CORNELIUS – The Warehouse Performing Art Center in Cornelius opened Lake Norman’s 2019 artistic season with what the show’s director, Alice Jankell, calls “the first sit-down theatre production” of “Mother Jones in Heaven.”
The musical drama tackling social justice is written and composed by Charlotte’s own Si Kahn, who has been touring the world over the past 50 years with renowned artists such as Pete Seeger. Kahn’s creative ability to write “Mother Jones” is supported by the playwrights’ well-earned credentials as a singer, songwriter, activist and grassroots leader.
“Mother Jones in Heaven” opens as the infamous Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, portrayed by Vivian Nesbitt, enters heaven.
True to her unconventional nature, Mother Jones’ first words to St. Peter are an expletive as she laments not finding anyone she knows.
“I got stuck up here in heaven with none of my friends,” she complains as she seeks John D. Rockefeller (who she realizes is probably down below.)
“Lift up your eyes, lift up your voice, come to the great reunion,” the gentle, clear voice of Vivian Nesbitt opens in tune. Stories of salient events from the tumultuous life – all 100 years – of Mother Jones follow, reinforced in song celebrated when she reached 93.
Mother Jones is consoled, however, when she discovers the replica of an Irish pub in heaven, exactly like the one frequented during her lifetime at the Musicians Union.
Snitching a bottle of whiskey, it becomes Mother Jones’ constant companion during the following 70 minutes of a one-woman, one-act play delivered in the folk tradition of storytelling. Nesbitt’s delivery is accompanied by acoustic guitars played by her talented singer-songwriter husband, John Dillon.
Mother Jones’ custom-made black-and-gray silk costume is gorgeous! Nesbitt discloses its delicate features by removing layers and re-dressing throughout the play, aligning the design of the gown to enhance her dialogue and action.
The play is fascinating. Although the setting is more than 100 years old, it is a tale of social justice, just as real today as it was in the late 1800s and early 20th century.
I had heard of Mother Jones but didn’t really know who she was – real or fictitious. Mary Harris was a real character, all right, born in Cork, Ireland, in the 1830s. She migrated to the U.S. via Canada. Over her lifetime, Mary was a schoolteacher, dressmaker, an organized labor representative and a community organizer.
It was the feisty woman’s relentless efforts to champion mine workers, the working class and child laborers that earned her the title of Mother Jones. She was, after all, a mother who had survived the death of her beloved husband George Jones and their four children to yellow fever.
The events in Kahn’s play are actual and historical – details of Mary’s characterization, he admits, might be surmised. Kahn’s musical reinforcement of the storyline is poignant. And Vivian Nesbitt enjoins her character with members of the audience through continual eye contact and encouragement to participate in song.
Supported by the melodic strings of Dillon’s two guitars, Vivian Nesbitt and John Dillon turn the turbulent tale of Mother Jones into an endearing tale of life.
I think the play is terrific!
“Mother Jones in Heaven” continues in production at The Warehouse on Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. through January 26.