Kenosha & Janesville, WI

And when I say we played Union Halls, I mean this:

Monument outside the United Auto Workers Hall in Janesville WI; fully unionized bathrooms; signs that welcome you to a hallway of history at the UAW in Kenosha WI

It’s hard to believe we’re in the home stretch. Everything is ramping up it seems. Yesterday we woke up in one hotel in Kenosha, traveled 1.5 hours to Janesville, did the show, traveled 1 hour to Madison and went to sleep in another hotel. Where, btw, WTF:


A) what is Tormund Giantsbane doing on my hotel key, and B) why is he pointing in the opposite direction the key actually goes in the door? Not cool, my liege.

Anyway, hello Wisconsin!  This tour continues to surprise and enlighten and it’s been a really interesting Theme Week of sorts so far, with two shows that I have dubbed Big Union and Little Union.

‘Free Play Tonight’ sign out on the highway; ‘Tracey’ in front of the UAW Kenosha; the playing space (this does not at all show the size); Jessie’s cake which was so big we couldn’t use it in the scene and went with the, oh, whole Other cake made for us by Oliver’s Bakery

Kenosha was by far our biggest house – I think I heard someone say “300 people” in passing – and we all gathered up our energy and flung the story out into the cavernous room.  It had a kind of fierceness. And Janesville turned out to be our smallest, for no other reason than it’s just kind of not near anything else and is a community unto itself. And we shared the story with gentleness and it had a raw vulnerability. (Also there was a bar for the audience.) Both Kenosha and Janesville had been thriving auto manufacturing communities which were decimated when the GM plant closed (among other things). We were told that the UAW Hall in Kenosha really doesn’t function much as a union hall anymore in light of the absence of the industry, but is now more of a community center. The Hall in Janesville, by contrast, did feel very alive and particularly charged despite the fact that there’s been just as much devastation, work/community-wise. There has been a lot of tears and fights in this room, we we were told before the show. Oh man there’s just so much to write down and  I’m not gonna be able to; fortunately we have a camera crew with us and maybe you’ll be able to get some of these places and folks’ stories ‘first’hand down the road. I’ve decided it wouldn’t be good to take notes at the talkback.

I remember after the Brooklyn preview (wasn’t that like a year ago?) a friend was talking about the many many threads of this play, how many ways there are to view it, and is it a Union Play, you know?  Because a Union Play is a whole other thing.  I think that for at least these two nights, that is what Sweat became. Not that any of its other angles were diminished, but I’m reminded of the truth of the statement that the audience is the final character, as has been said a lot on this tour. In the middle the Janesville Act 2, during what a gentleman after called that scene with the three ladies I thought whoa, we are all really in it tonight. There was a particular degree of emotional intensity that, upon reflection, didn’t necessarily feel like it was coming from us alone. It was as if the pain and the history of the audience was coming through the scene and illuminating it, bringing it to life, without anyone saying a word. That really stuck with me, said this man, because, you know, I’ve seen that scene.  When the plant closed, many jobs either disappeared or went out of state, forcing moves and other instabilities. I know I saw several divorces  – nodding all around her – and at least one suicide.

Where the other audiences on this tour have been a mixed bag of different parts of a community coming together, the Janesville crowd already seemed to be something of a unit, and their intimacy in viewing the show and reacting to it was moving. There was a lot of talking over each other and finishing sentences now what was that year? and does anyone remember who was in charge then? and handing over the mic mid-sentence to one bearded fellow who seemed to have been the chief union organizer for a long time. Our little family, he said, referencing the group of characters in the play, was hundreds of people. And that broke apart. So this was really emotional. It was an older, predominantly white house, and there was not even a shred of laughter or derision during Tracey’s monologue about her grandfather’s woodwork and her sense of pride in her family having ‘built this town’.  We really did used to have buildings like that, one woman said emotionally. I think I’ve said before that it’s a speech meant to illustrate Tracey’s pain and longing but also her (racist) sense of entitlement. In a diverse crowd, her line well my family’s been here a long time, since the 20s ok? gets a laugh. In the predominantly white houses previously, I’ve felt a kind of coldness, an aligning with her frustration and anger.  (I mean, whatever, who knows what they’re thinking, but.) But last night felt like just sort of a respecful sadness, and sympathy.

An older African American man said that he really resonated with ‘Evan’ (parole officer) because of his speech about I got this pen, and you know what this pen does? It writes. His father had been in law enforcement and had always impressed on them that the pen is mightier than the sword. I thought he meant it in a ‘use your words’ antiviolence way, but he went on to clarify that he meant the way your life can be ruined if you are written up for anything; how hard it is to move on after that. In my family we said you either uphold the law, you interpret the law, or you break the law. Well, my father upheld it, and I interpret it… but my younger brother broke it. So this was very real to me.  The race element of the play didn’t really come up, except when an older Latino man spoke about his experiences on the line and I did experience some bad treatment, you know, there were some bad people, but there were many more good people, so you learn to ride it out and then he thanked by name the two bearded guys who had started the conversation across the way. And THEN something happened which has not happened before. This man was pointing out the scapegoating in the play, how people always want to blame someone and first it’s the blacks, and then it’s the Latinos… 

A white haired woman in glasses and a lavender windbreaker interrupted him without turning around to say loudly And what about the women? He paused briefly, nodded, and said they came before us. 

