Reminding us that justice is never free, David Christie’s The Most Dangerous Woman in America opened last night on Capitol Hill at 18th & Union. Performed by Therese Diekhans under the guidance of veteran director Carol Roscoe, the intense one-woman show offers insight into the hardships commonly endured by laborers in the early twentieth-century and the struggles undertaken by the titular labor leader Mary Harris “Mother” Jones as she fought to unionize America.
The play begins from a child’s perspective, focused on her perception of Mother Jones during an organized strike. The plot then alternates rapidly between perspectives, fluidly switching twixt characters like Mother Jones, endangered and exploited laborers and their families in West Virginia and Colorado, and the journalists and barons of corporate industry in New York. With every change in character, Diekhans demonstrates a powerful and commanding energy that captivates, expertly alternating between various accents and mannerisms, all the while presenting a narrative of bitter and interminable struggle and sacrifice rivaled only by the unrelenting nature of Mother Jones herself.
Though she excels in every role she undertakes, Diekhans’ performance as Mother Jones is incomparable. Everything about the character feels authentic – from the labor leader’s distinctive Irish accent, to her belief in united fronts of laborers, to the whole slurry of impassioned speeches supposed to inspire organization and strengthen wills amongst the striking workers. The foul language she frequently unleashes against the corporate tycoons and American lawmakers who encourage and allow such exploitative labor practices provides humor in some of the play’s darker moments, such as an attempted assassination of Mother Jones during a strike. As she acknowledges her “unladylike” behavior and refuses to apologize for the effectiveness with which she wages her war on corporate exploitation, one wonders if Diekhans might also refuse to apologize for the raw power she demonstrates through this role.
For a performance that focuses so heavily on the human costs of labor, the stage is appropriately sparse, decorated simply with a table and chair and a small stool upon which Diekhans will often stand while preaching resistance as Mother Jones. During such sequences, the lighting will often alter to reflect the nature of her outdoor settings, though most other indications of space and setting are provided via exposition following each transition between scenes. Diekhans remains clad in the same drab suit in which she first appears, her costuming most effective at believably representing the dress of each character, regardless of said character’s sex or class standing. And while the play makes limited use of sound effects, as well, the spectacle remains inherently tied to Diekhans’ most impressive performances.
A treat for history buffs and the casual viewer, The Most Dangerous Woman in America exposes the mundane horrors of unregulated labor in the twentieth-century United States while highlighting the fearsome and tireless nature of Mother Jones – America’s most-famous labor leader – sending powerful reminders that age is no excuse for political inactivity, and that justice will only ever be won when people stand and fight together.
The Most Dangerous Woman in America, written by David Christie and produced by 18th & Union. Showing at 18th & Union Theatre, 1406 18th Ave. Seattle, WA 98122. Located on Capitol Hill at the corner of 18th Ave. and Union St. Jan 11th to Jan 13th @ 7:30pm and Jan 14th @ 3:00pm. Tickets https://18thandunion.org/dangerous-woman or call the 18th & Union Theatre Box Office at 206.937.6499. Info at 18thandunion.org.