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WVIA Art Scene Interview with Erika Funke

In anticipation of the September 2021 performances in Tamaqua PA––where Mother Jones herself organized coal miners in 1900––Vivian and John talk with Erika Funke about the historical significance and the relevance to our world today.

Pottsville Republican Herald Article

TAMAQUA — “If someone wants to learn about a woman who didn’t take any crap,” says Micah Gursky of the Tamaqua Community Arts Center, “they should come see the Mother Jones show.”

“Mother Jones in Heaven,” a musical that has toured the country since 2018, will play at the Tamaqua Community Arts Center at 7 p.m. Sept. 18 and 1 p.m. Sept. 19.

Written by playwright, folk musician and labor activist Si Kahn, the musical tells the story of Mary Harris Jones, the legendary labor leader known as Mother Jones, who fought for higher wages, better working conditions and an end to child labor in the dangerous mines and factories of 19th century America.

The miners of Pennsylvania and West Virginia saw her as a mother figure, while others viewed her as “the most dangerous woman in America” for her ability to unite thousands of miners and their wives in protests and strikes.

In October 1900, Jones led a march of coal miners, their wives and children from McAdoo to Coaldale, passing through Tamaqua. Gursky was interested in the play’s local connection and the talent of its star, “Breaking Bad” and “Law and Order: SVU” actress Vivian Nesbitt.

“She is clearly passionate about the Mother Jones story and its connection to our region,” Gursky said about Nesbitt. Mother Jones was “a remarkable woman who dedicated her life to helping working people. I think people will have an opportunity to learn the local connection to the development of organized labor, and the improvement of conditions for working people.”

The musical shows Mother Jones in heaven, which happens to resemble an Irish pub, looking back on her life and legacy. Sometimes she reflects in song. The music, written by Kahn and performed by Bloomsburg native John Dillon on a guitar he made himself, is a mixture of folk songs and union anthems.

“I kind of wondered how things were so different on one side of the mountain versus the other,” said Dillon, 70. “One side was a coal mining territory and up where I was it was more agricultural. I was always very curious about it, so this is a really cool opportunity to dig into the history.”

Compelled to play role

Nesbitt, 63, said the story is so important it deserves to be remembered.

“So Kahn the author also has a commitment to make sure that people who have such an impact, aren’t forgotten,” she said. “It’s easy to brush it under the rug, but we stand on the shoulders of giants.”

It took several years after reading the script for Nesbitt to accept the part of Mother Jones. At first, she didn’t think she was the right actress.

“I felt Mother Jones was tapping me on the shoulder and saying, ‘You don’t have a choice in this,’ ” she said. “I felt compelled to do it. It was terrifying, at first, she was such a powerhouse. I honestly didn’t think I had it in me. Once I stepped aside and allowed it not to be about me but for it to be about the message of the play, and the story, then it became easier to do.”

To prepare for the role, Nesbitt worked with a vocal coach and trainer. She walked up and down hills, belting the songs that she will sing in the musical until she could “let the emotions just rip,” the way Mother Jones did.

Jones did not naturally have an Irish accent, but she affected one when making impassioned speeches to Irish miners. When these miners heard her talk the same way they and their mothers did, they felt understood. “She was a master of political theater,” Nesbitt said. “She was a very interesting character. …. When she gets scrappy, the Irish dialect will come through.”

While researching Jones, Nesbitt was warned not to read her autobiography, because it was “largely a work of fiction.” For years, historians have disagreed about the details of her personal life.

“It wasn’t exactly that she lied; she just kind of bent the truth,” Nesbitt said with a laugh.

The play also touches on a yellow fever epidemic that Mother Jones survived, but that killed her husband and children.

“The people that had resources and privileges were able to stay out and stay healthy, whereas the poor and working classes were not,” Nesbitt said. “We see that happening again.”

Dillon said that a few years later, Mother Jones lost everything in the Great Chicago Fire

“Somehow, we don’t know how, but she managed to take that tragedy and make it into a service to help others, and I find that a really compelling part of the story,” he said.

The Tamaqua performance of “Mother Jones in Heaven” is sponsored by Lehigh Anthracite, the Tamaqua Business & Professional Women’s Club and the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers Local 404.

New Cleveland Radio Interview:

Interview by Karen Moss Hale: A story of civil liberties – although this took place in the late 1800’s we still deal with the same issues today. Vivian and John share their talent with us!

