At a time when the labor movement is at a crossroads and social justice gains appear in jeopardy, a group of prominent figures in both areas are meeting in Baltimore to take stock of what is happening and debate the best ways to move forward.
That this is happening some 150 years ago, and the meeting is only taking place thanks to the fertile imagination of a Maryland-based playwright whose “The Moment Was Now” is having its world premiere in Baltimore this weekend, doesn’t make the issues any less relevant. Gene Bruskin, a veteran labor leader and second-time playwright, insists the parallels are real, and the issues as pressing as ever.
“We’re at this moment right now,” Bruskin says, sitting down for an interview at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, where the play will be performed Sept. 13-15 and 20-22, “where this whole issue of white supremacy, of what’s the nature of the women’s movement, of the struggle among the unions for credibility — it just seems like these issues, which were bubbling up then in a way no one imagined, are bubbling up again now.”
Billed as “A musical moment when America almost did the right thing,” Bruskin’s musical play centers on an imagined meeting called by abolitionist Frederick Douglass; gathered together, on the eve of the 1869 National Labor Union (NLU) Convention in Baltimore, are women’s suffrage activist Susan B. Anthony, NLU President William Sylvis, African-American labor leader Isaac Myers (he and Douglass are celebrated at Fells Point’s Frederick Douglass- Isaac Myers Maritime Museum) and author and women’s rights advocate Frances Harper.
The timing of the meeting is essential, Bruskin says. The Civil War had ended just four years earlier. It was the era of Reconstruction, when the rights of the newly freed slaves were still being debated and the promise of a color-blind U.S. seemed within reach. The labor movement was making gains, though its most active years still lay ahead. And sexual equality was becoming an increasing bone of contention, as women like Anthony sought to share in some of the gains that were seen being made by African-Americans.
“These incredible openings had developed in all areas of life, as a result of the freeing of the slaves,” Bruskin says. “This was a key transformational moment in U.S. history. It unleashed all this energy. The Industrial Revolution was about to roll out big-time — the labor movement had some 300,000 members by 1869.”
Bruskin says he took some of his inspiration from the musical “Hamilton,” and its success in using contemporary music styles and a multi-racial cast to foster a sense of inclusiveness and engage a new generation of audiences. In hopes that “The Moment Was Now” will attract audiences who wouldn’t normally attend live theater, he’s keeping ticket prices down, charging a flat $30.
“I thought, ‘Let’s bring people to this play who would never go to a play,'” he says. “I wanted to make sure that those audiences came, and that we’re gonna have conversations afterwards, I want to see, can you educate and entertain with live theater?”
D.C.-based actor and singer Julia Nixon, who plays Baltimore native Harper, believes Bruskin’s play will get a reaction from audiences. “Gene writes really compelling and provocative stuff, it got my attention immediately," says Nixon, whose resume includes a stint in the Broadway production of “Dreamgirls.” “He has some really interesting things in there, and I think his approach probably makes it palatable. It’s hard-hitting, in a lot of ways.”
Director Darryl Moch, who plays Myers, welcomed the opportunity to be part of a play that touches on so many perennial hot-button issues. “That idea appealed to me in this play, I wanted to be able to put that onstage as a director and as a performer," he says. "It could be a wonderful statement, to put all of those movements together and to try and have a conversation. My hope is that this might inspire people that see it to say, ‘You know, there’s an idea...’
It shouldn’t come as a spoiler to say that passions at the meeting depicted in the play run high, but little is resolved. Or to note that those issues of equality and opportunity are still being debated a century-and-a-half later. Which is one reason Bruskin, 73, who lives in Silver Spring and spent more than 40 years in the labor movement as an organizer and activist, is planning for post-play discussions after each performance. The idea, he says, is to speak out in the open, maybe open up a dialogue and shed light on some issues that need to be discussed. Regardless of the century.
“It’s very hard, in a diverse group, to have conversations about racism, sexism — for people to have a chance to really talk about how outraged they are to be mistreated as a worker," says Bruskin. "That is going to be the conversation, to have chances for people to talk about that stuff, for maybe a black worker to be able to stand up and talk about how the play relates to his life — and maybe his white buddy is sitting next to him, and they’ve never had that conversation.”
If you go
“The Moment Was Now” will be performed Sept. 13-15 and 20-22 at the theater at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St. in Mid-Town Belvedere. Performance times are 8 p.m. Sept. 13, 20 and 21; 3 p.m. Sept. 14, 15 and 21; 2 p.m. Sept. 22. Tickets are $30. Information: themomentwasnow.com.