Labor stories on stage  one womans vision

CHICAGO — The audience was moved. Many, especially the moms in the room, were moved to tears. Who evoked such a response at a lunchtime performance during the July International Labor Communications Association convention here? Lucy Parsons. Actually, actress and playwright Melody Cooper’s tender interpretation of Parsons, one of America’s unique labor heroines.

Parsons was a historic figure in the Haymarket struggles that gave birth to May Day — the International Labor Holiday — and the 8-hour day.

In Cooper’s “Day of Reckoning,” Parsons is brought to life in all her complexities. From her diverse racial identity to her marriage to ex-Confederate soldier Albert Parsons, from her commitment to radical social change to her relationship with her children, Parsons stands before her audience not as a caricature or cardboard cutout, but as a living, breathing embodiment of radical history.

In an interview with the World, Cooper explained how she developed “Day of Reckoning.”

“I came across a web page about Lucy when I was researching something else, and she fascinated me. I thought, who is this incredible Black woman that I’ve never heard of? I immediately started doing online research on her, which led me to Albert and the history of Haymarket, which I knew little about,” Cooper said.

She let her research and imagination do the rest. “Imagining how they might have met and fell in love lit the fire for the play,” she said. Parsons, an ex-slave, who also had Native American and Mexican ancestry, was born in Texas around 1853. She “hid” her African American origins “to survive,” according to Cooper. Based on her research of Texas and Reconstruction, “there were plenty of clues” to help compile the racial complexities, their radicalization and relationship. Cooper also researched Chicago and the late-1800s labor movement.

“I was able to piece together the puzzle of their private lives. And recently, I was very lucky to be contacted by Albert’s great grand-nephew, William Parsons, who has provided me with a tremendous amount of personal papers and unpublished material that stopped my heart to read,” Cooper said. Most difficult to read were the papers on Lucy and Albert’s son Albert Jr., who Lucy committed to an asylum after he volunteered for military service.

Reflecting on her own odyssey, Cooper said she fell in love with theater at the age of 12. In her junior high school, an “artistically ambitious” French teacher, Ida Nelson, organized Cooper’s school to put on “The Marriage of Figaro” in full costume and orchestra. It turned out to be a life-changing experience for Cooper.

“I was hooked,” she said. “I started out studying dance at the Dance Theater of Harlem, but I knew when I was 12 that a dancer’s career lasted only so long. I wanted to work in the theater until I was as old as Helen Hayes. So I plunged into acting.”

From theater collaborations in college to off-Broadway work, Cooper has plunged into acting and writing winning awards along the way. One of her first plays was about Sept. 11. “I had organized massage therapists to do relief work for the men and women who were working at Ground Zero and based a play on that experience.” Cooper said the Sept. 11 experience “jump started” her writing about historical events.

But the state of the American theater today, according to Cooper, exists on the profit motive, not art.

“The theater has left the people. Commercial theater has always been a business, but the extent to which the art itself is now being determined by the need to make a profit is very sad. The subject matter, size of casts, race of casts: all come into play now, more than ever before. And the profit margin required today means the price of the tickets leaves a large segment of the population outside of the theatrical experience.

“That’s something I would like to see change,” she said. “And I would love to see labor take a more active role in producing theater for the working class. Why not ‘Bread and Roses’ productions, like the role labor took in the ’30s?

“As an African American woman, I think I’m acutely aware of who and what is being underrepresented on stage: the wonderful myriad of stories that the multi-ethnic groups of this country have to tell, women, people of color, people of divergent political, economic and religious backgrounds, America’s difficult and violent history. My plays address much of this because that’s what I feel compelled to write about. Thankfully, there are wonderful regional and nonprofit theaters that encourage and are open to this kind of work. They are not financially supported nearly as much as they should be, and I wish there were more of them, but at least they’re out there.”

Inspired by her parents’ involvement in the civil rights movement, Cooper sees her art as an extension of a desire for positive social change. “What better way to reach out to others and inspire them to act than with the power of the word and of theater and film? Even street protests can be a form of theater. My ‘message,’ if I had to say I had one, is never about hatred or spewing angry rhetoric. It’s about fighting for what’s right by doing something positive and constructive to change the situation. You can’t change it until you understand it, and you can’t understand anything if you’re blinded by hatred.

“But a little anger is healthy and goes a long way,” she said. “Today people are too complacent. They think nothing they do matters. That’s what those in power want you to think. You have the power every day in your purse and wallet. You have power in your decision to take action. All it takes is one person. Look at Cindy Sheehan.”

“Day of Reckoning” will be produced at Miami’s New Theater in February 2006. For more information, visit www.new-theatre.org.

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