“the best one-person show we’ve seen in many a year.”
The Theater of the First Amendment’s latest offering—Can’t Scare Me: The Story of Mother Jones—is a virtual blast from the past with a few lessons for the present. This vigorous, one-woman one-act drama was conceived, written, and directed by its star, OBIE Award-winning actress Kaiulani Lee. Wuite a tour-de-force,it attracted a large and diverse opening night audience, which numbered among its members Ralph Nader, perhaps the most prominent robber-baron opponent of our own time.
Although many people today think of “Mother Jones” as a radical magazine, Mary Harris Jones was an important historical person. Hailing from Cork, Ireland’s Second City, she emigrated to Canada as a teenager. Finishing her education there, she soon ended up in the U.S.
Here she endured a series of personal and family tragedies that led to her eventual radicalization, unionization, and dubious canonization as “the most dangerous woman in America,” feared and hated by mine owners and tycoons for her uncanny ability to organize downtrodden workers from coast to coast.
Near the end of her long life—totaling 100 years by her reckoning but a few years less according to recent scholarship—Mother Jones finally retired somewhat, choosing to live with friends right here in our own back yard in Adelphi, Maryland.
Kaiulani Lee builds her play on these basic pillars of Mother Jones’ life, constructing a narrative that moves back and forth through space and time, revealing a reflective, thoughtful Mother Jones here and a tub-thumping, radicalized Mother Jones there in an effort to build a complete picture of a this complex and unusual American character.
For a solo show that unfolds in less than two hours, this First Amendment production is elegant, polished, and elegant to the last detail. In the first place, Lee’s physical appearance is the very embodiment of Mother Jones, down to the last detail of her staunchly Victorian garb, marvelously designed by Howard Vincent Kurtz.
The production’s minimalist staging by Luciana Stecconi, aided and abetted by Timothy Chew’s and Mark Anduss’ lighting and sound design respectively, nonetheless seems surprisingly rich, judiciously employing projected, gauzy scenery to evoke locales and events. All these elements, in turn, are harnessed by stage director Rick Davis and inhabited by Kaiulani Lee to bring back by magic an almost forgotten era of American history.
Evolving into an unabashed radical, Mother Jones seemed most at home with the socialists and anarchists who formed the ideological core of the American labor movement in its early days. Yet for all her radicalism, she was not exactly a feminist.
At her core, she wanted men to get a living wage to enable their wives and kids to stay at home where she thought they would be best off. Likewise, she was never sympathetic to the suffragettes, figuring that if she could achieve her aims, women would have no need to bother with the vote.
Lee focuses primarily on the political Mother Jones, but doesn’t neglect her domestic side, which, arguably, triggered her later political activism when she was well into middle-age. Her American family life, which started when she married a Tennessee iron worker—also an early union man—named George E. Jones—was a happy one. For a while, anyway. One by one, first her children and then her husband were carried off by a plague of yellow fever, running rampant in Memphis at the time.
Picking up stakes and looking for a new beginning, she headed for Chicago, setting up a dressmaking business. But just when she was hitting her stride, her business and her life were savaged yet again when she lost everything in the Great Chicago Fire. It was absolute bottom. And when you hit the absolute bottom, you’re finished.
Or you get fired up and figure you have nothing to lose, which Mary Jones most certainly did. Already carrying within her the Irish affinity for activism and labor agitation, she did what for her was the logical thing: she embraced American workers, their wives, and above all their children as her own and set out on a crusade to give the working stiff a break.
She got connected to the Chicago Knights of Labor movement (which later morphed, with other followings, into the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, aka the “Wobblies”) and literally found her voice, catapulting her into the forefront of the American labor movement. While she embraced all manner of union organizing, she was particularly involved in the early days of the United Mineworkers Union, and was a force in the violently catastrophic yet seminal Paint Creek-Cabin Creek coal miners’ strike in 1912-1913.
There’s quite a lot of history here, that’s for sure, and what we’ve presented here is just the surface. But all this material can present a problem when you’re trying to put together a coherent drama. Ultimately, as in tragic opera, you have to pick and choose the most emotional, dramatic, and illuminating incidents in an epic story to convey the passion and emotion of an era rather than each nitty-gritty detail.
That’s precisely what Kaiulani Lee has managed to accomplish in Can’t Scare Me. By focusing, laser-like, on major strike actions and contrasting them with more intimate moments, her family tragedies, and even some oddly poignant encounters with capitalists and presidents, Lee outlines the broad epic scope of Mother Jones’ tempestuous life and keeps the narrative line moving, rarely letting it bog down in detail—a tough assignment when relating the life of a controversial historical figure.
As in a classic symphony, where fast tempos alternate with slow and where noisy, dramatic passages alternate with quieter, more contemplative moments, Lee regulates the tempo of her drama as well. The play starts out with a distant, invisible narrative voice amidst a shadowy backdrop of mountaintops, relating days long gone in famine-era Ireland. It’s Mother Jones who’s narrating and she soon materializes in her rocker—a perch she’ll rarely visit again for the rest of the evening as she alternates intimate family encounters with the violent frenzy of a violent labor strike.
And here’s something else that’s attractive about Lee’s script. As with a politician on the stump, giving the same speech day after day as he traverses the Lower 48, the same old labor stump speech, even when blasted forth by the fiery Mother Jones, could get old pretty quickly. Lee’s script is judicious with the rhetorical flourishing, injecting it only when a tempo change is needed. In so doing, she gives the audience the flavor of a passionate moment while not allowing it to lose its flavor by incessant repetition.
An additional benefit of Lee’s calibrated approach: this play, unlike others highlighting “progressive” social movements, avoids overt propaganda about 95% of the time. Which is what makes Can’t Scare Me a real play and not a sermon.
Lee speaks in Mother Jones’ native Irish dialect throughout and carries it on spectacularly well without breaking stride as some thespians occasionally do. She’s also at home with the character she embodies, behaving gently and solicitously when her labor union charges need grandmotherly advice, but then erupting into a full-blown radical rabble-rouser when she climbs the barricades. It’s an awesome performance, a phenomenal realization of a bigger-than-life historical character, impressive whether you’re on the side of labor unions or not.
Lee also carefully frames her character and her script near the very beginning of the play when she repeats Mark Twain’s clever observation that history doesn’t repeat itself, “but it rhymes.” It’s a way that allows the playwright—and Mother Jones—to relate her own era to our own. Save for one point late in the play, that is, where Lee-Jones seems to obliquely link this “rhyming” in a favorable way to the current “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations, she’s content to let Sam Clemens’ clever observation suffice as a bridge to our own very troubled new century.
Can’t Scare Me is quite simply the best one-person show we’ve seen in many a year. Avoiding cliché and propaganda, it reinvigorates the remarkable character of an Irishwoman who became more of an individualist and a patriot than many of the people who were born here. In the process, it sheds light on how, even under the most adverse circumstances, one strong individual can change the lives of the many and bring hope to the oppressed. You’ll be arguing about this play with your friends all night.
Can’t Scare Me: The Story of Mother Jones
by Kaiulani Lee
directed by Rick Davis
produced by Theater of the First Amendment
reviewed by Terry Ponick