The benign-seeming lady, up in years, peers at the audience over wire-rimmed glasses and says she believes it’s a woman’s responsibility to shake things up. She paces the stage in a 19th-century shirtwaist dress, her gray bun topped by a hat held on with a substantial hat pin.
The little old lady is the legendary labor organizer and agitator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries Mother Jones, nee Mary Harris. A bit later, she explains something we’ve already discerned: “I’m not a sweet old granny — it’s just the outfit.”
Thus proceeds the tart, handsomely wrought solo show “Can’t Scare Me: The Story of Mother Jones.” Written and performed by veteran stage, film and television actress — and longtime activist — Kaiulani Lee, the piece continues through Oct. 30 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
Theater of the First Amendment (TFA), based at George Mason University, is presenting the world premiere of Lee’s piece. TFA Artistic Director Rick Davis has staged it.
If “Can’t Scare Me” went on any longer than its scant 70 minutes, it would surely start to sound tediously like agitprop history or a left-wing radio rant. That the play engages our emotions and intellect far more compellingly than that, and with hardly a whiff of mothballs, is a tribute to writer/actress Lee and her subject.
Turning excerpts from Jones’s speeches, writings and journalistic accounts into an ongoing, albeit one-way conversation with her audience, Lee makes the early miners’ and steelworkers’ strikes feel real and immediate, especially the murderous violence unleashed against unionized workers in the early 20th century.
Yet she peppers her recollections with humor: her prickly correspondence with a Rockefeller; the time she got workers’ wives to face down authorities by banging spoons on washboards and screaming (the authorities fled).
A spare but attractive wood-plank stage (the evocative scenic design is by Luciana Stecconi) in the Atlas’s Sprenger Theatre boasts only three props: a rocker, a bench and, appropriately, a soapbox, all rough-hewn. Lee’s Jones moves among these as she tells her story. Behind her are floor-to-ceiling panels that project an idyllic rural backdrop of mountains, valleys and sky. Birds chirp cheerily before the play starts — part of Mark K. Anduss’s effective you-are-there sound design.
As Jones’s tales unfold, the panels morph into huge old photographs of strikers and their families, or of a robber baron’s face, or of gunmen hired to break up a strike. Then it’s back to the mountain idyll, till the next big event comes to mind. Mark J. Ormesher created the projections, and while they’re sometimes fuzzy when so greatly enlarged, the old images pack a punch.
Lee, a skilled performer, brings both gentleness and steel to her Mother Jones. And she does a good job of using the woman’s life story as an explanation for Jones’s dedication to labor unions.
Born in Cork, Ireland, in 1830 (the year of her birth is in some dispute), Jones was raised in Ontario, Canada, then immigrated to the United States, where she worked as a schoolteacher and trained as a dressmaker. While living with her husband and four children in a poor section of Memphis in 1867, she lost her entire family to a yellow-fever epidemic. She moved to Chicago and lost her few mementos of them in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. It was, in Lee’s accounting, Jones’s witnessing of the plight of the poor in Memphis and Chicago that led her to attend union meetings and finally to offer her own powers of persuasion and speechifying to the cause.
Senators and industrialists were afraid of her, she tells us with a twinkle, and couldn’t wait for her to die. She got them, though. She lived well into her 90s.
This short piece could add some contradictory ballast to the all-unions-are-bad mood of our time. It’s the sort of thing Lee, who has done this before with her play “A Sense of Wonder,” about environmentalist Rachel Carson, could take on the road to high schools and colleges. It’s getting a nice showcase at the Atlas.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
Written and performed by Kaiulani Lee. Presented by Theater of the First Amendment. Directed by Rick Davis. Set, Luciana Stecconi; costume, Howard Vincent Kurtz; lighting, Timothy M. Chew; sound, Mark K. Anduss; projections, Mark J. Ormesher; dramaturg, Kristin Johnsen-Neshati. About 70 minutes. Through Oct. 30 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center; a single performance Feb. 17 at George Mason University TheaterSpace.
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