The Public Humanist

Falling in Love with History

When I was a graduate student at Emerson College, I enrolled in an Oral History and Performance course co-taught by professors Ron Jenkins (theatre) and Blanche Linden-Ward (history). We created a documentary theatre script, gaining practical experience in documenting personal stories and translating those stories into a performance piece. The topic was the Bread and Roses strike. We studied the history of U.S. labor unions, the creation of Lawrence textile mills, the strike, and the development of vaudeville. We visited nursing homes and interviewed men and women who were involved in the strike. We pored over primary source documents in the Lawrence archives. Based on our research, we created a play entitled Mill Girl Follies in the style of a vaudeville show. The play was performed at Emerson, the Lawrence State Park Heritage Center, and the University of Bologna, Italy.

Prior to this experience, I held the perception that studying history was a pointless exercise in memorizing dates, names, battles and locations. The process of researching and co-creating Mill Girl Follies taught me that history was about human beings, faced with enormous challenges, each with their own motivations, inner-conflicts, desires and demons. Suddenly history, which had seemed remote, was vibrant and alive. I felt a profound connection to the past. That discovery has informed my work to the present day. Since then, I have written—or co-written—over two dozen plays based on historical events.

As Artistic Director of Theatre Espresso—an educational theatre company that tours to schools, museums and courthouses—my interest in exploring history through theatre evolved. Theatre Espresso creates, produces, and performs interactive dramas that bring history to life for students. Theatre Espresso’s plays and workshops challenge students to make critical judgments, explore social relationships, and reflect on the role of law and human rights in our society. These plays confront students with complex historical events that provoke a variety of opinions and solutions.

Last year we conducted a survey of teachers to help us select a topic for a new drama for students in grades 3 – 5. Immigration emerged as the preferred topic. I immediately thought of the Bread and Roses strike, not only because it involved the plight of immigrants, but also because children played a key role in the strike. It was the “children’s exodus,” when violence erupted at the Lawrence train station that captured the attention of the nation and of Congress. And it was the testimony of child strikers that moved Congress to pressure mill owners to accept the strikers’ demands.

Over the past year our research and writing team received guidance from Bruce Watson (author of Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants and the Struggle for the American Dream), the Lawrence History Center, Lawrence Heritage State Park, the Supreme Judicial Court, Primary Source, and Lawrence Public Schools. In October we launched a residency of the new play, American Tapestry: Immigrant Children of the Bread and Roses Strike, at the Lawrence Heritage State Park Visitors Center. Thanks to generous contributions from Mass Humanities, as well as other foundations and individuals, every fifth grader in Lawrence will participate in American Tapestry. In addition to the play, students are given a walking tour of the mills and of the Bread and Roses exhibit at the Visitor Center. Teachers receive a study guide to help prepare students for the play and to extend the learning. Mass Humanities also funded a “Drama Across the Curriculum” workshop that is helping teachers in Lawrence implement our study guide’s pre-and post-show activities.

Our new partnership with Mass Humanities has already helped us further our mission of bringing history to life for young people in underserved communities across the state. Teachers in Lawrence have been amazed at the level of engagement exhibited by their students. Playing members of a Congressional committee in 1912, students question witnesses, debate the issues, offer advice, and vote on whether the mill owners should accept the strikers’ demands, or if the strikers should abandon their efforts and return to work. While this decision may seem clear-cut, our student audiences express genuine concern about the health and well being of the workers and their families if they continue to strike. A thoughtful debate ensues about sacrifices that must be made if the strike continues. As Lawrence is still very much a city of immigrants, the play resonates with students in rich and surprising ways. We look forward to collaborating with Mass Humanities on future projects that will help foster a generation of critical thinkers and true citizens.

© 2014 The Valley Advocate