Archive for October, 2009

Rosie the Riveter

October 1, 2009

Last night I enjoyed the Shotgun PlayersThis World in a Woman’s Hands. It tied together several parts of local history that had been separated in my mind: Rosie the Riveter, the African-American migration to the East Bay, Kaiser, the Port Chicago disaster, and Richmond’s reputation for violence.

Margo Hall as Gloria Cutting, welder. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

Margo Hall as Gloria Cutting, welder. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

It’s the story of Gloria Cutting who leaves her daughter behind in Louisiana and travels to California to become a welder. The advertisements promise “equal pay for equal work” but she has to fight to get the equal work and, even then, whites are paid more than coloreds. Her dead mother scrubbed floors to make a better life for Gloria, and Gloria struggles to save enough money to make a better life for her own daughter. She transforms as she does the work she is given to do in the world. This work includes caring for the women who have lost jobs or lost husbands in the explosion, helping to start unions, and scrubbing the blood off the streets of Richmond.

The music in this production is wonderful. There are gospel songs sung by Gloria and her dead mother, jazz songs, and mouth music to convey the sense of being in the industrial shipyard. The only musician is a bass player and, somehow, that’s enough.  Mollie Holm and Linda Tillery did an amazing job on the music.

Sounds of working together.  Photo Credit: Benjamin Pirivitt

Sounds of working together. Photo Credit: Benjamin Pirivitt

The set rises up and comes around the audience, and is transformed from the WWII shipyard into the graffiti-written present-day Richmond with light. I enjoyed the show and recommend that you see it. The run has been extended through October 18.

When I have thought of “Rosie the Riveter,” I hadn’t ever considered that not all of them were white like the famous poster. The only “Rosie” that I know is Ruth Gordon who told me about being fired from Boeing at the end of the war with the excuse that “the men have families to support.” Ruth was supporting her disabled mother at the time.

This World in a Womans Hands

This World in a Woman's Hands

I knew about the Port Chicago explosion, but this play brought home the meaning for me, through the wife’s viewpoint. African-American men were not allowed in combat, so one of the jobs they were stuck with was the even more dangerous job of loading munitions on ships. (What about Asian and Hispanic men during WWII? That’s an area for further learning for me, and they aren’t mentioned in the sources I’ve found so far.) Her husband was in tiny, unrecognizable pieces after the disaster. Fifty men were imprisoned for refusing to work in these unsafe conditions, and Gloria Cutting urges the other men to stand with them and change things. Unions and the Civil Rights movement both started in the wake of  these events.

One of the major streets in Richmond is Cutting Boulevard, and I wondered if the street was named after Gloria Cutting but, since she’s a fictional character, perhaps she was named after the street. I remember that playwright Marcus Gardley named most of the characters in his “Love is a Dream House in Lorin” after streets. Checking the cast list, the characters last names are Coronado, Rumrill, Cutting, Saint Fay, Barrett, Harbor, Carlson, Grant, and Parchester. I can’t find Saint Fay on the map of Richmond, but all the others are streets except Parchester Village.  (click that link. It’s fascinating.)

The lasting legacy of the Kaiser shipyards in my life is Kaiser Permanente HMO. Pre-paid vountary health care was a novel idea. But was it open to everyone employed at the shipyard?  I find it suspicious that “By August 1944, 92.2 percent of all Richmond shipyard employees had joined the plan….combined with “In the Bay Area, the percentage of black workers in the shipyards steadily grew from essentially zero at the beginning of the emergency shipbuilding program to about three percent in 1942, seven percent in 1943…” It could be that the  7% who didn’t join the health plan were the same 7% who were African-American. I would hope not, but the extensive .pdf at the latter link details egregious discrimination. The play neglects the health plan.

Health Plan recruitment poster

Health Plan recruitment poster

You might also like the Pop History Dig about Rosie the Riveter and Betty Soskin’s blog about being consulted for the play. Here, here, and here

Race-ometer stats: Cast W/B/O = 4/5/1, Audience W/B/O = 49/9/13