Review by Tom Bogdon
Kansas City, which has always considered itself a City of the Future, has lately been rediscovering its past.
“Maybe the Great Recession has increased interest in the Great Depression,” said Bill Clause, the playwright of “1937, ONE HELL OF A YEAR,” now playing through Saturday at the Just Off Broadway Theatre.
Clause, a retired member of the American Federation of Government Employees and now volunteer coordinator of KKFI-FM community radio, apparently is not alone in believing that it is time for Kansas City to rediscover its past.
For example, Crosby Kemper III, director of the Kansas City Public Library, has focused on figures from Kansas City’s past—from poet Langston Hughes to political boss Tom Pendergast to outlaw Jesse James to newspaper editor William Allen White—in a series of “live” interviews called “Meet the Past.”
KCPT public television is taping, editing and broadcasting the “Meet the Past” interviews, conducted before live audiences at the Downtown library. KCPT also is running a series of documentaries on such 1930s subjects as the Dust Bowl and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), one of the great successes of FDR’s New Deal.
“1937, ONE HELL OF A YEAR,” delves into a pivotal and exciting period in labor history which Clause develops into a fast-paced, almost staccato series of stories-within-stories about such things as the tremendous effort it took by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to organize Kansas City’s Ford Plant and the cross-town Leeds Chevy plant.
Industrialist Henry Ford himself makes appearances on-stage to state in no uncertain terms that he will close every Ford plant in the country before he will allow the United Auto Workers Union-CIO to organize the company’s hourly workers. That definitely included the Kansas City plant, then located on Winchester Ave.
The well-rehearsed ensemble cast of 25 (including a pit band) brings history to life, including life on the assembly line, grueling work that was hard on mind and body and which could be speeded up by management at will. And if workers couldn’t or wouldn’t keep up, there were lines of unemployed waiting outside the plant, ready to replace any exhausted worker.
But it was at the Chevrolet Leeds plant, which closed in 1988, that workers resorted to the sit-down strike as their ultimate weapon. Workers just sat down on the job, literally bringing the seemingly unstoppable assembly line to a sudden halt. The CIO-UAW won recognition and a contract for its members at Leeds before the Ford workers finally got theirs five years later.
Organizing by the CIO of huge factories in the steel, auto and rubber industries was made possible by passage in Congress of the National Labor Relations Act, or Wagner Act, which basically recognized workers’ rights to be represented by unions and which set ground rules for labor relations. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Wagner Act in 1937.
“1937, ONE HELL OF A YEAR,” as stated above, is a series of stories within stories, and the effective and enjoyable music in the play is built around a real-life musical named “Pins and Needles,” that opened in 1937 on New York City’s Broadway. The long-running musical dramatized life in the garment industry of the time. The play humanized the lives of the primarily women garment workers, who frequently worked under sweatshop conditions.
Kansas City knew about the garment industry and about sweatshop working conditions. That is, until the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) organized the workers and secured a contract that improved wages and working conditions in the industry.
Like the cast of “Pins and Needles” in New York, the cast in the “1937” production at times conveys a buoyant spirit on-stage by such vignettes as the romantic duet, “One Big Union for Two.”
Although there are several African American actors in the production, several give especially effective performances in the story of the organization by A. Phillip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Already an oppressed minority with little hope of landing many jobs, the sleeping car porters were easily exploited by the Pullman Company.
On stage, one porter is called “boy” and repeatedly given arbitrary treatment by an arrogant white supervisor, then meets Randolph who had come to Kansas City for a convention at the Paseo Baptist Church. When the Brotherhood finally secures a contract, it is as if a cloud of despair is lifted from this sleeping car porter. Suddenly he could stand up as a human being to the oppressive supervisor. He had a contract.
John L. Lewis, organizer of the CIO, and A. Phillip Randolph appear on stage together in a moment of victory and solidarity. Lewis, the apostle of industrial unionism, is contrasted with American Federation of Labor (AFL) President William Green, who strongly believed in the craft union brotherhoods that pre-dated industrial unionism.
The life-and-death stakes of all this is seen in a vignette about a seemingly innocent Memorial Day picnic of Republic Steel employees and their families in South Chicago. Suddenly, goons open fire on the picnic crowd. The toll is 10 killed and 30 wounded.
While not integral to the main theme of “1937,” playwright Clause includes in his plot the Kansas City Monarchs Baseball Club of the Negro Leagues and Boss Tom Pendergast and his powerful Jackson Democratic Club.
Some of “the boys” seen with Pendergast happen to be wearing shoulder holsters, and the Boss does get a jobless man a patronage job at City Hall, but Pendergast’s main character flaw seems to be betting too often on also-ran race horses.
Judy Clause, Bill’s wife and a retired member of American Federation of Teachers Local 691, can be credited with an excellent job of directing the show, which seemed larger-than-life in the intimate venue of the Just Off Broadway Theatre.