Famed activist is revived in Rosemount writer's play

  • Article by: LIZ ROLFSMEIER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 8, 2012 - 5:36 PM

A local business owner resurrects labor activist Joe Hill in a new stage play.

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Nick James of Eagan, left, Rosemount playwright Keith Reed, Shane Donahue and Patience Hughes rehearsed for “The Murdered Minstrel of Toil: The Joe Hill Story.” Reed’s play opens this week at the Historic Mounds Theatre in St. Paul.

The 1936 labor ballad "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night" inspired plenty of folk singers. Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger recorded it, and Joan Baez popularized the tribute tune after performing it at Woodstock.

"I heard that song for years and never really related to it," said Keith Reed of Rosemount.

But after running across William M. Adler's "The Man Who Never Died," a biography of Hill, an early 20th-century labor activist, Reed became fascinated with the man inspiring the tributes.

He spent the last three years researching and writing "The Murdered Minstrel of Toil: The Joe Hill Story," which will premiere June 15 at the Historic Mounds Theatre in St. Paul.

The play follows the life of Hill, a Swedish immigrant and itinerant worker who got involved in the Industrial Workers of the World, or "the Wobblies," in 1910. Hill drew political cartoons, wrote songs like "Casey Jones-the Union Scab" and traveled throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico organizing miners and migrant laborers to fight for better working conditions.

In 1914, Hill moved to Utah to organize copper miners and "became quite a thorn in the side of local authorities," Reed said. When a Salt Lake City grocer and his son were murdered, Hill was convicted after a controversial trial. Though many thought he was wrongfully accused, Hill was executed by firing squad in 1915.

Reed pulled from actual court transcripts for the second act of the play. "People will not believe you had a trial that went this way," he said. "Total corruption, all the way up to the governor in Utah. Even President Wilson appealed for this life."

More than 30,000 people attended the funeral in Chicago. "If you look at photos, all you see are crowds with a coffin in the middle," Reed said. "After he was executed he became probably even more famous than he was in life."

"It's pretty obviously a railroad job," said Jim Kojis of Hudson, who plays Matthew Clive, a composite character of a union worker. His involvement in the play inspired him to read more about working conditions in the early 1900s. "It's really opened my eyes," he said. "The horrible stuff that was happening. When you read it, it blows you away."

"It sounds fake, the things that happen to him," said Nick James of Eagan, who plays Joe Hill. James finds it inspiring that Hill encouraged workers to stop spending money on the trial. He notes that some of his last words were the often-quoted, "Don't mourn for me. Organize!"

"Even in his death speech, he is mostly worried about the cause," James said.

Writing history is new terrain for Reed, who runs Mr. Mystery Productions, an interactive murder-mystery dinner theater. He has written 17 plays with titles like "Caribbean Cruise Conspiracy" for the dinner theater.

"I'm not a novice at writing plays, but this was a real challenge for me," he said, noting the difficulty of keeping to the historical record and trying to incorporate humor.

However, he's enjoyed the process enough to start writing a one-woman play about labor leader and feminist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who also appears in this play. Flynn started writing, lecturing and giving stump speeches for the IWW at age 16, and on the last night of his life in prison, Hill wrote a song about her called "Rebel Girl."

Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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