America, land of the free. If you work hard, you will be rewarded. In the 1900s it seems a nirvana, a place where Jews can live and work as they wish, not reduced to existing as outcasts of society in the middle of a Russian wasteland. So, for Rosa (Hannah Genesius) and her sister Sadie (Miztli Rose Neville), the decision to leave their family and the Marxist regime behind to make the perilous voyage across to the promised land is an easy one. New York must be better, surely? So they travel The Great Divide in search of a better future – the grass looks a little greener.
The Finborough Theatre continues its successful season of bringing new writing and older, neglected works to the stage with Alix Sobler’s honest, heartfelt examination of a group of young women that bravely stood up for their rights in a time and place where it was frowned upon for them to be working at all. ‘The Uprising of the 20,000’ in 1909, America’s largest female strike and spearheaded in The Great Divide by Clara Lemlich (Neville), highlights a changing turn-of-the-century mentality. In the land of the free, young women from a downtrodden minority group can stand up for themselves and eventually someone will listen.
The admirable commitment of these women to change their lives is mimicked by director Rory McGregor’s commitment to honour their memory with a no frills production. Sebastien Noel’s burnt and broken wooden set is evocative of the working conditions, using luggage cases as the only props. This has the potential to be the uplifting tale of Rosa (Genesius), her friend Manya (Emma King), lover Jacob (Josh Collins) and fellow strikers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, all of whom finally feel as though they have achieved something by standing up and forcing people to take notice. Unfortunately, history has a certain twisted sense of humour and cuts their celebrations all too short by the most deadly American workplace disaster after the events of 9/11.
Sobler’s writing is emotionally destructive; the words shatter through any wall the audience can construct to shield themselves. Exposing; intense; searing; the burn brightly and comes out of nowhere like an inferno. But this is not just a sad story to be forgotten. These are people that existed, lives that were lived and hardships that were fought – at least that is what Manya and Jacob are determined to portray in this retelling. But lead narrator Rosa is pragmatic, somewhat devoid of emotion – yes, they were all people (albeit fictional ones), but they were only ever important because of what happened, because of the strike and the fire. Otherwise, they were no one, Jewish outcasts the world can’t forget as it never knew of them to start with.
As Rosa, Genesius is the key to maintaining momentum in this story; their story. Recounting the past can be dry and somewhat dull, it often hangs on the narrative capabilities of the lead character. The character is cynical, exhibiting a certain Russian cold-fronted visage, but simultaneously passionate and fiery. Desperate to let everyone know what happened, to become an ideal that history cannot help but remember, Genesius’ performance is magnetic and filled with spirit. In a land of compromised dreams, the contrast between the teeth of Rosa and the heart of Manya is all the more exposed. Everything that Rosa does not want to tell, Manya insists must be told. The friendships; the families; the love between Rosa and Jacob never given any opportunity to bloom. If they must tell this story, Manya aims to show the audience who they were, whereas Rosa is set on conveying what they did. The pinnacle of this struggle lies in Manya’s monologue on her life’s unrealised potential, where she pushes her audience to breaking point with unshakeable will.
The Great Divide makes real events that irreversibly changed American society. Yes, it is factual and typically analytical, as knowledge of history must be. But Sobler, McGregor and the cast deliver so much more than statistics and timelines. They make up the identities of the deceased in order to humanise and bring to life the story of their deaths. The cleansing power of fire erases many of the facts, but Sobler ensures that the script leaves its mark upon all those who bear witness.