Mary Harris Jones, better known as early 20th-century activist Mother Jones, is the kind of character any actress would love to play.
A union organizer who worked tirelessly against the evils of child labor, Harris is the subject of Si Kahn's new historical musical "Mother Jones in Heaven" starring Vivian Nesbitt. A busy stage, television and film actress, Nesbitt will perform Kahn's 2017 work Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Cohoes Music Hall.
"She was deeply human and not without her faults," Nesbitt said of Jones, who was called "the most dangerous woman in America" by one judge following her involvement in a miners' strike. "But she was a remarkable woman who was deeply challenged and deeply committed, and what I love about the play is that it illuminates the human side of her. That's what attracted me to the play. Not the legend of Mother Jones, but the human being that she was."
Nesbitt is the only person onstage in the show, with the exception of her husband and piano accompanist, John Dillon. The pair have been playing music together for some time, and the songs they perform in "Mother Jones in Heaven" were all written by Kahn for this show. The production opens with Mother Jones in heaven discovering that heaven looks a lot like her favorite Irish pub back down on Earth.
"I really respected how Mother Jones marshaled her energy in the face of so much tragedy," Nesbitt said of Jones, who lost her husband and four children to yellow fever in 1867, then had a successful dress shop destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. "I wanted to have the opportunity to bring that all onstage as a message to others. I was also very taken by how she put together the equation of poverty, disease and disaster, and how it was the poor and working class being impacted by these societal crises, and how this all could be avoided with a well-organized working class."
While accounts differ as to when Jones was born -- she claimed to be 100 when she died Nov. 30, 1930 -- Jones' activism didn't really begin until 1880, when she became involved with the Knights of Labor and the United Mine Workers. The Haymarket Riot of 1886 in Chicago made her even more devout in her advocacy, and in 1894, after a speech she gave aimed at creating better jobs, the Kansas City Star called her the "mother of commonwealers."
By 1897, her union organizing and support for labor on many fronts had earned her the name the world would come to know her by, Mother Jones.
A Washington, D.C., native, Nesbitt, who might be a familiar face to television viewers of "Breaking Bad," "The Night Shift" and "Manhattan," has been performing "Mother Jones in Heaven" since September of 2017. The role was her's after she met Kahn at a Folk Music Festival in Toronto five years ago. When she happened to mention to Kahn that she wrote a solo play, "The Bark & The Tree," that had a successful off-Broadway run, Kahn told her that he was also a playwright and that he had the perfect vehicle for her.
"We were acquaintances surrounded by folk-music people and we started talking about the theater," remembered Nesbitt. "When I told him I had written a play that had won a few awards, his eyes lit up and he said how he had written a solo play, too. He got me the script and I became totally enamored of the whole project. We did our first workshop back in the fall of 2017, and I've probably performed the show about 30 times since then."
Nesbitt performed onstage throughout New York City and across the country in the 1990s, including one Broadway show in 1993 where she served as understudy for Mary Steenburgen and Ann Dowd in "Candida." While she comes from a long line of actors, she didn't start out on that career path.
"I was very shy in high school, so when most people were expressing themselves through theater and music, I was not," said Nesbitt, whose grandmother, Cathleen Nesbitt, performed in 20 Broadway shows including "My Fair Lady." "Then, when most folks put down that creative bubble and get a real job, I came out of the real world and got into the theater world when I was around 30."
Nesbitt graduated from Nasson College in Maine with a history degree. As a young girl she had moved around the country with her parents, growing up mostly in Ohio and Michigan. She met and married her husband while living in Alburquerque, New Mexico, and the couple recently relocated to Saratoga Springs so that Nesbitt can be closer to her mother, who now lives in Melrose in Rensselaer County.
"One of my plans is to get engaged in the New York film scene and see how I can attract people to do TV and film here in upstate," said Nesbitt, who added that she is an avid horse racing fan. "I'm also going to head down to New York City and see if I can rekindle my network and relationships there."
Along with visiting her mom this summer and attending Saratoga Race Course, Nesbitt will also perform with the Saratoga Shakespeare Company in Congress Park. She'll continue to call Saratoga Springs her home, although she and her husband will soon jump into their RV and take "Mother Jones in Heaven" on the road. A tour is planned throughout the western U.S. beginning in October, and Nesbitt already has several dates lined up for 2020.
Thursday night's performance is being presented in part by the American Labor Studies Center and the Kate Mullany House in Troy. Mullany lived in Troy from 1845 to 1906, and was the woman most responsible for the formation of the Collar Laundry Union in Troy in 1864. Her home at 350th 8th St. in Troy was added to the National Register of Historic Places by first lady Hillary Clinton in 1998, and in 2008 became a National Historic Site by an act of Congress. It has been under renovation since then and will hold an open house Wednesday, May 29, from noon to 8 p.m.
"Mother Jones was probably the most colorful labor leader in the history of the United States," said Paul Cole, executive director of the American Labor Studies Center, which will soon call the Mullany House home. "She and Kate Mullany were both Irish immigrants and both rabble-rousers, so there are plenty of parallels between the two women. Mother Jones became known across the country. She would follow trouble wherever it was and when she was called 'the most dangerous woman in America,' it was meant negatively but it was received positively. She was legendary."
Cole said his group jumped at the chance to be connected to "Mother Jones in Heaven."
"We also put on our own show called 'Don't Iron While the Strike is Hot,' so we're interested in anything having to do with the labor movement, and educating people about that history through theater is a great way to teach," said Cole. "Mother Jones was a revered figure, and we're very much looking forward to seeing her lauded in story and song by Vivian. I'm sure it's going to be a very moving and inspiring piece of theater."
Mother Jones was also well known for her quick wit. She always had a line to answer or deflect, and kind of question. Here are a few examples:
"I hope to live long enough to be the great-grandmother of all agitators."
"I have never had a vote, and I have raised hell all over this country. You don't need a vote to raise hell."
"My teachers treated me as a diamond in the rough, someone who needed smoothing."
"A lady is the last thing on earth I want to be. Capitalists sidetrack the women into clubs and make ladies of them."
"Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living."
'Mother Jones in Heaven'
WHAT: A performance by Vivian Nesbitt
WHERE: Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen St., Cohoes
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
HOW MUCH: $25 for adults, $15 for students
MORE INFO: www.thecohoesmusichall.org or (518) 953-0630