Review: Mother Jones in Heaven
By Perry Tannenbaum
Anybody who has walked by a well-stocked newsstand in the past 40 years has heard of Mother Jones, but fewer people can tell you anything about the real-life woman who inspired the magazine. You can now be handsomely schooled at the Warehouse Performing Arts Center by Vivian Nesbitt, who portrays the rabble-rousing labor activist in a fast-moving production of Si Kahn’s musical narrative, Mother Jones in Heaven. A treasured Charlotte resident until he grows restless and sets out for the West Coast, Kahn himself has been a community and labor organizer for over a half century while composing an imposing catalog of songs in a traditional folk style. He is supremely qualified to empathize with the tribulations of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones’s life and to give her pugnacious personality musical expression. In Nesbitt, he has found an actress who is ideally suited to bring us a Mother Jones who is beautifully devoid of acting or singing self-regard.
Unfortunately, the natural instincts of these artists were subjected to the whims of director Alice Jankell, who presented the show, winner of a San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle award in 2014, as if it were a work-in-progress sorely in need of workshopping. At the post-performance talkback on opening night, Jankell asked the audience the right questions, namely what worked well and what left us confused – the polite way of asking what didn’t work. But the feedback process was doubly perverted. We were answering these questions about a script that had been severely edited. A production in Canada reportedly ran 90 minutes as recently as a couple of months ago, but the Warehouse version clocked in at under 70. Jankell confided that it had been necessary to abridge Kahn’s script to 60 minutes in order to bring this version to a fringe festival in Asheville, but she was dismissive toward those portions that hadn’t been restored, labelling them as research findings that would be interesting to the playwright and not to us. Further compromising the process, the person who most needed to judge what was working and what was not, Kahn himself, was not in the audience.
It’s hard to say what the missing 20 minutes of playing time would have fleshed out. Perhaps we would have learned the names of all four of Mother’s biological children who died from yellow fever during an epidemic in Memphis. Or we may have sampled some of the rhetoric in Mother’s speeches that inspired her figurative children, most notably the oppressed coalminers of West Virginia. Or maybe, Mother Jones in heaven was emboldened to tell some of the self-mythologizing lies she told on earth in her autobiography, only to come clean in the presence of the angels who make up her audience. Maybe all the factoids we missed might have bored us, just as Jankell feared. Maybe not.
Aside from the additional texturing that the full script would have provided, it would also have supplied much-needed breathing space between songs. The effect of a couple of them – there are at least 10 songs – was stifled by how soon they followed on the heels of their predecessors, with little substance to feed upon. And more of Nesbitt as Mother Jones would axiomatically be a plus. Confounding the radical working-class preconceptions we might have had about “the most dangerous woman in America,” Jones arrives in heaven rather primly dressed. Yet as much as she is gratified to see us, her fellow angels in heaven, what makes her feel most at home is the old Irish pub that is set up for her, where she picks out a favorite bottle and pours out the libations that will lubricate her tongue. It reminds her of the place where she was fired from one of her prestigious union positions.
The formative events in Mother Jones’s life, the yellow fever epidemic of 1867 and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, happened earlier than I would have thought, but the celebrated – and somewhat catastrophic – Children’s March on the residence of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 took us into the 20th century where I had always placed her. There are subsequent references to Warren G. Harding and the likely apocryphal telegram he sent to her in 1921, so the old firebrand was very much in the thick of the labor movement well into her final decade. Her ascent to the storefront Warehouse stage presumably occurs upon her death in 1930 at the age of 93.
Joining Nesbitt onstage is her husband, John Dillon, on guitar, providing a quiet relaxedpresence. The songs he played; including “Mother Jones’ Farewell to Ireland,” “Silk and Satin,” “The Whiskey Ring and the Railroad Trust,” and the anthemic valedictory, “I Was There”; date back to at least 2004 on CD. Another title, “Tarpaper Shacks,” has been out since at least 2007, so the legacy of Mother Jones and her crusading themes have been aging and maturing in Kahn’s mind for a long time. In the choicest passages of Kahn’s dialogue, Nesbitt gets to describe the injustices, the horrors, and the deformities that enflame Mother Jones’s righteous rage. Even in this capsulized form, Nesbitt’s performance is quite a sight to behold, enormously powerful when she reaches full throttle.