Listen to “Caffe Lena Stay at Home Concerts_ Vivian Nesbitt and John Dillon 5_28_20” on Spreaker.

Watch the full 90-minute performance of Mother Jones in Heaven as performed on the stage of the legendary Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY. Click here:

Charlotte Talks NPR Interview:

NPR interview with Si Kahn and Vivian Nesbitt on Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins:

Songwriter, Activist Si Kahn’s Musical ‘Mother Jones’

Charlotte singer-songwriter Si Kahn’s musical “Mother Jones In Heaven” profiles a woman once described as “the most dangerous in America” – Mary Harris Jones. Kahn and the actress bringing Jones to life on the stage join Mike Collins.

After losing her family to yellow fever in the late 1860s, and then losing her home and livelihood to The Great Chicago Fire, Mary Harris Jones found a new calling, that of a labor organizer.

Jones’ success in organizing mine worker strikes around the turn of the 20th Century led one prosecutor to call her “the most dangerous woman in America.” It was around this time that she adopted a new persona: “Mother Jones.”

Charlotte’s Si Kahn, the longtime singer-songwriter and himself a labor organizer, produced a play about Jones in 2014.

HERALD CITIZEN THEATER REVIEW:

ONE-WOMAN ‘MOTHER JONES’ PRODUCTION IS HEAVENLY

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 [Mineworkers] 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!

by Connie Fisher


CVNC: AN ONLINE ARTS JOURNAL:

(Excerpted from a January 10, 2019 article)

Cornelius, NC – Anybody who has walked by a well-stocked newsstand in the past 40 years has heard of Mother Jones, but fewer people can tell you anything about the real-life woman who inspired the magazine. You may now be handsomely schooled at the Warehouse Performing Arts Center by Vivian Nesbitt, who portrays the rabble-rousing labor activist in a fast-moving production of Si Kahn‘s musical narrative, Mother Jones in Heaven. In Nesbitt, he has found an actress who is ideally suited to bring us a Mother Jones who is beautifully devoid of acting or singing self-regard…

Joining Nesbitt onstage is her husband, John Dillon, on guitar, providing a quiet relaxed presence… In the choicest passages of Kahn’s dialogue, Nesbitt described the injustices, the horrors, and the deformities that enflame Mother Jones’ righteous rage.  Nesbitt’s performance was quite a sight to behold, enormously powerful when she reached full throttle.

By Perry Tannenbaum


PEOPLE’S WORLD:

(Excerpt from “Picking up sticks and stones at Woody Fest 2018”)

Saturday was a special day for the presentation of Si Kahn’s Mother Jones in Heaven. This is a one-actress musical play about the life of Mother Jones. Vivian Nesbitt was so wonderful as Mother Jones, you would forget this is a play and think you were listening to Mother Jones herself speak. You hear Mother Jones say, “The working class lives with danger every day.”

This statement may be truer now than it was a hundred years ago. Nesbitt portrays the life and thoughts of the outspoken rabblerouser believably. When Mother Jones tells of her husband, George Jones, and her three kids dying of yellow fever, you cringe in your seat. Her pain is felt by all. John Dillon, music director, plays beautifully with his guitar to Nesbitt’s singing. The songs are poignant, accurate and thought-provoking. The play leaves the audience with that radical notion that they can change the future. It is a message that Woody [Guthrie] would have believed in wholeheartedly.

After the play the actress and musicians joined by a few others sat for an open Q & A. Specifically, in alignment with Woody and Mother Jones, the focus was upon union organizing. Joining Vivian and John Dillon were Tom Breiding and Dan Navarro. Breiding is a musician in residence with the United Mine Workers of America, and Navarro is vice-president of Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) for recording artists and singers. All four spoke on how the unions have been a positive force for them and their art. They also spoke on the current move in America, in the new post-Janus era, to bust unions. They are speaking all over America to help reinforce union memberships just as Mother Jones and Woody Guthrie did.

by Mark Maxey


JAMES NAVÉ, POET, RADIO HOST:

When Vivian Nesbitt’s Mother Jones walked onstage at the Magnetic Theater in Asheville, North Carolina, I forgot I was in this century; that’s because I was in heaven where there is no time. Mother Jones had just arrived. God had given her an Irish pub and I was at a table in the corner watching her tell Saint Peter a thing or two about how to run the place.

