A New Orleans play aims to change the conversation on labor organizing
In New Orleans in 2023, there are public charter school students who must wait on the dark city streets for school buses to pick them up at 5:30 in the morning. Some travel 90 minutes or more in order to arrive in time for the opening bell, passing three or four other schools along the route. Meanwhile, their parents may report to work at one of the city's chronically understaffed dollar stores, only to find themselves alone at the register and vulnerable to whatever trouble walks in the door.
Can theater serve their interests?
Curtis Williams believes it can. He organizes with Step Up Louisiana, a member-directed organization that's working on the school transportation problem and also leading a campaign for safety and better wages in Louisiana's 1,000 or so dollar stores. It's not exactly a union drive, because that term can be a conversation stopper in Louisiana. But in theater he sees a possibility to change the parameters of that conversation, to open it up to memory of an obscured history that sparks an imagining of a less brutal future.
"Theater can play a role," the former junior high school drama club president told Facing South. "It already does. It can inspire, encourage, and educate."
Now 43, Williams was 16 when his mother was murdered, a case that went cold almost as soon as it happened. At 17 he cared for three siblings, working two full-time jobs to do it. Because of his involvement in drama club, though, he already knew about the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. And once again today, theater is serving a larger purpose for Williams.
Step Up, along with New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice (NOWCRJ), became community partners with Goat in the Road Productions, a New Orleans-based performance ensemble, on their recent production of the play "The Family Line." It's about whether a family of Sicilian grocers should join in common cause with a family of Black/Creole grocers in the citywide 1892 general strike, when 30,000 workers — more than half of New Orleans' workforce — walked off their jobs and won significant concessions.
In the play, the grocers weigh the risks of striking at a memorial gathering for a fallen comrade, Tesoro. The police said he was killed by "ruffians," then promptly dropped the case. Ten months have passed since his death. As the character Uncle Pascal says in between jokes, banter, and nips from his flask, "Well, sadness is a trait in my family line. And I cannot escape it, no matter my methods."
Co-director Chris Kaminstein explained that a general strike works well as a dramatic device — "as an inflection point around which characters have to make difficult decisions and deal with deep emotions and tensions."
As the play begins, the wholesalers have doubled their prices in a single year. The grocers, who extend credit to their communities and have to eat themselves, find themselves reduced to near penury. All they have as an offering for their friend's memorial altar are small satchels of peanuts, which becomes a running joke. Grocers with peanuts, just peanuts, and one small bouquet of plumeria.
As friends do, they lick their wounds together, tally their losses, and share their aches and miseries. But the scene is unsettling. These are young people, young working people, but they've already been through the wringer.
DEZ: I've had a broken arm — falling off a ladder painting our shop — a broken nose — isn't that a story — a broken collarbone — don't ask, and a swelling up of my feet to the size of watermelons from being upright all day. And that's just the half of it.
NATALIA: Me, I have this elbow pain. A tingling in the hands and arms. Something in the knees. And the toothache.
ISAAC: Dez already told everyone about me.
DEZ: You also have the knee and lung trouble.
ISAAC: That too.
ANNETTE: Uh ... Scalded on my back when I worked as a cook, here — the skin was burned and still hasn't healed right. I can only hear out of this ear. And something that pulses behind the eyes when I don't get enough sleep. Which is always.
NATALIA: I couldn't speak for Tesoro, but I seem to remember ... He once broke his fingers, here and here — he nearly lost this one and this one fixing wheels on that damn cart out there … he should be here. Among the peanuts.
Centering working people
LaToya Johnson is co-executive director of NOWCRJ, which aims to "end the state-sanctioned exploitation of workers in Louisiana." To get there, she thinks exposing workers to theater with storylines about collaboration is a smart tactic for movement building. August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," a play about exploitation of Black artists in the record industry, has been a motivator in her work. She welcomed the partnership with Goat in the Road when she realized the play's message.
"We organize across race and class. We're working against capitalism. That's what the people in the play were saying, without using those words," Johnson said. "They don't have the language for it, but still they did it."
During the play's run, NOWCRJ made a mobile educational display with help from Tulane University, while Step Up held a traditional second line parade. Both organizations also participated in a public discussion after a matinée.
For Kaminstein, the partnership gave him a glimpse into the difficulty of labor organizing. He saw the need to convince people over and over of the merits — sort of like getting folks to buy theater tickets, he joked.
