Just before Albert Parsons was hanged by the state of Illinois on November 11, 1887, for a crime that evidence suggests he had nothing to do with (setting off a bomb in Haymarket Square, Chicago) and a crime that he certainly did do (campaigning for an 8-hour day with decent pay), he wrote a note to his two young children that concluded:
"My children, my precious ones, I request you to read this parting message on each recurring anniversary of my death in remembrance of him who dies not alone for you, but for the children yet unborn. Bless you, my darlings. Farewell."
Many children already born in the United States today have not heard of Albert Parsons, or of his wife, Lucy Parsons. Our school history books are unaware that there has been a labor movement in this country. But little Albert Parsons Jr. and Lulu Parsons, who were 8 and 6 years old respectively when their father and three other activists were hanged, learned all too well, all too early.
After seeing Melody Cooper’s new play, "Day of Reckoning," that quote from Parson’s letter will ring with overtones of grandiosity, showmanship, and neglect. Albert and Lucy were full-time activists who loved humanity, who expected a great deal of their young children and each other, and who neglected their children when a greater calling demanded their time.
Parson’s letter uses the verb "dying" as though it were an active choice he made. And so it was. With his friends already locked up and likely to be found guilty and killed, he turned himself in. His only request, which was denied, was for a separate trial from the others.
"Day of Reckoning" tells us, in two acts, something about the lives of Albert and Lucy Parsons and their children, with Albert Jr. acting as the occasional narrator. The four characters are joined by puppets, projections on screens, and sound effects. Primarily it is the abilities of four actors, and of Cooper’s script, that must tell this story of an ex-confederate soldier in Texas and a mixed-race woman claiming to be Mexican (and not black) for her own protection. Both were journalists, and Albert was the owner / editor of "The Alarm," a widely read, radical, pro-labor newspaper in Chicago.
I have read the script and seen the author, an actor of great talent, read large sections of it, playing every role, at a joint reception of the ILCA and the Independent Press Association in San Francisco last May 1. Given the power of that performance, I can highly recommend seeing the full production.
This play teaches labor history without didacticism, but rather through the personal drama of a couple struggling against accepted racial and sexual roles. This struggle will not strike the viewer as out-of-date. But another element will I hope strike everyone as out-of-date, as supportive of a strategy that brings more harm than good. I am referring to the use of violence as a tool for social change. Both Lucy and Albert, in this play, express a willingness to kill for the sake of social causes.
Most of us are convinced that violence is not a proper tool for social activism, that only massive nonviolent activism can win lasting change. But the violence of these past leaders raises interesting questions. Should we condemn them as terrorists? Certainly, school history books do not rank them as heroes beside others who used greater violence: Washington, Roosevelt, Grant, Lee, MacArthur, etc.
The characters of this play are not only violent, but they speak of the need to bear arms in a way that today you mainly hear from those who vote for the candidates of the corporate bosses. How do we fit all this together and decide whether or not we admire these people? Cooper does not simplify anything for us or push us toward liking her protagonists. She expects us to be able to sort out the admirable from the flawed, the positive example from behavior that must be regretted if not condemned. This is not a handbook for activists, but a work of literature.
You can see "Day of Reckoning" performed in New York City at All Stars Project, 543 West 42nd Street (between 10th and 11th Avenues), from February 4 to 27, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
Box Office: 212-941-1234; tickets $15; students/seniors: $10
Group rates: 212-356-8429
The last words Albert Parsons spoke on the gallows: "Let the voice of the people be heard!"
DAVID SWANSON is Media Coordinator for The International Labor Communications Association. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org