A few moments later, she took the mic. She spoke quietly, bitterly, and slowly.  You know everybody talks about mistreatment of blacks, mistreatment of Latinos… what about the abuse of women? Our Project leader responded by thanking her for bringing that up AND also pointed out that it does not diminish the importance/validity of the racist actions in the play. I reflected for a moment how very human it is to sort of compete for Most Suffering. But I was also very very glad she spoke up, and very very interested, and then wondered why this hadn’t come up before.. especially as after she talked more women chimed in.

I changed jobs 12 to 15 times to get away from men in my workplace. I was harassed. I was called names. I was accused of taking peoples jobs. I still have nightmares about it.  To this day. I have nightmares. 

One woman in the first row with a very tough, no nonsense vibe shared matter-of-factly about how the men were very abusive when we came into the plant, especially when she acquired new skills and moved up.  I was a journeyman millwright, and you know, they did not want women in skilled trades. A man threw an enormous screwdriver at her one day. Another day, she was up in the {ugh I can’t remember what it’s called, but she was up really high inside something} and he turned it on, and it just started shaking me back and forth and I just sat down in it and waited til he got it out of his system. I couldn’t wait to get transferred to get away from him. There was a lot of nodding. The woman next to her said one man told me I had taken a job from his brother-in-law. That his brother in law didn’t get hired, and it was because of me. So I said, ‘well I guess I just got here earlier’. 

Sidebar: I’m pretty sure “journeyman millwright” is one of the coolest job titles I have ever heard. I loved her. We all decided she probably is Tracey, and apparently she’s gonna come again to the Columbus show (!)


Almost forgot! Jessie’s cake in Janesville  from ‘Old Fashion Bakery’. I personally loved this one because the clouds!! and beautiful writing took me back to childhood when my birthday cake decoration was Very Very Important.

Anyway, that was Janesville and I’m doing this out of order. So be it.

The Kenosha talkback was really sparkling and alive and it was very gratifying to know that we reached people in the back – ! in that large crowd. As one woman put it, I did not think I was gonna like this at all, I got here and the lights are all on, and I thought, oh no. (She liked it). This was a big, mixed crowd, diverse (it seemed) in race and also gender and age and economics. Our Project leader did a show of hands for who felt like you saw yourself on stage and then for who felt like you were learning about people you didn’t really know much about and there was a solid response for both (actually, some of the same people put hands up twice). The racial dynamics of the play came up immediately, the discussion of the scapegoating of Cynthia and then Oscar along racial lines, the entitlement of the white characters. Then, too, the (African American) woman who didn’t think she would like the show said I do agree with all that, but I also have to say, I think part of the beauty of this play is that I found myself feeling some empathy and understanding of Jason  (the young white male character). And he was, you know, really bad – ! And, I mean, if a play can do that… 

One (older, white) man stood up to deliver  a speech about how he was in management, and I was like that, you know, my family built this place, and I should have this, etc etc, and then I was fortunate enough to do this diversity training program at my company, and I spoke with a hispanic man and he said to me ‘well my family was in Laredo Texas before it was a state’. And that man talked to him about his work/life experiences, and about how when he used to go into the movie theatre he couldn’t sit, down, you know, on the floor, had to go up in the balcony, because, you know, they didn’t want him there … and that he would go home and fill up the bath tub and put bleach in the water, trying to turn himself white. I will never forget that. (And I am also paraphrasing.)

A 21-year old man who identified himself as (I think I remember this right) an anti-union member of a union spoke emotionally about Stan’s line about refusing to vote out of despair and disillusionment. I’ve voted once in my life and I don’t know if I’ll do it again, he said, I dont know what the point is. He talked about hopelessness and despair and Darnit I didn’t want to start crying because I wanted to say more and finished with I’m a recovering addict myself, so, this was hard to watch, but good. A local artist/activist stood up to invite him to a ‘Courageous Conversation’ on employment, race, etc, in their community and we need young people, we want to hear your voices. I hope he goes.

Oh man this is long! Did I mention I haven’t finished my musical?

But I do have to close with the delight of having a bunch of young and lively theatre students in the house, I think mostly courtesy of one of my former high school drama coaches!! who lives in Kenosha now. One young lady way in the back row called out Jessie’s monologue as that lady who gives the speech about how she gave up her dreams for a man, and I just got out of something with a boyfriend who wanted me to do that, but Im gonna move to New York and do what I want to do. Love and light and protection to her! And always, always birthday cake.

See you in Columbus.



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