American Rosies: Women at Work in World War II is a well-timed gift from the Historyonics Theatre Company to a community stunned and saddened by last week's terrorist attacks. It's an excellent production, one of Historyonics' best, an entertaining and moving piece of theater that takes on added poignancy and meaning in light of the recent events. Without ever mentioning it directly, the show allows insight into and catharsis for our current situation by telling, in the words of those who lived through it, the story of what happened after the "first" Pearl Harbor, when the initial burst of patriotism and anger, much like what we are experiencing now, turned to patience, hardship and sacrifice. Everything changed -- the economy, music, racial issues, society, even romance and courtship. For the first time in American history women in large numbers left their homes to go into the workplace, succeeding at jobs they had previously been told they couldn't do.
Rosies is directed by Lee Patton Chiles, who created the script using interviews with women who worked in factories in and around St. Louis during the war, taking, as the recruiting poster said, "the job that HE left behind." The local connection, as well as the sharp, eloquent words of the women, makes the material personal and specific in a way that transcends the company's usual work. We learn the mechanics of riveting, about the monotony of working on an assembly line, how the smell of gunpowder permeated clothing and about the bonds that grew between the women who were finding economic and social independence for the first time but at the cost of separation and sometimes loss of their loved ones.
The company of five women, as characters based on the interviewees, work well together. Michele Burdette Elmore actually plays her mother, Marcella Burdette, one of Chiles' subjects. Elmore seems to be having a bang paying tribute to her feisty, up-for-anything mother; it's a performance full of affection that spills over into the audience. Hassie Davis plays Dixie Burns, who, as a black woman, faces double prejudice in the workplace. Caroline Miller is appealing as Jeannette Martin, a young lady who suddenly finds herself with a purpose in life. Rosemary Watts skillfully takes Winnie Shaw from contented homemaker to a woman surprised by, then proud of, her newfound abilities. Jane Paradise is strong as Martha Cunloff, especially in a scene where she receives the dreaded telegram from the War Department. Most of the male roles are played by Larry Mabrey, who shows wide range and comic skill. Musical director Joe Dreyer, at the piano, is called into occasional acting service and performs admirably.
Dreyer has chosen a wonderful array of music from the period, a high point in American popular song, and intertwines it excellently with the women's stories. The little-known Johnny Mercer-Harold Arlen tune "I'm Doing It for Defense" is hilarious, and in the wistful "P.S. I Love You," Mercer elevates the conversational to poetry and gives voice to the overflowing emotions of the period. The songs continue to move us to this day; when the company sings "God Bless America," it's as if a tacit agreement has been made to remember the victims of New York and Washington; the cast was as visibly moved as the audience.
The day the war ended, most of the women were given their pink slips and things went back to "normal." But, as Chiles' script points out, women had tasted independence and inspired it in their daughters. The seeds of the women's movement had been planted.
We have been thrust into the latest crucible of crisis, and this is a good time to seek guidance and inspiration from earlier generations. We need look no further than to these women and the everyday courage and sacrifice that they displayed in their shining hour. Thanks to Historyonics for presenting their stories.