Written and Directed by Gian Marco Lo Forte Name; Original Music by Kamala Sankaram
Produced by Pioneers Go East Collective
Off Off Broadway, Play with Music
Runs through 4.9.17
A.R.T./NY Theatres, 502 West 53rd Street
by Ran Xia on 4.8.17
Jason Stanley, Catrin Llyod-Bollard, Anthony Napoletano, and Brittane Rowe in American Mill No. 2.
BOTTOM LINE: A documentary performance about Ella Mae Wiggins—textile worker, balladeer, and union organizer—with music based on protest songs.
A song is a weapon, for it brings people together and makes them unconquerable, against even the most destructive force. Pioneers Go East Ensemble (the company's name comes from a Whitman poem) tries to do exactly that. Before the show starts Brittane Rowe, Anthony Napoletano, Catrin Llyod-Bollard, and Jason Stanley introduce themselves in the lobby, performing a folk song as the audience starts to file in. The tone of the show is thus set, with a soundscape that brings us back to 1920s North Carolina.
The titular place, American Mill No. 2, is where the heroine of the story, Ella Mae Wiggins (Kamala Sankaram), worked as a spinner in the 1920s, before the Great Depression hit the nation. She worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, earning about 9 dollars a week, a condition that drove the workers to the ultimate (albeit unsuccessful) strike. Wiggins also worked as a bookkeeper for a Communist-run union, where she shared her story and sang her ballads, making her a notable and beloved member of the community.
In the staged version of Wiggins' life, Sankaram renders beautifully a tune that describes her hardship: “I’m the mother of nine. Four died with the whooping cough, all at once. I was working nights, I asked the super to put me on days, so’s I could tend ‘em when they had their bad spells. But he wouldn’t. I don’t know why... So I had to quit, and then there wasn’t no money for medicine, and they just died.” With other members of the union, Wiggins became one of the leading forces in the Loray Mill Strike in Gastonia, N.C. On September 14, 1929, Wiggins was on a truck headed towards Gastonia for a union meeting when an armed mob attacked. Wiggins was killed by a gunshot, leaving five children behind. Her protest songs and ballads ("A Mill Mother’s Lament" being her most famous one, recorded by Pete Seeger) remained, giving the resisters hope for years to come.
Pioneers Go East Collective presents the piece in a way that resembles a multimedia slideshow. Before each scene begins, a storyteller gives context to a particular moment, introducing the performers as well as the parts they play. This might have been an effective device to distinguish different layers of the story, but the clarity and flow is weakened as the company presents different scenes in various styles. After a while these become more random than deliberate. And the actors' roles are at times confusing. For instance, it seems that while the rest of the ensemble are storytellers who periodically step into historical shoes, Sankaram is fully immersed in Wiggins' character. Scenes between Wiggins and her friends, her colleagues, and her neighbor Eula (portrayed with heartbreaking sincerity by Brittane Rowe) are set in roughly the same spot on stage, accompanied by live projections on the wall as they happen, to create the illusion of a "memory" relived. However, Wiggins also breaks out of the "memory" mode and addresses the audience mid scene, making it difficult to follow the plot. There is also choreographed percussion (with the ensemble creating a recurring rhythm by clapping and stomping simultaneously)—it is empowering initially and in small doses, but ends up becoming excessive, especially as it overpowers the performers' speeches.
It's when the cast sings that American Mill No. 2 truly comes alive. Sankaram's clear, determined voice is like that of a skylark, catching our attention with a jolt of something undefeated and full of love. The ensemble harmonizes into perfect, invigorating quartets, showing the true potential of Wiggins' songs of resistance and how much strength and joy they can bring. The genius composition, and the chemistry between the performers, are the absolute highlights of the show. And Lloyd-Bollard and Napoletano are especially dynamic dancers, and bring much conviction throughout the evening.
The ensemble-devised script would benefit from some reconstruction in order to make this story more effective. It's a production with a big heart and lots of impressive ingredients. And if its dramatic structure and coherence are flawed, it seems that the company's goal is for us to look up the stories of Wiggins and her contemporaries, and thus draw strength from the past in order to deal with our present turmoil.
(American Mill No. 2 played at A.R.T./NY Theatres, 502 West 53rd Street, through April 9, 2017. The running time was 1 hour with no intermission. Performances were Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30, and Sundays at 2:30. Tickets were $20 – $35. For more information visit pioneersgoeast.org.)
American Mill No. 2 is devised, written, and performed by Pioneers Go East Collective. Directed by Gian Marco Lo Forte. Choreography is by Maura Nguyen Donohue. Lighting and Environment Design is by Marie Yokoyama. Video and Sound Design is by Hao Bai. Costume Design is by Becky Hubbert. Additional Music is by Kamala Sankaram. Dialect Coach is Anthony Napoletano. Directing Advisor is John Issendorf. Original research inspiration is by Abby Felder.
The cast is Kamala Sankaram, Catrin Llyod-Bollard, Brittane Rowe, Anthony Napoletano, and Jason Stanley.