Through movement, music, and docudrama, theater troupe, Pioneers Go East Collective, gathers audiences to tell the true story of union activist, Ella May Wiggins. Though the word “union,” has lost much of its impact and meaning in America (a bit dismaying to someone like me who grew up in a two-union household), the devised work tries to remind contemporary audiences of the violence, abuse, and extreme conditions workers were experiencing in the early twentieth century. This collective focuses on socially relevant queer and feminist work. So it’s not surprising they hone in on the role of women in the labor movement. It’s a noble goal, but the loose multimedia format of the show succeeds more in potent moments than in the overall power.
Wiggins (Kamala Sankaram) was a folk singer and union activist in North Carolina in the 1920’s trying to organize mill workers. A mother of nine (losing some of her children to illness because she could not afford medicine), she tried to bring people together for her cause through song. She attempted to integrate the union and sought the help of black mill workers, like her friend Eula (Brittane Rowe) to join. As the mill bosses (Jason Stanley) began to stretch the workers (Catrin Lloyd-Bollard, Anthony Napoletano), pushing for more work and less breaks during their 12-hour shifts, a strike was organized. As much as the workers tried to maintain peaceful protest, the mob hired by the bosses came at them with guns. The strike eventually turned violent.
Weaving in touchstones that may ring familiar to us today—bosses shouting about “taking back America,” complaining about immigrants, warning of losing trade to other countries—the show successfully draws parallels to still relevant issues. There is nothing nostalgic about the show’s framing and with a contemporary eye it also acknowledges the unsung contributions of African-American voices in this particular labor history.
Beginning with a song in the theater lobby and foot-stomping numbers throughout, the strongest element of the piece is the sometimes reviving and sometimes forlorn folk music. The cast doubles as musicians (playing guitar, mandolin, and accordion) and the songs range from expressing rage at workers’ treatment to calling for hope during the challenges of the strikes. Sankaram is a vocalist of the first order and the entire company makes these rousing numbers a pleasure–particularly when director Gian Marco Lo Forte, moves the performers into the audience and we feel the reverberations.
Narrative movement (by choreographer Maura Nguyen Donohue) helps weave together the fervent passion of the activists and depict the violence they experienced.
But the stylistic jolts and shifting story beats need smoothing. The show moves from musical numbers to direct address to live video to archival footage and some of these styles overlap. Just as we settle into one storytelling form, another upends it. It’s a lot of stimuli to pack into an hour and yet the mix of theatrical approaches do not build from each other.
In addition, the balance between documentary (video and audio) and live docudrama can feel off-kilter. The documentary pieces offer more authenticity and heft than the dramatized segments but the show leans on the drama. The performers portray possibly real or composite workers from the era. But speaking as a generic mill boss or worker, the characters lack specificity. It denies the audience an emotional hook into the story when we crave that the most.
We naturally focus on Ella and Eula but even they remain structurally distanced from us. The live video of Ella and Eula treating their wounds and cooling themselves with damp cloths hints at an undefined intimacy between them. Blowing up images of one woman or the other to large-scale projections on the wall during these personal moments does not provide insight. Rather the split focus of an image in projection and live actors still on stage, divides our attention and distracts us from whatever the relationship is between them.
Certainly there’s a fascinating piece of history in these people and this time. We feel it in the music but we see it only in glimpses.