"I was impressed by the scale of a general strike," he told Facing South. "How bad it must have been, how much it must've felt like, 'we can't go on like this.'"
"The Family Line" is one of three Reconstruction Trilogy shows produced in recent years by Goat in the Road, along with "The Stranger Disease" about the city's yellow fever epidemic and "The Uninvited," about a white mob's attack on a Black school. All three plays center "working people trying to figure out what to do in the face of something difficult," as Kaminstein said. Those behind the shows are not pandering to wealthy New Orleans tourists; they have no appetite for it.
Kaminstein co-directed "The Family Line" with Richon May Wallace, a recent graduate of University of New Orleans' MFA program. Kaminstein credits her with fine-tuning the show's emotional dynamics. There's a bit of cheekiness, flaring tempers, subtle wooing, and a touch of ribaldry. Mostly though, there's anxiety about the strike, as the militia has been summoned. There's also grief. They miss Tesoro and his crude jokey insults they'll never stop laughing about.
Kaminstein found the past explored by the play eye-opening. "Doing the piece has made me understand more about where we sit historically," he said. "We think we are the most progressive people ever. But it isn't true." He added that he hopes "the buffer of history can allow you to see what's happening now more clearly."
Opening emotional doors
"The Family Line" was a hit, closing on Jan. 29. There's now scuttlebutt about it possibly finding a permanent home in New Orleans.
The city's historic houses were settings for all of Goat in the Road's Reconstruction Trilogy plays. The buildings serve as ideal stages for immersive dramas, in which audience members don't simply consume what others decide to feed but choose which scenes to watch.
What you take in narratively in "The Family Line," for example, depends on which of the eight characters you follow through the production's 12 segments, which are played concurrently in rooms transformed into a bar, the grocery, and a bedroom, and used the existing courtyard and cellar. A bell rings, the show is repeated, and you can follow another character through their sequences. Later your mind knits the pieces together.
"It's another way of getting to that same place, finding a way to open people's emotional doors," Kaminstein said.
Another interesting effect of immersion is that you know you're seeing only part of the story, and it makes you look harder. You know you'll be seeing it again, but from a different angle. When the story cycles back to the starting point, it's not a re-do but a supplement. In that way, this art really does imitate life.
"The Stranger Disease" was the first play in the trilogy, mounted in March 2018, less than two years before the COVID-19 emerged; it imagined characters deciding whether to flee the city's 1878 yellow fever epidemic. The second play, "The Uninvited," was presented in January 2020, the same month a far-right mob attacked the U.S. Capitol; it reimagined an actual 1874 attack by a white mob on a Black school next to the Gallier House, where the play was staged.
The prescience of the works bowled Wallace over. "I can't wait to see what happens now," she joked — but she was only halfway kidding.
One scene in "The Family Line" that stood out for Johnson of the NOWCRJ was the discussion about race between Isaac and Dez, the brother and sister in the Black Creole family. Of the two, only Dez urges the strike. They're careful to take their disagreement outside to the courtyard where they can speak privately.
ISAAC: You seem to forget something, Dez.
DEZ: What is that?
ISAAC: We are Negroes.
DEZ: (Bristling) I never forget that.
ISAAC: If there is anything the wholesalers and monopolists despise more than union action, it is Negro union action.
DEZ: Our station is lower and so our need is greater.
ISAAC: And the danger, greater. You remember what happened to those folks in Thibodaux. A lot of good Negroes were murdered for striking in the cane fields.
DEZ: (He's proving her point) Yes! Working people are being killed! They die everyday in squalor!
"Dez had to convince them to strike because they were in fear of retaliation, or fear they'd lose money," explained Johnson, who encounters this fear all the time in her own organizing. "They knew the strike was good for the greater cause, but they didn't want to get involved because it impacted…no…it may have impacted their security."
Dez has a singsong phrase she repeats throughout the play almost like a mantra: "There's no good in a General Strike unless folks strike generally." Christine, who is older and a midwife, redirects her thought, telling her, "…change comes from the whispering soul, not the relentless politician." Dez's bravado falls away, she reaches for her friend's embrace, and allows both Christine's insight and loving arms to hold her just for a breath or two.
It turns out that among them there is a whispering soul: Uncle Pascal. He was in the store when Tesoro was killed. The memories are shadowy. But a moment presents itself, and when it's time for him to recognize the truth, he can and does. The recognition spreads. Suddenly, things that were not possible, become possible.
"I have seen enough tragedy to last a lifetime," Christine says, "and enough miracles to last two."