International Day of the Girl, the First Lady invited young women from around the world to the White House to “see it” and to “be it” during a screening of the CNN documentary We Will Rise. The film follows Meryl Streep, Freida Pinto, Isha Sesay and Mrs. Obama on a journey to Liberia and Morocco as they meet girls who have overcome tremendous odds just to go to school. The documentary airs October 12 at 9 PM on CNN.
Mrs. Obama said she has committed herself to Let Girls Learn for the rest of her life. “It’s about telling the stories of these girls and girls like them across the globe — not just their challenges and their struggles, but their dreams and their aspirations — which are big,” she said.
She continued, “These girls, and girls like them, are my inspiration. I carry their stories with me every single day. And it was a privilege to bring my mother and my daughters with me to Liberia and Morocco and — for them to get to meet you. And that was our very last trip together during our time in the White House, so it was special for so many different reasons. Because while we represent three different generations, each of us — my mom, my daughters, myself — we saw ourselves in these young women that we met — in their passion, and their intellect, and their resolve. And I hope that this movie about their lives will serve as a call to action. I hope that people around the world will be as inspired as I am to step up and to speak out on behalf of girls around the world who struggle to go to school.”
One of the young women featured in the film spoke about what it meant to be a girl in a world brimming with possibility for her and so many others like her. “Being a girl means being powerful. Being a girl means being a challenger. Being a girl means being beautiful,” she said to the crowd gathered at the White House. “Being a girl means you never have to say no again in your life.”
Get involved at letgirlslearn.gov.