Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Digging coal from underground mines was (and still is) extremely dangerous work. As railroads and cities grew in the 19th century, coal mine owners became immensely wealthy, while the miners worked just to survive. Often, as at the Colorado Fuel and Iron mine in Ludlow (owned by John D. Rockefeller Jr.), the company controlled the lives of the miners. Miners were paid in company scrip that could only be used at the company store to pay rent on company-owned housing and to be seen by company doctors. Most miners were in a spiral of working to pay off ever-mounting debt owed to the company, with no chance of leaving, let alone getting ahead. Miners were paid per ton of ore extracted from the mines, but not for time spent shoring up unstable tunnels or other tasks to make the mines safer.
The United Mine Workers of America, form in 1891, had its initial success in the east, but made few inroads in western mines. In 1913 a contingent of union organizers arrived in southern Colorado, setting the stage for the play. Ludlow opens in a pitch-black mine tunnel in 1913, the only light a fuse setting off an explosion, followed by haze and the burnt smell of the dynamite. A pit boss enters and shouts directions to four miners, then leaves the four to their labor: Joe Williams, an African American; Pedro Valdez, a Mexican immigrant; and two Greeks, Louis Tikas, a leader of the incipient union organizing campaign, and a new man named Kostas Loulos. As they work in the dark, with only the dim light of their head lamps illuminating the stage, they discuss the union, the need to stand up for their rights, and the far higher mortality rate in Colorado mines than in unionized mines in the east.
The scene shifts to the office of powerful Lamont Bowers, head of CF&I, a man in direct contact with Rockefeller. We hear the text of actual correspondence between these two men of great wealth. Back at the miners' village, they prepare for a strike vote, urged on by Mother Jones, the great leader of the labor movement who organized wives in support of their husbands, and could rouse an entire camp of miners to their feet, ready to seize their day. Once the miners vote to strike, they are evicted from the company-owned cabins and set up a tent community, some 1,200 strong. Three tents are erected on stage, two housing miner families and one the camp infirmary.
The play zeroes in on several characters who represent the mass of miners, their wives and children. The workers were people from all parts of the world, especially southern and eastern Europeans, Mexicans, Japanese, and descendants of former black slaves. This is evidenced by the diversity of their surnames: Valdez, Domininski, Petrucci, Tikas and Ito Kotaro, who has worked the mines for years in vain hope of saving up money to bring his wife and children over from Japan. We meet Mary Thomas, a woman possessed of loving kindness whose singing lifts the men's spirits, and Pearl Jolly, a dedicated nurse who becomes smitten with Louis Tikas. Three children are part of the ensemble, making clear that the strike pitted the power of Rockefeller not only against working men but working families. Also depicted are company guards who deal callously with the strikers, among them Tikas' nemesis, a man named Karl Linderfelt. The play's dialogue includes actual words of these individuals, taken from diaries and testimony given after the events, lending the work authenticity and gravity.
Ludlow conveys the sense of its importance, as part of our nation's history that is too little appreciated, and for the ways in which its struggles continue today, with immigrant workers essential to our economic engine, yet treated with disdain and continual existential threats. Based on this, Ludlow is a truly worthy endeavor. Yet, the whole sometimes feels stilted, with the flow from scene to scene interrupted, almost as if to place a mark on the importance of what it has to tell us. At time, too, it is hard to extrapolate from the handful of characters on stage that their rally, or singing of labor songs, or retreat from the bullets fired by company guards, is the act of not six or eight people, but of hundreds. Jacob M. Davis' sound design does help by amplifying background sound of masses of people at key points, but the effect is still too small to totally convey the historical scale.
Still, the play fully holds interest, building up to its inevitable crescendo of mayhem and violence. That latter is not graphically depicted, though effective lighting (designed by Courtney Schmitz) creates an illusion of the camp set ablaze. Barb Portinga's costumes work well to establish the time and place. Ludlow is a large work for a small theater, and director Liz Neerland has kept a steady hand on all of the elementsthe text, design, staging and performancesto keep its momentum, overcoming the occasional lapses, and bringing it to its deep and troubling conclusion.
The cast includes a number of especially strong performances. Nicholas Nelson leads the way as Louis Tikas, displaying a blend of strength, courage and tenderness. Brian O'Neal as Rockefeller's man-on-the-spot, Lamont Bowers, convincingly spouts lines about everything they do being for the miners' own good with the conscience of a viper. Meri Golden is a delightfully righteous firebrand as Mother Jones, Tim Komatsu reveals Ito Kotaro's struggle maintain hope in his dreams, and Richard D. Woods does strong work as Joe Williams, whose slave heritage has taught him not to trust the seat of power. Kayla Hambek, as Mary Thomas, projects an abiding warmth and has a lovely solo vocal, leading the group in singing several union anthems, which pump energy into the proceedings at key intervals.
Ludlow is exactly the kind of play we need now, one that turns the lights on our forgotten history, especially as we currently seem to be setting priorities and drafting policies heedless of the ground upon which we build. If the play, in its first time out, has some uneven spots, it is compelling, nonetheless. Today most of us take for granted child labor laws, the eight hour work day, overtime pay, wages for all time worked, minimal safety standards, and other laws that have vastly improved the lives of American workers. In some quarters these and other safeguards are in jeopardy. Ludlow reminds us how hard-fought these were, how much courage and sacrifice it took to secure them, and how much labor unions have contributed to American society. Nimbus has done a valuable service in bringing forward this chapter from our past, and making it a meaningful commentary on our present.
Ludlow continues through November 19, 2017, at the Crane Theater, 2303 Kennedy Street N.E., Minneapolis, MN. All tickets are on a sliding scale $12.00 - $15.00, $2.00 off with Minnesota Fringe Festival button. For more information and tickets call 612-548-1379 or go to nimbustheatre.com.
Playwright: Josh Cragun; Director: Liz Neerland; Set Design: Ursula K. Bowden; Costume Design: Barb Portinga; Lighting Design: Courtney Schmitz; Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Prop Design: Jenny Moeller; Fight Choreography: Brian Heser; Dramaturg: Alex Meyer; Stage Manager: Alyssa Thompson; Assistant Director: Andrea M. Gross; Production Manager: Monique Lindquist
Cast: Pedro Juan Fonseca (Pedro Valdez), Meri Golden (Mother Jones/Margaret Domininski), Kayla Hambek (Mary Thomas), Siri Hammond (Pearl Jolly), Tim Komatsu (Kostas Loulos/George Lippiatt/Ito Kotaro), Tara Lucchino (Mary Petrucci), Marcelo Mena (Rudolpho Valdez), Nicholas Nelson (Louis Tikas), Brian O'Neal (Pit Boss/Lamont Bowers/George Belcher), Stephanie Ruas (Bowers' Secretary/Patricia Valdez), Anika Sage (Lucy Petrucci), David Tufford (Henry Franklin/Karl Linderfelt), Richard D. Woods (Joe Williams).