Review by Judith Robinson
As Donald Trump and many politicians worldwide strive to strip workers’ of their rights,
Subversive Theatre in Buffalo has picked the perfect time to produce a musical celebrating
labour organizer Mother Jones. Playwright/composer Si Kahn’s Mother Jones In Heaven (and
Hell) is a rollicking exposé of economic exploitation and an example of what can be achieved
through perseverance, dynamism and inner strength.
Kahn is no stranger to labour organizing. The award-winning North Carolina native has been
training community activists, writing songs and performing concerts, alongside well-known
figures such as Pete Seeger, for more than 50 years. Kahn’s play centres around a compelling scenario
where Mother, played by Melissa Leventhal, dies and recounts her life story to a cynical bartender,
played by Tim Goehrig, a symbolic gatekeeper who appears to have the right to decide whether
she will go to heaven or hell. Not only is Leventhal a wonderful singer, she is an expert actress
creating the utmost compassion for her character, even when Mother goes on to become an
inveterate liar, manipulator and conartist.
Born around the time of the Upper Canada Rebellion, Mother, then Mary Harris, emigrated to
Toronto from County Cork at the age of 14. The devout Irish Catholic taught in a convent in
Michigan, before discovering her revolutionary spirit in Memphis. She married ironworker,
George Jones, in 1861. Tragically, Mother’s husband and four children succumbed to yellow fever
in a riverside slum. One of Khan’s most powerful songs in the 90 minute one-act depicts the
gargantuan divide between the wealthy, living in their mansions on the cliffs, and the poor
huddled in the chasm below them beside the contaminated river.
After losing her family, Mother moved to Chicago to become a seamstress. A heart-wrenching
tune describes how Mother felt sewing silk garments for the rich “stitch by stitch”. Her peace
abruptly ended when a fire wiped out the whole city in 1871.
After having twice lost everything, Mother was perfectly poised to understand human loss. She
began organizing labourers all over the United States, Canada and Mexico to rise up and demand
better working conditions, shorter hours, and safety legislation at a Dickensian time when
children worked 12 hours a day, often blinded or disabled by faulty machinery.
Throughout the production, Goehrig helped to enhance Mother’s storytelling, portraying the
labour leader’s friends, family members and opponents. Goehrig skilfully morphed from male to
female, rich to poor and young to old with few props or costume changes to support him. His
boisterous voice filled the theatre with good cheer.
Subversive Theatre in Buffalo has mounted an exceptionally powerful play – with music that stirs
the soul. While this musical is written about a woman who died almost a century ago, the themes
are completely relevant to our contemporary situation. Modern Americans, in particular, will
identify with the lack of affordable housing, the ridiculously long working hours, the majority of
the population living paycheque to paycheque without proper medical coverage, and the
voiceless majority trying to figure out a way to effectively fight back.
Although Mother Jones may have lied and manipulated to get her way, her skill for labour
organizing has never been surpassed. Mother made workers feel important and Leventhal
powerfully brings that empathy across. If only there were more Mother Joneses, and productions
like this which directly speak to workers’ suffering. Mother Jones in Heaven (and Hell) is playing
at Subversive Theatre in Buffalo until November 18 th . Don’t miss it.