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.
Actress identifies with labor activist she portrayed on Tamaqua stage
Pottsville Republican Herald – Review by Wes Cipolla, Sept 20, 2021
TAMAQUA, PA — The first thing people ask actress Vivian Nesbitt is, “What’s in the bottle?”
Nesbitt has toured the country playing legendary labor activist Mary Harris “Mother” Jones in the stage musical “Mother Jones in Heaven.”
The production doesn’t shy from Jones’ reputation for “drinking the toughest miner under the table.”
After Sunday’s performance at the Tamaqua Community Arts Center, Nesbitt, still in costume, revealed that the “Irish whiskey” she imbibes on stage is a mixture of tea, “throat coat” and apple juice.
“I’m pretty wired at the end of the show, slugging back tea all day,” Nesbitt joked. “People are gonna think I’m hammered.”
Jones fought for the rights of all working people, but she had a special relationship with coal miners. She called them her “boys,” and they called her “Mother.” In October 1900, she led a march of miners, their wives and their children from McAdoo to Coaldale, passing through Tamaqua on the way.
Nesbitt said that in Tamaqua, she didn’t have to do much to get into character.
“I love this town,” she said. “To play in Tamaqua is really special. Not only that, but because this Community Arts Center has such a mission. There’s such a mission here, you can feel that. There’s something so much bigger happening here.
“To play here was an honor, and to play for you guys makes it even more special.”
The musical, directed by Jo Johnson, written by musician and labor activist Si Kahn, shows Jones — where else? — in heaven, looking back on her life and accomplishments.
Although the play is set in heaven, Kahn’s poetry focuses on the hellish conditions in the mines, where “flames lick like tongues.”
“To be able to do the show where Mother Jones herself walked was truly an honor,” said John Dillon, who provided the music.
(Here, he was a member of the heavenly choir.)
Heaven reminds her of the Hibernian House, the Girardville Irish pub owned by “King of the Molly Maguires” Jack Kehoe. Jones told the story of the Molly Maguires and sang a ballad about their deeds and eventual hangings.
“There,” Jones says of Kehoe, “was a real man.”
While staying in Tamaqua, Nesbitt and Dillon got to visit the Hibernian House and other sites connected with the fight for miners’ rights.
“It’s made me feel all the more impassioned to bring the message out to the world,” Nesbitt said. “You see these towns where I really feel that people should know that this is where all of our power came from, and we need to honor that.
“These towns, they need honoring. This is what the back of America was built on.”
Jones lost her first husband and four children in an outbreak of yellow fever. Nesbitt lost her brother and father before she was a teenager. She had to grow up quickly, like the child laborers of the mills and mines who made up Jones’ “Children’s Crusades.”
In a tour de force performance, Nesbitt portrays Jones’ personal crusade. She wanted to be remembered and loved by the men she considered her children, but that was not always the case. Nesbitt has the righteous fury that made Jones “the most dangerous woman in America” but we also see vulnerability.
It was that vulnerability that made Jones so powerful. She raged against the injustices of her time because she witnessed them firsthand. She related her pain to the pain of working people — while stretching things here and there.
Jones celebrated her 100th birthday while in her early 90s — but she lived so much life in those years, Nesbitt said, that she can give herself a few extra years.
“She cut and sewed the truth to fit the occasion,” Nesbitt said. “Her ego was bigger than this town, and she had to use it to get her point across. She pushed everybody’s buttons, but she was doing that out of a sense not of self-aggrandizement but out of wanting better things.”
After the show, Nesbitt, Dillon and the audience were treated to the coal region delicacy of ice cream with chocolate, marshmallow and peanuts.
“I love it,” Nesbitt said. “I’ll be back (to Tamaqua) for so much more, but CMPs will be on top of the list. Mmm, it’s so good.”
Mother Jones visits Tamaqua through musical
Lehighton Times News – Review by Maria Rehrig, September 24, 2021
The one-woman musical held at the Tamaqua Community Arts Center was shown from the perspective of Mother Jones’ personal account of the activist movements she’s led and how she felt about it, speaking to the audience directly from heaven. At the end of the play, “Jones” even said, “I still don’t know if it’s safe to walk these damn golden streets at night,” to indicate her position in heaven.
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was a woman who led civil rights movements in the United States regarding gender pay-gaps, child labor and women’s rights.
Nesbitt said when she learned that Mother Jones didn’t believe in a woman’s right to vote, she almost didn’t want to do the play, but after she learned more about her point, she was completely on board with it.
Bill Hebe of Wellsboro, an attendee to Sunday afternoon’s show, said, “If women got to vote, it would just enable wealthy women to vote for people like their husbands, and working women would not be able to get off of work to vote anyway. (Jones’) point was, ‘Listen, women don’t care about the right to vote. They want a better life for their husbands and their family.’ It’s an interesting point.”
Hebe’s wife, Shirley Hebe, said Jones should be recognized more in the classrooms when speaking about coal mining, the era or child labor.
Bill Hebe said Mother Jones “was one woman who could have brought this country to its knees.”
Nesbitt said another thing she learned about Mother Jones was that she was foul-mouthed. She said she didn’t realize how foul-mouthed she was when she first knew about Mother Jones, but learning more about her strong sense of self and then portraying her character to others has been fulfilling for her.
“The role of Mother Jones scared the looting daylights out of me, so I thought I had to do it,” she said about the role.
Mother Jones often stood up for mining workers’ rights, and considering the musical took place in an area referred to as the “coal region,” the show felt personal to the members of the community.
State Sen. David G. Argall attended Sunday’s showing and said during a Q&A with the audience that the play felt like “it was made just for us,” with mentions of Pennsylvania and the Molly Maguires.
There is a historical marker to Jones along Route 209 in Coaldale.
Argall was shocked when Nesbitt told him the play is portrayed the same way for every show, and not altered to fit the audience.
Maureen Donovan, president of Tamaqua Business & Professional Women, was a sponsor to the weekendlong event and helped get young women in the seats of the theater to learn about the historical figure. She reached out to multiple organizations in the area to see if they would sponsor students to attend the show, and Lehigh Carbon Community College was one of the organizations that was able to sponsor a few students.
She says she didn’t want there to be any reason for young people to miss the show. She also wanted to help bring a true theater feel to Tamaqua by adding the Q&A at the end of each showing.
“We wanted to give people an opportunity to delve deeper into theater,” Donovan said.
Other sponsors of “Mother Jones in Heaven” include Lehigh Anthracite and Ironworkers 404.
Nesbitt said during the Q&A that it was an honor playing for members of the community because she felt the area “has such a mission” between Hope & Coffee and the Tamaqua Community Arts Center, which were just two of the places she experienced in Tamaqua. She said she felt something so much bigger in the area.
“The art of the creative process is so important,” Nesbitt said. “To take what you’ve been through and turn it into poetry and art is powerful.”
With guts, humor and plenty of power, the 90-minute musical uplifted its audiences on both Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.
What ended in a standing ovation from nearly everyone in the audience, the last performance of the weekend reminded everyone in the room what creativity and passion has the power to accomplish.
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!
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:
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.
(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.”