In Their Own Voices: Steelworkers on Stage

Diane Mason Oct 30, 2006

Institute for Career Development and The Steelworkers on Stage Project 2006

What level of quality would you expect from a theater piece created entirely by steelworkers? Those who attended the one-performance only showing of Steel & Roses at uptown City College’s Aaron Davis Hall on October 30th expected little more than an earnest, amateurish effort. Were they surprised.

The well-constructed series of vignettes was brought to life by director John Szostek and a competent, integrated cast of 14 writer-performers. Though some of the longer pieces could have been abbreviated, the production delivered consistent quality. Actor-singer Gwen Calmese-Wright turned in spiritually transcendent performances. Original blues music was thrillingly rendered by composer Jerry Edmonds and Rick Barna on keyboard, guitar and harmonica. John Walker’s set featured multiple danger signs posted on a high wire fence.

Steelworkers take pride in the toughness of their work and wax poetic about the macabre magnificence of their workplaces. They express outrage over deaths ensuing from unsafe conditions and employee layoffs accompanied by mega-bonuses to management.

In one piece a mill is suddenly closing, and a volatile worker who’d been with the company for 29 years – played to searing effect by Jeff Manes – can’t cope with losing the pension he would have received if he had “made 30.” In another piece, two women won’t join an action against sexism because “only some of the guys are assholes.” A widow can collect only half of her husband’s insurance because he died in the hospital.

The zany “Nicknames” incorporated elements of the “tall tale,” Keystone Cops and Italian political comedy. A parsimonious worker drags a cow home to slaughter himself. Foiled, he is ever after addressed as “Cow Killer.” Actor-singer Clarence Winfield, Jr., played the lead to hilarious effect.

Steel & Roses was adapted from “The Heat: Steelworker Lives and Legends,” an anthology of writings by steelworkers that evolved from workshops introduced in 1999 by the Institute for Career Development. The ICD is a joint educational and training program of the United Steelworkers of America and thirteen steel companies. The Steelworkers on Stage project, begun in 2002, hopes to promote participants’ personal growth and give dignity to the work of the working class.

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