LABOR & THE ARTS: Exciting trio of theater events about working people


‘Billy Elliott,’ ‘Sweat,’ ‘Mrs. Palmer’s Honey’ come to St. Louis


St. Louis has always been a “labor town” but not necessarily a town where the arts have been available to or about working people. But it looks like that may be changing.

As the city inches to open up after a long year of pandemic, two re-emerging theater companies are opening their new seasons with plays about working people.

I had the pleasure of seeing “Billy Elliott” at the COCOA on Trinity Avenue in University City a few weeks ago. I was lucky enough to see the original Broadway production a number of years ago. Described as a coming-of-age stage musical, the play was based on a British movie with music by Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall who wrote the screenplay. Lewis was inspired by a novel by A. J. Cronin about a 1935 miners’ strike, “The Stars Look Down.”

The musical, which takes place in Northeast England in County Durham during the 1984 national miner’s strike when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, follows 11-year-old Billy from the boxing ring to ballet class where he discovers his passion for dance. The miners’ strike and the culture of this small rural mining town serve as a conflicted background to Billy’s personal struggle to fulfill his dream to attend the Royal Ballet School and become a ballet dancer.

The stage production at COCA has come and gone but you can see the movie for a small fee on Amazon or YouTube. It’s worth the price! Both the play and the movie won numerous best musical awards over the years.

St. Louisans had another opportunity to see a play that works with many of the same themes.

‘Sweat,’ a play that made it to Broadway in 2015, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2017, was the Black Repertory Theater season opener. Directed by Bill Himes, the Black Rep Director, “Sweat” was staged at the Edison Theater in September and has been described as “a powerful and emotional look at identity, race, economy, and humanity.”

Lynn Nottage, the playwright, interviewed over 2,000 people in Reading, Pa., talking to many former steelworkers in a town with a poverty rate of over 40 percent before sitting down to write the play. One art magazine described Nottage as going into “the heart of working-class America.”

Interestingly, Nottage also spent time earlier in her life in Mansfield, England, during the 1984 miner’s strike, the event that was the backdrop for “Billy Elliott.”

As I watched the play, shivers ran down my back remembering Emerson Electric in the late 1960s asking workers to take a cut in piece rates in order to keep work here,  then moving work to Iowa and Arkansas, both so-called “right-to-work” states, and finally just moving all of the manufacturing work out of St. Louis offshore, depriving long-term employees of their jobs and their lifestyles.

“Sweat,” in just over two hours, puts the de-industrialization of America in perspective. And it may even help us understand how Donald Trump managed to get elected president in 2016.

Now there is a third opportunity in 2021 to explore St. Louis working-class history.

On Wednesday, Nov. 17 Bread & Roses Missouri is presenting “A Taste of Honey” at the Blue Strawberry, 364 N. Boyle, featuring the music that accompanies their soon-to-be-released radio podcast of “Mrs. Palmer’s Honey.”

The 1946 novel by St. Louisan Fannie Cook depicts how race, class, and workers’ rights intersected during World War II in the historic St. Louis Ville Neighborhood. The radio drama was adapted by playwright Cassandra Medley and directed by Kathryn Bentley.

During this festive evening, you will meet and hear from talented artists who bring the story to life while enjoying jazz standards and selections from Closer Still, the album of original blues/jazz music that accompanies the production. The musical performance features Kelsey Robinson, a musician and vocalist from Pittsburgh; the Evan Wohlrabe Trio, a newly formed St. Louis jazz group; and Colin McLaughlin, a St. Louis based multi-instrumentalist who composed the original music on the album.

You also will have the opportunity to bid on the original “Honey” painting by Bharat Anjari and purchase a print, buy the CD of the entire Closer Still album, and support the mission of Bread and Roses Missouri.

Tickets can be purchased through the Blue Strawberry website ( Heavy appetizers will be served with a cash bar. The main program will also be live-streamed. Onsite guests will be required to provide proof of full vaccination and wear masks when not eating/drinking.

(Joan Suarez retired as Regional Director and as an international vice president of UNITE in 2002, after which she volunteered with Jobs With Justice, becoming the Chair of the Worker Rights Board. She was the Founding Chair of the Missouri Immigrant & Refugee Advocates in 2003, and the Founding Director of Bread & Roses Missouri in 2015. She retired again in 2021.)



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