Salt Lake magazine

Rise Up—One Big Union Brings History Wrapped in Uplifting song

November 12, 2016

Last week Plan-B Theater company premiered its original play One Big Union, written by Debora Threedy, a local playwright and law professor at the University of Utah.

And although the play was not written and developed as a response to Tuesday’s election results, it was impossible to sit through and not draw connections between the worker’s struggle that surrounded Joe Hill and the election of Donald Trump—the ultimate Boss Man. For the lefty audience, still stunned by the Election night news, it was a stirring and galvanizing event.

Joe Hill, if you don’t know, was an organizer Industrial Workers of the World Union and one of its best known songwriters. Hill’s little red songbook was the soundtrack for the struggle. He was passing through Salt Lake City when he got into a scrape that resulted in his arrest and conviction for a crime he didn’t commit. He was executed in November of 1915. The hows and whys of this are teased out in great detail in Threedy’s play and it’s easy to see the law professor behind the curtain here. The legal wrangling is interesting and certainly educational; we all left the theater with a fairly advanced understanding of Hill’s case.

However, where the production really soars is in the singing. The old workers’ songs run throughout the play, sometimes sung by just Joe (played ably by Rodger Dunbar, who emphasizes Hill’s stiff Swedish heritage and also looks uncannily like old photos of Hill himself) or the whole chorus. The songs have been tweaked and arranged for a modern audience and fit the post-election mood of the gathered audience perfectly.

(I wonder if the producers have considered passing out lyric sheets, I know I would have liked to sing along here and there. The play at times feels like a secular revival,  after all.)

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And although the play is a tragedy (spoiler alert! Joe Hill dies) it is also the story of a movement, of a martyrdom and Threedy plays up the triumph of Hill’s resistance and refusal to buckle as well as the galvanizing effect his death had on the labor movement of the time.

It may not seem like a play about the murder of a labor organizer a century ago would offer anyone comfort, but I found myself uplifted by the tale. The resolution of the characters who surround Joe are inspiring, including a lovely performance by Tracie Merrill as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a fellow organizer who founded the ACLU in the years after Hill’s death.

The six person chorus drops in and out of roles—cops, prosecutors, governors, union members, etc.—and really rocks the songs. I especially enjoyed the jocular performance of Carleton Blueford, the “working stiff” who acts as narrator and offers expository notes as the play rolls along. Despite the grim material—jails, firing squads, murders— he helps instill a sunny defiance that feeds the play with a stirring optimism.

The play runs through Nov. 20 and, despite the addition of extra performances, is sold out. However, there is a wait list (see below) option and Plan B is keeping its website up-to-date when tickets become available. For current details visit the Plan B site here. LINK http://planbtheatre.org/onebigunion/

WAIT-LIST: A pre-paid wait list begins in the box office 1 hour before show time. You must be present, in person, to be added to the list. At show time, as many patrons as possible will be seated in empty seat (a “no late seating” policy makes the wait list possible). If you are unable to seated, you will immediately receive a full refund.

Christie Marcy

Christie Marcy a contributing editor at Salt Lake magazine covering entertainment. She can be reached at Christie@SaltLakemagazine.com or you can follow her on Twitter at @WhyNotBoth.

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