Wrapped around three inside walls of the Ashby Stage, once a church fashioned out of a quonset hut, scaffolding becomes a set, stretching beyond the stage, giving the audience a sense of witnessing a spectacle in a shipyard, an industrial pageant—just the tone for Marcus Gardley’s This World in a Woman’s Hands, commisioned and produced by Shotgun Players, a kind of lyrical epic of the women of all colors, from all over the country, who built the Liberty and Victory ships launched from Richmond during the Second World War, Rosie the Riveters of legend.
Like Gardley’s play set in South Berkeley, Love Is a Dream House in Lorin, something of a watershed for Shotgun a few years ago, This World has the panoramic feel of the Popular Front and WPA murals, inspired by artists like Leger and Diego Rivera, a chromatic, celebratory glance at the changes of a whole period of history, depicted in vignettes that manage to give a sense both of intimacy and the heroic, all at once.
Both plays were put together by the same team—Gardley, director Aaron Davidman and musical director Molly Holm—and share many similar features. But This World focuses more on a single character (in Dream House, Lorin itself, itself, the neighborhood, was the principal character), though one of an ensemble, and floats like its ships on currents of music and song that are not so incidental, supplied by the voices of the nine women onstage, backed by the solo bass of Marcus Shelby.
Molly Holm, who wrote some of the music—other tunes include Spirituals and a prison work song contributed by Linda Tillery—used “circle-singing,” an improvisational group method she picked up from her eight years with Bobby McFerrin and Voicestra, for working with the ensembles of both Dream House and This World. This World is suffused with music, replacing the noise of the shipyard: the melisma of women chanting, singing wordlessly, into and out of which dialogue and action melt and arise.
The story follows the arrival of Gloria B. Cutting from Louisiana at the shipyards, husband overseas fighting and little girl placed with a neighbor, dreaming of becoming a welder. Margot Hall plays Gloria, modulating chords of humor and genuine pathos, showing the heart Gloria says is all she’s made of.
Gloria’s determined to work, to send for her daughter, and becomes the loner of the yard, considered stand-offish, even a snitch. The others (Laura Evans, Rebecca Frank, dena Martinez, Gwen Loeb, Liz T. Rogers-Beckley, Dawn L. Troupe, Beth Wilmurt, Kathryn Zdan) express their own characters and the collective one of the workers very well, with two unusual performances by Dena Martinez—as hot-blooded “goddess of love” union organizer Maria, who reads letters to the alphabetically challenged, improvising romantic passages from Garcia Lorca to tickle her affection-starved workmates—and Kathryn Zdan, playing at one point the brash young boyfriend of a married coworker with panache.
Gloria is galvanized into solidarity with her fellows after being snubbed in a nightclub where her coworker Cleo (Rebecca Frank) is singing—and they’re rocked by the monstrous explosion at Port Chicago, leading to the “mutiny” of black workers over hazardous conditions and harsh judicial reprisals.
The second part of the play flashes forward to killings in the Richmond of today, Gloria the last of her crew still in situ, visited by her grown daughter (who “drove all the way from Danville"), intent on putting her in a home in Berkeley. She visits the local non-violent tent city protest with herapple fritters, a familiar face, though one woman remarks that Gloria talks as though she’s Malcolm X and Julia Child, rolled up in one.
In fact, her daughter (played by Dawn L. Troupe) questions Gloria’s version of events. This time shift, and questioning of the veracity of the character who’s focal point in the panoramic action is one of the most interesting facets of This World—and one that could use a little dramatic counterbalance.
(The WPA Federal Theater Project helped bring in radio techniques to live theater, which became a complement to the historic panorama of the murals. So it’s only fitting that the first half of This World should features a male voice only by an unseen “broadcaster” (Chris Kuckenbaker, voice over), the second half switch to the present signaled by a female reporter on the scene for KTVU—standing in front of bright graffiti now affixed to the steel plate that had signified the ship: Lisa Clark’s excellent set, added to by Richard olmstead’s lighting and Chris Paulina’s sound design, plus Valera Cobble’s costumes—and Baruch Porras-Hernandez’s choreography..)
Maybe the enduring image of a play filled with images isn’t so much the techno-industrial work milieu, its work objects and activities, but one from a folk tale, a kind of living parable Gloria’s shown by a coworker whose ancestor came west: the Wisdom Tree, represented by the ensemble. Gloria shows it to her daughter, surrounded by cement in a shopping center parking lot. Gloria’s daughter finds herself alone before the tree, its branches many arms unfolding with apples of knowledge to be shared.
THIS WORLD IN A
Presented by Shotgun Players at 8 p.m. Thursday–Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 5 p.m. at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. $18-$25. 841-6500.