Acting out a historic strike
Dedham to host play on Bread and Roses
When Congress investigated the landmark 1912 textile mill strike in Lawrence known to history as the Bread and Roses Strike, children testified that they worked 12-hour days, had no schooling, no time to play, and were paid minuscule wages. The long, desperate, and violence-marred walkout opened eyes throughout the country, as well as in Congress, about life in America’s factory towns.
The strike is still educational, says Boston-based Theatre Espresso, and its issues relevant today. The Theater in Education troupe will bring its production “American Tapestry: Immigrant Children of the Bread and Roses Strike’’ to Dedham Saturday, and local young people will play the roles of Congressional investigators weighing rights and wrongs.
Dedham Historical Society executive director Vicky Kruckeberg said the play’s themes of immigration and factory life relate to Dedham, where immigrant communities formed part of the town’s social fabric in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Kruckeberg said.
Theatre Espresso, which specializes in dramatizing history, started nearly 20 years ago when members wrote and produced “The Trial of Anthony Burns,’’ a play on a challenge to the Fugitive Slave Law by an escaped slave in 1850s. The company has been commissioned to write plays by the Moakley Courthouse in Boston and other institutions, and to produce them in schools, courtrooms, and other settings. Its play about the strike in Lawrence was created for the Lawrence Heritage State Park Visitors Center and performed last year for every fifth-grade class in that city.
Theatre Espresso believes student participation in historical drama is the key to “intellectual engagement with history, issues of human rights, and the concept of justice,’’ according to the group.
“We put the kids in roles,’’ said group director Wendy Lement, who wrote the play with Megan Cooper and Derek Nelson. “We tried to find an angle where the issue is complicated.’’
The strike took place almost 100 years ago in Lawrence, where workers from 51 nations — Italy, Poland, Russia, and Greece, among them — were recruited to work in huge manufacturing compounds. Oppressed by long hours and starvation wages, 28,000 workers launched a strike that pitted the radical International Workers of the World union, progressive reformers, and sympathizers against steely owners, authorities, and armed militia. Working women, who played a leading role, demanded higher wages for “bread’’ and time off and a better quality life — time for “roses’’ — leading to the widely adopted labor movement “Bread and Roses’’ slogan.
When the strike stretched six weeks, desperate families decided to send their children to hosts in other cities to be cared for while parents sustained their strike — a contest marked by violence and harassment by militia called out to protect “scab’’ workers. Embarrassed by national attention, Lawrence made it illegal for a child to ride a train without a parent and police used force to stop children from getting on a train, clubbing their mothers and provoking a national scandal.
The congressional hearing, called by national leaders predisposed to back efforts to break the strike, heard 16 local children “whose testimony turned the hearing around,’’ Lement said. A 13-year-old girl, too young to work legally, answered questions about her schooling and outside activities by saying, “I don’t go to school. I don’t have fun.’’
But she also admitted she went on strike because she was afraid not to. And when local students portray congressmen, they must consider testimony from a Lawrence minister who opposes the strike, a paymaster who defends the wage scale, and those who argue workers should put an end to the strike and its violence and bring their children home.
“It really resonated with students in Lawrence,’’ a city with new immigrant communities today, Lement said.
Robert Knox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.