In Si Kahn’s powerful musical Mother Jones In Heaven, as far as Mother Jones was concerned the big boss in Heaven could use just as much straightening out as she had given old Mr. Peabody who owned all those coal mines up there in West Virginia where Hell was below the Earth’s surface down dark shafts where men died every day in holes without light.

Directed by Alice Jankell, Nesbitt’s performance was note-perfect, restrained and yet exuberant, shy and yet bold, loving  and yet full of piss and vinegar. What else would you expect from Mother Jones? After all, she was the revolutionary who spent her life in fights across America, back in the day when robber barons rode in Pullman cars and tension was spilling, sometimes even bleeding, across the picket lines, no different in many ways than it is today.

Go see Vivian Nesbitt perform in Mother Jones in Heaven by Si Kahn. I promise you’ll not be the same after you lift a glass or two in that Irish pub on the good side of the Pearly Gates up there with Mother Jones in Heaven.

Memorable characters emerge from the work of great actors. If I were in charge I would nominate Vivian Nesbitt for a Tony Award. Go see the show. You won’t regret it.


BARBARA DUFF, ARTS WRITER, PORTLAND, ME:

A remarkable one-woman production of Mother Jones in Heaven, a play written by the legendary civil rights, labor and community organizer Si Kahn is playing at the St. Lawrence Theater in Portland, Maine this weekend.  I was lucky enough to see the opening Friday night show.  It was deftly acted by Vivian Nesbitt and well supported musically by John Dillon and his strong, folksy voice and guitar. (You may recognize his name and voice from his Public Radio show Art of the Song and/or his Standing O’ Project music streaming site.)  Kudos also to Alice Jankell for great directing. 

Based on the life of Mary Harris, an Irish immigrant who arrived in the United States during the late 1850s, the 70-minute performance arcs through the triumphs and tragedies of her life, a personal journey that took her from seamstress and teacher, wife and mother (and a name change from Harris to Jones), to powerful labor activist and organizer, advocating not just for working men but also for working women and children.  In fact, her decades of potent, media-grabbing, and sometimes controversial protest tactics led one judge to call her “the most dangerous woman in America” just before he had her put under house arrest.

But to workers everywhere, in mines and in mills, and other unsafe, low-paid work environments, she was known as “Mother Jones.”  She knew not only how to listen to woes and help individuals process what we now call post-traumatic stress, but also how to make the more affluent public aware of brutal facts of life like the 12 to 16-hour work days of the poor, the use of hazardous machines that could cause not only loss of life and limb but also death, the existence of poor safety practices leading to catastrophic fires, explosions, or cave-ins, and toxic working conditions that caused severe lung diseases, stunting of limbs, rickets, and lead poisoning as well as other life-shortening results. Last, but not least, Mother Jones wanted the public to know that the unsanitary living conditions engendered by meager wages could lead to city-wide fires and raging epidemics affecting everyone.  It is hard to fathom today but most of her labor rallying, union-organizing, publicity-getting, and agitating for higher pay and safer working conditions was accomplished without the benefit of electricity, let alone internet technology.

Most of the issues Mother Jones tackled during her adult lifetime (1870s through 1920s) have an uncannily familiar ring.  Many people in the United States today are also unhappy with the direction in which our democracy is headed. The income gap between rich and poor is growing exponentially. The minimum wage level is not sufficient to live on. The United States is the only industrialized nation without socialized healthcare. Corruption and conflict of interest are rampant in the government not to mention that our three branches of government have lost the ability to function healthily as checks and balances for each other. New voting regulations are actually preventing significant numbers of citizens from voting and having their voices heard. In short, it is getting harder to believe one person can make a difference when, even at protest demonstrations and labor rallies, there is no safety in numbers let alone protection for individual activists.

If ever our country has needed heroes and sheroes to show us that one person can still make a difference in America, it is now. Vivian Nesbitt and John Dillon, thank you for reminding us in such a meaningful and riveting way that by looking back into our own United States history, we can find an example of one very brave and inspiring immigrant woman known as “Mother Jones” who fought hard for decades to organize labor in the United States.  Listening to her story is like getting a vaccination against cynicism about the future of democracy in the United States.   And the backstory of “Mother Jones in Heaven” is even more uplifting.  It turns out that Vivian Nesbitt and John Dillon are also activist heroes.  When they first read this play, they found it so inspiring that they decided to sell their house, buy an RV, and tour the country to bring Mother Jones in Heaven to communities everywhere.”


