On Saturday September 18 at 7pm and on Sunday September 19 at 1pm, the Tamaqua Community Arts Center will present ‘Mother Jones in Heaven’ – a musical by the legendary playwright, songwriter, author, and organizer Si Kahn. Vivian Nesbitt, who plays Mother Jones, is the star of the one-woman show. She brings with her a strong acting portfolio having appeared in, among other things, Breaking Bad, The Night Shift, Longmire, and Law & Order SVU. Nesbitt is joined on stage only by her husband, John Dillon, who plays guitar. Like Kahn, Dillon has left his mark on several disciplines. He’s an accomplished guitar maker, radio host, author, activist, and musician. With the exception of a 2020 hiatus, the show has been on the road for over three years. It’s made stops all over the country at theatres, festivals, and labor halls.
You can purchase tickets here.
In advance of this weekend’s performances, Jamie Longazel of Anthracite Unite had a chance to sit down with Vivian and John to talk about the show, Mother Jones, and the anthracite coal region.
Jamie Longazel: Tell us, what can folks who come out to see the show expect?
Vivian Nesbitt: What they will see on stage when they arrive into the theater is a set that looks slightly reminiscent of a bar. The title of the show of course, is ‘Mother Jones in Heaven.’ Si Kahn has, in a genius way, developed the show around the concept that for Mother Jones, heaven would be an Irish pub alongside all of her coal miner buddies and all of her best sparring partners.
It’s a one-woman show with musical accompaniment. John [Dillon] is the musical director and plays two or three different guitars, depending on how many we fit in the car on our way. He’s a foil to some of Mother Jones’s jokes.
Audiences can expect to laugh and to, I hope, gain a new perspective on this legendary character who some believe was the miners’ angel. Others saw her as the ‘most dangerous woman in America’ who was trying to bring capitalism to its knees. We will find that middle ground I hope of the woman, the person that she was and why she lives so strongly in people’s hearts today. The goal really of the show I believe is to see that even if someone is so deeply fallible as she was, that they can still bring such a powerful amount of good into the world.
JL: Who was Mother Jones? I ask in part for readers who haven’t heard much about her before, but also to get a sense of who she was to you.
VN: Mother Jones was born Mary Harris in Cork, Ireland in 1837. Some say she died at 100, but we actually know she was 93. Although she lived enough lives that we can easily grant her those extra seven years.
In her early life, she was present for the Irish famine. So she probably witnessed the coffin ships leaving from Cork and probably heard Daniel O’Connell speaking about Home Rule. Nobody was immune in Ireland at that time from the troubles and from the horror that was happening throughout the land. No one was immune.
She was born into a working class family. Her father then moved to Toronto and worked in the United States as well. She emigrated to Toronto when she was roughly 14-years-old. Her early history is tricky. It was very hard to get any kind of sense of who she was up until she started hitting the newspapers in the 1890s. Her autobiography is a fascinating read.
We’ve also been told that there’s a lot of extrapolation. She was the mistress of political theater. She could build things into something that were more fantastical than the truth. And yet, she was a teller of stories. She was a breaker of barriers. She lost everything several times. I don’t know how she survived. I don’t know why she wasn’t barking mad on a street corner. Some people say she was for some time, in her last years when nobody knows really what happened to her. It’s incredible how she managed to pull on the resources to actually turn her life to service and use this intense emotion that lived inside her.
Mother Jones was also quite an intellectual. She could debate and discuss Voltaire and Victor Hugo. There was a story that she carried a copy of Les Miserables in her bag, wherever she went, whether that was true or not. But she also could get into deep philosophical discussions about socioeconomics. She was very well-educated but in a modest way. She didn’t have an Ivy League education, but she grew up reading and became very adept. She had a strong belief that education was the road out for everyone. She even taught miners math so they could know when they were being shorted.
She would physically go into the mines. Which was unheard of at that time. It was considered unlucky. They thought the mines would blow up if a female went down there. But she had to go down because she knew that the lowest common denominator that could pull the whole industrial revolution down was the coal miner. She knew that if she could talk to them and get them really invested in their own sense of self-worth and their human dignity that she could turn it around. Was she successful? Yes. But we still have a long way to go.
JL: Let’s talk about that: still having a long way to go. What impression do you get of the anthracite region today, and how do you see the play being in conversation that?
VN: We visited several places. I felt there was a lot of anger. I felt like there was still just so much need. I could feel her indignation when we visited. Yet at the same time, I felt a tremendous amount of pride that people have in the region. There’s this deep-rooted pride of place. The region should be lauded. It should be upheld as the seat of the industrial revolution. I think this is part of what Mother Jones was trying to raise awareness about, saying ‘You should be paying these people more. You should be taking care of them.’
John Dillon: I grew up in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania and what struck me is how different things were on the north side of the mountain versus on the south side of the mountain. Not just in terms of occupation but also differences in well-being and in poverty. It’s definitely a stark contrast.
VN: The play also covers issues that are relevant today. We talk a lot about the yellow fever epidemic; there are many parallels between that and COVID. We talk about how politicians are in the pocket of big business, which at that time was whiskey and railroads.
JL: John, can you talk about the music in the show?
JD: Sure. The playwright Si Kahn, in addition to writing plays, he’s written over 500 songs and his songs have been covered by hundreds of artists across the county and in Europe as well. He is just an amazing songwriter. So we have 13 of his songs in the play that really move the action forward. They enhance the story in a way that really benefits the listener.
I came into this project not as a person who was really into musical theater – I’m more into rock and roll and folk music. I saw this as an opportunity to bring some acoustic guitars and maybe even an electric guitar into a musical theater piece. Plus, I get to perform with my wife! It was just really an awesome opportunity. And now that we’ve been doing it for several years, it’s just such a joy to be able to bring this to people.
JL: And Vivian, what’s it like to play Mother Jones?
VN: It’s amazing. I have grown enormously as a performer, but even more deeply as a human being. I’ve grown playing her, engaging with so many of the emotions that were her stock and trade – rage, shame, and her wicked sense of humor. They were her tools to affect the change she wanted to see. She would use her personal rage, her personal ability to shame people into doing things that were the right thing to do. And she could use humor to push through challenges, disarming people in a way that made them listen to her more seriously.
Humor is always popular, but rage and shame get a really bad rap today. There are things that we need to be ashamed of. And there are things that we need to be very, very angry about. That’s what Mother Jones did, and it was something I had to find within myself. Because as an actor, you have to personalize things for the character to be believable. So I tapped into my rage and shame about the same stuff as her: inhumanity, inequality, tearing people down so that you could make a profit off of them.
I feel really blessed to be able to do it. There was a time when I really didn’t think I could. I read the script and I put it back in a cupboard, thinking, ‘Okay, I’ll come back to that… like in a hundred years.’ But I ended up taking it on as a personal challenge and now it’s a personal crusade.
JL: Finally, how did you find your way to Tamaqua for this performance?
JD: We were approached by the folks at the Tamaqua Community Arts Center. They reached out to us and we said “Oh, yes, this is a good fit!” This will be the first time we’re performing the show in a place where Mother Jones actually organized.
VN: Yes, Si Kahn extensively worked into the play her love for the workers from the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania. The show gets into the local history, the Molly Maguires. It is just so meaningful to be talking with people from the region, knowing that we’re actually going to go somewhere and perform where Mother Jones walked. She led the “mop and broom brigade” right through Tamaqua. There’s a whole section about that in the play. So in a way, it feels like we’re finally bringing the show someplace where it belongs.