First Amendment pays tribute to Mother Jones in new show

October 11, 2011

Mother Jones lost everything. More than once.

As a child, she fled her Irish homeland with her family during the Great Potato Famine. Her husband and four children died in a yellow-fever epidemic in Memphis. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, in which all her possessions were destroyed, she never again had a permanent address.

But Mary Harris Jones, the woman who had nothing, gave everything for American workers, notably striving to abolish child labor and organize coal miners and steel workers, for more than 50 years.

The Theater of the First Amendment pays tribute to her in an upcoming one-woman show, “Can’t Scare Me, the Story of Mother Jones,” which opens Friday.

The play “is both a historical narrative and a personal narrative,” said Rick Davis, director of “Can’t Scare Me” and artistic director of TFA. “There’s nothing in the play she didn’t live through. . . . It’s a piece that tries to capture Mother Jones’s unbelievable optimism.”


Kaiulani Lee as Mother Jones in the production of “Can't Scare Me: The Story of Mother Jones” at Atlas Performing Arts Center. (Courtesy of George Mason University Center for the Arts. (Todd Messegee)

Most of the text is in Mother Jones’s words, taken from her autobiography, letters, speeches and other writings.

“We’ve tried very hard not to romanticize or fictionalize too much, because we feel a commitment to the story,” Davis said. Kaiulani Lee, the writer and performer of the show, will use only three props: a rocking chair, a bench and a box.

In her portrayal of Mother Jones, Lee said: “[I’m] trying to be open enough to let [her] spirit enter me.

“These stories are a part of us. They are beautiful stories — they’re heartbreaking, some of them — but beautiful, of faith, of courage, of one’s fellow man, stunningly beautiful American stories that moved me so. They’re part of the fabric of what America is and who Americans are.”

Friday to Oct. 30 at Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Sprenger Theatre, 1333 H St. NE. www.theaterofthefirstamendment.org. 703-993-2787.

All in the family
Once upon a time, a baby was born, doomed to off his dad and marry his mom. His panicked parents sent him away to be killed. This did not go as planned. Oedipus returned home to fulfill his destiny and claw his traumatized eyes out.

Scena Theatre’s “Greek,” which opens Thursday, plucks Oedipus’s tale out of a mythic past and drops it in a dystopian present, in a politically charged, angst-ridden London.

In Steven Berkoff’s play, Oedipus is now Eddy, an East Londoner in a black leather jacket and combat boots who falls in love with a waitress (2,500-year-old spoiler alert: The waitress is his mom). All the actors wear whiteface and speak in a hybrid of Cockney slang and “neo-Shakespearean verse,” said Robert McNamara, Scena’s artistic director and “Greek” director. “Berkoff’s language is highly charged. . . . It’s like two hours of poetry coming in, but it’s one of the most scatologically obscene plays ever written.

“It’s a real punch in the solar plexus, right in the gut.”

Nanna Ingvarsson, the Helen Hayes Award-winning actress who plays Eddy’s mother-cum-lover, agreed, describing the vocabulary as “so bawdy, so dirty and so beautifully poetic at the same time.”

“There is an edge of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ to it,” McNamara said, “this feeling that Britain was once great, and now it has declined. . . . This is a modern-day, apocalyptic vision.”

The tragedy is reinvented as a rags-to-riches love story with an ending that takes more than a few liberties with Sophocles’ source material.

“Greek” premiered at Scena in 1998, but McNamara said there was no question in his mind as to whether the show would be relevant.

“This summer, we saw riots in London,” McNamara said. “Its topicality is not diminished at all. . . . You saw what’s going on through Europe all summer long. It’s like the summer of discontent.”

Saturday to Nov. 27 at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. www.scenatheater.org. 703-683-2824.

Shalwitz for the win

The Humanities Council of Washington has announced the 2011 Distinguished Service to the Humanities Awards recipients. Howard Shalwitz, the artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, is one of the six honorees.

“Howard Shalwitz is being honored for his rare ability to challenge convention, take risks, and provide fresh ideas that improve and enlighten our civic discourse,” Joy Ford Austin, executive director of the Humanities Council, wrote in an e-mail. “This year, we chose people who make D.C. sizzle: They have been innovative, nurtured creativity in themselves and others, stayed the course and also stayed fresh in their ideas.”

Shalwitz is the only recipient from the theater community. The awards will take place Thursday evening at the Hogan Lovells law firm.

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