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.”


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.. 


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.” 

Nesbitt considers Asheville Fringe to be a launch point for the show. Writer Si Kahn, who is a labor organizer, will also be present. Mother Jones in Heaven will be performed on Thursday, 1/25 and Saturday, 1/27 at Magnetic 375 (375 Depot St.) from 7-8 p.m.