“I need a wig wrangler,” said Patricia Hull at rehearsal the other night, bursting through the dressing room door wearing full late 19th century costume, complete with cameo brooch, shawl and fur hand muff.
“Alas, the perils of a one-woman production.”
The production in question: “Mother Jones in Heaven,” a brand-new one-woman musical by legendary singer/songwriter, activist and 2013 Alaska Folk Festival Guest Artist Si Kahn. Hull will perform in its world premiere at the Silverbow’s Back Room March 7-16, not only starring — and, presumably, handling her own hairdressing — but also producing and directing, although she hesitates to call it that.
“I’m more of a facilitator,” Hull said of her role in the musical biography of prominent labor organizer Mary Harris Jones, once called “the most dangerous woman in America.”
“This show is so character driven,” she continued, fiddling with her hairpiece. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to pull it off, and my responsibility alone.”
In many ways, Hull stands uniquely suited to tackle the challenge. Her creative resume details 30 years of experience, including stage, film, TV, voiceover, musical theater, opera and solo vocal performance, as well as writing, producing, directing and stage combat (alas, there’s no stage combat in “Mother Jones” — I had to ask).
And while “Mother Jones in Heaven” is Hull’s first one-woman show, she considers it perfectly aligned with her theatrical trajectory the past few years, building upon lead roles in a recent Perseverance Theatre production of “Vashon”—“LOTS of lines in that one”—and “Always… Patsy Cline,” a two-woman musical in which she played the eponymous country music singer.
“Still, it’s kind of scary,” admitted Hull, who, as Mother Jones, performs — and sings — in an Irish brogue. “You’re on your own. You just have to trust that it’s there.”
In two roughly 45-minute acts, “Mother Jones in Heaven” tells the story of Mother Jones, a name many know without recognizing her true impact.
“When we look at the past, we sometimes skim over the people who’ve really made America how it is,” said Hull.
Waking up in heaven (the real Mary Harris Jones died in 1930 at the age of 93), Mother Jones discovers that her eternal paradise is an Irish Pub.
“You really feel like you’re hanging out in her celestial pub,” said Hull, noting not only the show’s tone and structure, but also the intimacy of the venue — Silverbow’s Back Room — as well as the availability of beer and wine before, during and after the performance.
“Mother Jones was definitely a woman who enjoyed a drink — and a joke, too; that’s partly how she appealed to the working man.”
Between drinks and jokes, Hull’s Mother Jones recounts her life’s events, from her birth as Mary Harris in County Cork, Ireland to the loss of her husband and children in a yellow fever outbreak and her home and business to the great Chicago fire. Out of the ashes, she describes her rebirth, becoming one of this country’s earliest and most outspoken labor organizers, responsible for the 40-hour workweek, the concept of a living wage and the enactment of child labor laws.
Of course, “Mother Jones in Heaven” also draws heavily on the rich musical history of the American labor movement, which in many ways gave rise to the 1960s folk music scene that spawned the show’s creator, Si Kahn.
Indeed, Kahn had been looking for the right person to bring his one-woman musical to life when, in Juneau last April for Folk Fest, he happened to catch Hull performing — in gypsy dress and character — with local klezmer band the Noodle of Doum. He was intrigued.
“Si actually sought me out in the lobby,” Hull recalls. “Obviously, it was very flattering — I definitely got the ‘tingles.’ But once we talked more, the content struck me as so timely. In this country and all around the world working people are losing ground.”
Although Hull and music director Mike Maas kept in regular phone and email contact with Kahn throughout the development process, she describes him as “a true artistic collaborator.”
“He’s been amazing to work with,” she said. “He literally said ‘I trust your sensibilities.’ As I’ve rehearsed, anything that rang true, we’d keep.”
Si Kahn, already up in Alaska for activist work on behalf of Bristol Bay, will be on hand for the world premiere.
“Like salmon, we return to where we spawned, I guess,” Hull said.
And with that, she adjusted one last wisp of costume hair.
“Shall we rehearse now?”
“Mother Jones in Heaven,” by Si Khan and featuring Patricia Hull and music director Mike Maas, is produced in concert with Perseverance Theatre Second Stage and facilitated by a Catalyst Grant from the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council. It runs March 7-16 at the Silverbow, at 7:30 p.m. Special pay-as-you-can performance and taping will take place March 9, at 3 p.m. at KTOO. Proceeds benefit Perseverance Theatre, the JAHC and the Alaska Folk Festival.