This Woman's Work

The Shotgun Players Impress With Marcus Gardley's 'This World in a Woman's Hands'

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The East Bay often wears its political history on its sleeve, but Rosie the Riveter isn't really part of the local symbolic vocabulary. Marcus Gardley's new play, "This World in a Woman's Hands," aims to fix that. The Shotgun Players production, directed by Aaron Davidman and with music by Molly Holm, had its world premier at Ashby Stage last weekend. Its heady mix of intense emotion, music and spirituality pays tribute to the travails of ethnically diverse female Richmond Shipyard workers during World War II.

When America entered World War II, military men left hordes of crucial jobs vacant, and the government encouraged women to "pick up the reins," as one character in the play puts it. These "Rosies," after the aforementioned propaganda poster girl, were sometimes living paycheck to paycheck-many were the wives of soldiers away at war. Just one of many hubs of wartime female labor was Northern California's Richmond Shipyards, where Gardley's grandmother worked; such women inspired the production. At once united by circumstances and divided by racial politics-"colored" women were paid less than their white peers-the characters in "This World" are designed to showcase the triumphs and sorrows of this half-forgotten cadre of American heroes.

Gardley constructs his local history on a bedrock of musical performance, the play's most distinctive feature. Molly Holm's vocal score is by turns intense and charming, accompanied on acoustic bass by Marcus Shelby, who is secreted away under the shipyard scaffolding at stage left. Though rooted in African and African-American forms, especially scat singing, the music resembles Laurie Anderson's avant-garde chants, using almost comically simplistic utterances to evoke mood and action. "This World" opens with the entire cast onstage in housedresses and aprons, miming domestic work as they chant in unison, "Uhn-ka-CHEE-ka, Uhn-ka-CHEE-ka"; the rigging, welding and riveting of the same women is presented through various evolutions of this formula. At other times, one or more characters will sing jazz, gospel or folk songs, highlighting specific characters' cultural contexts.

The ensemble of actresses plays a variety of characters, though there's a core of nine main Richmond laborers, with Louisiana-born Gloria Cutting (Margo Hall) at the center. Hall plays Gloria as obsessively driven, impatient to earn a living wage and reconnect with the daughter she has left behind. When the play flashes forward to Gloria's dotage, Hall performs a truly disturbing inversion of Lady Macbeth's famous cleansing as she tries desperately to scrub blood from a gang shooting off a Richmond street, not out of guilt but out of duty.

Dena Martinez plays Hispanic labor organizer and self-proclaimed "goddess of love" Maria Saint Fay with great relish and dynamic physicality, reciting poetry, wrestling and swinging from a rope. During a surreal storytelling sequence, Martinez also portrays a nauseating manifestation of Jim Crow. Other standouts in the cast include Beth Wilmurt as aspiring actress Helena Grant and Liz T. Rogers-Beckley as the proud Sapphire Harbor, who has traveled from Mississippi with her husband and five children, only to lose her husband in the explosion at Port Chicago in 1944.

Drawing on these characters' eclectic origins, the script is full of self-consciously "wise" moments, but these come off as more reverent than pretentious. At one point, Gloria puts off a question about her religious beliefs by saying, "I don't put faith in no man that ain't payin' my rent." Structural parallels are hammered home about the relationship between shipbuilding and community-building. Recitations of folk stories about "the wisdom tree" run threads from Genesis to modern Richmond. But by way of insistent performances, it all seems to ring true, so that you're willing to let a bit of clunky profundity slide.

By the time the lights go down on the hopeful final tableau of "This World in a Woman's Hands," the characters seem like acquaintances, saying and singing a bittersweet goodbye. But Gardley would have us believe they're not really gone, because they're part of the fabric of history, local and national.

Learn East Bay history with Sam at [email protected]

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