Jazz-blues opera brings ‘Forgotten’ labor history to life

A cast of 22 actors and musicians will bring the story of Lewis Bradford, a Methodist minister and labor organizer, to the stage at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts in Clinton Township, Mich., on Friday, March 26.

Bradford, one of Michigan’s unsung labor heroes, was found fatally wounded in an isolated part of the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich., in November 1937. While the company called his death an accident, his family always suspected foul play because of his efforts to organize workers and his work with British pacifist Muriel Lester and the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Some eight years ago, family stories about Bradford prompted Bradford’s great-nephew, Steve Jones, an award-winning jazz composer from Maryland, to travel to Michigan to investigate his uncle’s life and death. After a months-long search with the help of a county clerical worker, Jones unearthed the long-lost autopsy report for Bradford and took it to the Wayne County, Mich., medical examiner who said the death could not have been due to an accident, but should probably have been deemed homicide.

Jones proceeded to write a jazz/blues opera, “Forgotten: The Murder at the Ford Rouge Plant,” about his uncle and about labor struggles in the 1930s in Michigan. Some 25 songs describe the Ford Hunger March, the Flint sit-down strikes at General Motors, the Battle of the Overpass at the Ford Rouge plant, and other events. Much of the musical focuses on Bradford’s work at the Howard Street Mission, a homeless shelter in Detroit, and his weekly radio program, “The Forgotten Man’s Hour,” broadcast as a counterpoint to the pro-fascist broadcasts of Father Charles Coughlin, Detroit’s notorious radio priest.

First performed at the George Meany Center near Washington, D.C., “Forgotten” received rave reviews for two earlier productions in the Detroit area in 2004 and 2005. It has since been produced in Minneapolis, and excerpts have been performed in Cincinnati, Chicago and New York. United Auto Workers Region 1A is planning to produce the show later this spring at its hall in Taylor, Mich.

Since early February, the cast has been rehearsing “Forgotten” at Detroit’s Central United Methodist Church, where Bradford served as associate pastor in the 1930s.  On March 14, cast members performed selections from the show during Central’s Sunday service, and the Rev. Edwin Rowe paid tribute to Bradford’s legacy in his sermon.

The new production includes members of Actor’s Equity, the Detroit Federation of Musicians, and rank-and-file members of the UAW, AFSCME, American Federation of Teachers, and several other unions. The performance is dedicated to the memory of Dave Moore, the last known survivor of the 1932 Ford Hunger March, who passed away last fall.

Tickets for the March 26 show range in price from $10 to $30 and are available by calling the theater box office at 586-286-2222, or at www.Macombcenter.com.  More information about “Forgotten” and samples of its music can be seen and heard at www.forgottenshow.net, where information on buying a cast CD is also available.

The Michigan production is funded in part by contributions from the Michigan Labor History Society, the Michigan chapter of the U.S. Peace Council, the Ovshinsky Foundation, and many individual donors.  In addition to the performance in the 1,300-seat Center for the Performing Arts, playgoers can visit the Macomb Community College exhibit on the 1930s and the Great Depression, a multi-media display of life in Detroit during that period. The college and theater are located near M-59 and Garfield Road in Clinton Township, Mich.

Photo: The “Forgotten” cast. Courtesy Dave Elsila.





Dave Elsila
Dave Elsila

Dave Elsila is a retired editor of the UAW magazine Solidarity and, before that, was editor of the AFT's American Teacher. He lives in metro Detroit, where he's on the board of the Michigan Labor History Society and Detroit Democratic Socialists of America.