Performed at Irondale Theater, Fort Greene, Brooklyn
Music & Lyrics by:
Earl Robinson & Yip Harburg
Scenes & sketches by:
Sara Zatz/Ping Chong & Co.
& members of the company
Performed by members of
Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE)
Shannon Barber // Stephen Barnes // Cynthia Butts // Marilyn Charles // Donna Douglas // Latisha Douglas // Earlyn ‘Kizzy’ Ferguson // Ermiyas Harper // Yosef Harper //Debbie Howell // Wanda Imasuen // Euston James // Cory Jeminez // Rita Michelle // Jackie Phillip // Valerie Phillips // Nova Strachan // Marsha Zeigler
Scenic & Costume Design: Arnulfo Maldonado
Lighting Design: Sarah Sidman
Sound Design: Greg Tobler
Props Coordinator: Deborah Gaouette
Production Stage Manager: Heather Arnson
Stage Manager: Alejandra Duque
In 1935, at its annual convention, the American Federation of Labor – a national federation of unions – voted to sponsor labor drama as part of its mandate. In 1936, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (I.L.G.W.U.) acquired the old Princess Theatre (at 39th St. & 6th Ave) and renamed it the Labor Stage. They began holding classes for union members in drama, dance and music and soon The I.L.G.W.U. Players was formed to produce plays. This company was different from other leftist theatres of the time, who were primarily from message-related theatre. They wanted to produce shows that would be a pleasure for their members, and not a duty. Soon after, Louis Shaffer, the company’s producer, commissioned Harold Rome to write Pins And Needles to be performed by ILGWU members drawn from the union’s performing arts classes.
For 18 months the company worked in the factories by day and rehearsed P&N in the evenings. When the show opened, it was so succesful that it moved to Broadway where it ran until 1941, with three different ILGWU companies performing in New York and on tour across the country.
Pins and Needles was a revue arranged around major themes: labor struggle, the growing fascist threat in Europe, and right-wing reactionary attitudes at home. Being ‘left’ in this period meant an acceptance of attitudes that supported labor unions, racial equality, fair justice, commitment to freedom, rejection of fascism and oppression, and concern for the common worker. While Pins and Needles held to these attitudes, it allowed the left to finally be able to laugh at itself and acknowledge some of its own human frailties.
Since P&N was written for ILGWU members who were largely European immigrants, we chose to adapt this historic musical revue to reflect the FUREE performers. We added songs and scenes that included the experience of black Americans during that remarkable era and highlighted some of the issues facing FUREE members today. And we wanted to remain true to the political soul of the original. This wasn’t hard since Harold Rome’s songs are as powerful for us today as they must have been seventy-five years ago.
A great deal of the African American history of that time is contained in music. We looked to great singers like Josh White, Paul Robeson and Lead Belly, among others. Landlord, Free And Equal Blues and There’s A Man Going Round Taking Names, now part of our production, are their songs. We also read the 1930’s Living Newspaper plays from the Federal Theatre Project – a program of FDR’s New Deal – where we found the scenes The City Grows and Injunction Granted that are part of our show. Like Mr. Rome’s music, these 1930’s scenes and songs are so relevant, it felt like they could have been written yesterday.
We rehearsed for 7 months, meeting 3 evenings a week; like the original P&N cast, we had to work during the day. We read new material, explored the history surrounding P&N, and-began to learn about the practice of making musical theatre. We learned songs and how to breathe while singing them; we learned dances and how every gesture counts (even when we get them wrong), and we practiced scenes and how to fill them with ourselves (even when we forget the lines.) And so FUREE IN PINS AND NEEDLES was born.
Just like the original company, we started with a larger number in the company than have ended up on stage in our final show. Theatre is a taskmaster and some of our original company members had lives that couldn’t meet its demands. But along with the spirits of the original ILGWU performers, we keep Mia Smith Mallory, Rene Smith Collier, Patsy Miller, Curtis Phillips, Christopher Phillips, Cornelia Harris, Tyre Bowen and most especially, our beloved Lillian Hamilton, on stage with us for every performance.