THE ASHEVILLE GRIT ONLINE NEWS: 

Ali McGhee is a journalist, creative writer, and academic. Her work has appeared in The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Romantic Circles, Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary.. 

ASHEVILLE FRINGE ARTS FESTIVAL 2018: SOLO SHOWS TACKLE BIG ISSUES 

Solo shows can present a special challenge to performers and to audiences unaccustomed to this particular form of theatre. In my experience, however, solo shows at past Fringe Festivals have been my favorite, creating an intimate space between actor and audience that is rare to experience. And importantly, solo shows are not created in a vacuum, but rather with the support of writers, directors, and others who play vital roles in the production process. 

… Actress Vivian Nesbitt (of Breaking Bad, The Night Shift, and Longmire) will play the titular Mother Jones of Si Kahn’s musical, and she’ll be supported by director Alice Jankell and musical accompanist John Dillon.

A Passion for Change 

Called “the most dangerous woman in American” during her lifetime, labor activist and community organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones is the subject of Mother Jones in Heaven, which takes a deep dive into the woman behind the reputation. Actress Vivian Nesbitt, who shares Irish ancestry with Mother Jones, was drawn to the musical, and the character, during the Obama administration, but elected not to perform the piece. After the election of Donald Trump, however, the timing seemed right. “There’s an education that I think has been lost about Mother Jones, the working class, and the poor,” says Nesbitt. “And so I think she really needs to get back out there and start cracking some heads.” 

Vivian Nesbitt as Mother Jones. 

Jones had a reputation of being a firebrand, a petite woman whose swagger and foul language gave her an entrée into circles that might otherwise not have been so welcoming. Although she was known for many accomplishments during her life, two of her greatest were banding together mine workers and their families against mine owners (the event that gave her that intimidating moniker of “most dangerous”), and organizing a children’s march from Philadelphia to the home of President Theodore Roosevelt, in New York, as a protest of inadequate child labor laws. 

“As a contemporary society, we just don’t run on the kind energy that Mother Jones had to pull from,” reflects Nesbitt. “All that anger and forthrightness, drinking and swearing, that much passion is kind of not what we do in the 2000s. We’re sort of ‘evolved,’ we think we’ve gotten around all that. 

“But she just burns with it,” she continues. “So to bring that to the stage is a really interesting and terrifying thing to do. There’s plenty to be angry and militant about. I recently saw a headline saying Trump is thinking about cutting overtime hours. Mother Jones worked for United Mine Workers of America, and they fought for the eight-hour work day, so the timing of this could not be better.” 

Besides being a solo show about an impassioned organizer, the performance is challenging for Nesbitt for another reason: the songs. The full show, which will be truncated for Fringe (from 80 minutes down to an hour), includes 14 of them. “The songs are absolutely beautiful,” says Nesbitt. “They’re profound and funny.” She notes that they are folksy, but with a clear Broadway spin, an influence that adds an unmistakable, vibrant energy to the production. 

“I’ve always wanted to do a musical,” says Nesbitt, who is a singer. Her accompanist, John Dillon, is also her husband. The two perform together in a folk duo, and he’ll play guitar for this show. “To take this on requires a certain fitness and complete commitment,” she says. “A physical, vocal fitness and also a mental fitness that you can actually pull it off. It’s one thing to do a monologue solo show, but this is taking it to a completely different level. And I have to do it. It’s as if my spiritual self is throwing down the gauntlet, saying, ‘Now’s your chance.’ 

“I hope people will come,” says Nesbitt, “because the music is singalong music, it’s toe-tapping music, and the message she brings to light is so important. You really get to see the woman behind the personality, what was making her tick and pushing her forward. It’s kind of easy to do the ass-kicking, embittered, loud, feisty version of her. At 5′ 2″, she was itty bitty and took no prisoners, but she also came to it later in life, in her mid- 40s. And that’s really what this play focuses on, and who she represents for me.” 

For Nesbitt, Mother Jones ultimately reveals something about humans’ potential for greatness. “She took that suffering and that rage and could have ended up a drunk on a street corner,” she says, “and she probably had her moments! But there was something about her. She had a eerce ego, she loved hanging out with people in power, and she was really no princess. There were parts of her that were problematic, but they helped to make her someone who was known and feared by politicians.”