Writer-performer Ingrid Griffith brings political legend Shirley Chisholm home

With its latest Shows in Homes production of Shirley Chisholm: Unbossed and Unbowed, Out of Hand Theater lets writer-performer Ingrid Griffith bring the story of the American political legend into Atlanta area living rooms. 

Portraying about 15 different characters, Griffith’s one-woman, hour-long show — performed through April 30 at local homes and churches with a moderated talk afterward – tells the story of Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968 and the first Black candidate to run for a major party’s nomination for president in 1972. It follows this outspoken political figure from her Barbados childhood and early education in Brooklyn to her rise to power, defying the racist and sexist systems in place at that time. 

Yet the show itself, with its intimate delivery and unique staging, succeeds in humanizing the heroine, connecting the audience to her personality and drive. Griffith turns Chisholm into more than just a figure from a history book. We see the little girl she was and how much her parents loved her. Griffith shows us her romances and power plays, taking on her distinctive voice and eventually adopting Chisholm’s signature look of cat-eyed glasses, big hair and wildly colorful dresses.

In a recent interview after a performance in a Lawrenceville home, Griffith — who is New York-based and has been performing the show locally for a month — said the living room performances surprise her.

Ingrid Griffith portrays over a dozen characters from the life of Shirley Chisholm in “Unbossed and Unbowed.” (Photo courtesy of Griffith)

“For me, this is new: doing shows at home,” Griffith said. “I never thought of envisioning this show as that. The commitment in performance is something else beyond if you’re in a regular theater because it’s so close. There’s something else that happens. I become more specific and focused because the audience is right there, inches away.”

Griffith began performing an 80-minute version of the piece in theaters around the country in 2021, having researched it extensively since 2015. She used interviews and material gathered from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture as well as Brooklyn College, Chisholm’s alma mater. 

Yet Ariel Fristoe, the artistic director from Out of Hand, suggested presenting a condensed version as part of their Shows in Homes program.

Griffith felt she was up to that challenge. She abridged the script herself and worked with director Nikki Young to scale down the performance for a more intimate, confined setting.

“I really wanted to share the message of this story,” she said. “That’s what is most important. As a creator, I also have to keep creating and be flexible.”

Also, the number of performances at participating homes has helped Griffith.

“It’s been a thrilling thing to share,” she said. “This month, I’ve done it more times than ever. I started performing the show in late 2021, and that year, I had three shows total. In 2022, I had 15 shows total. So far in 2023, I have had over 30 shows, so this run has really solidified the work for me as a performer.”

Having no divide between herself and the audience raises her commitment during performances.

“They’re looking at every move I make, every emotion, everything that crosses my face,” she said. “Every gesture is so potent.”

Ingrid Griffith as Shirley Chisholm, delivering a speech to the Democratic National Convention at the climax of “Unbossed and Unbowed.” (Photo courtesy of Griffith)

Indeed, watching Unbossed and Unbowed in someone’s home immediately bonds the audience and the performer. 

Dressed in black, Griffith changes her voice and her stance, taking on a thick Barbados accent to play Chisholm’s loving father, and you feel his warmth and easy humor. While campaigning, the character of Chisholm reaches across a couch to hand you pamphlets about women’s rights, the Vietnam War and abortion rights, and you watch to see how the others in the small space react to such topics, particularly ones that are still at the center of political discourse today. You listen to the news of the 1960s assassinations with her, watching a range of emotions play across her face.

It is a novel, effective way to learn someone’s biography.

Regarding a Saturday afternoon performance in a renovated basement, Griffith said she was unsure of how her audience felt.

“There was not a sound, not a gush, not a chuckle,” she said.

Yet this was because the audience there was rapt, leaning in and paying attention to what unique challenges Chisholm faced in defying the odds and expectations of that time. She was a trailblazer, and her work led directly to the political progress of figures like Jesse Jackson, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris.

Griffith is a compelling performer with a love for her material, and that passion shows, even when she’s adapting to a new performance space she just entered an hour before — after traveling through a thunderstorm for the first of two shows the same day.

“I’m enjoying the traveling theater experience,” she said. “Like the ancient Greeks, you come with your minimal props; you travel from one town to the next. You share and you connect, and you keep going.”


Benjamin Carr, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is an arts journalist and critic who has contributed to ArtsATL since 2019. His plays have been produced at The Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan, as part of the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival, and the Center for Puppetry Arts. His novel Impacted was published by The Story Plant in 2021.

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