The Joe Hill Revival
“The Joe Hill Revival,” is a new musical that brings back to life the story of labor activist and songwriter Joe Hill, who was framed up and executed by the state of Utah in 1915. The book and original music and lyrics of the show are by Dan Furman, the director of Brooklyn Tavern Theater. The show opened at Rustik Theater, 471 Dekalb Ave in Brooklyn on Tuesday September 14th at 7pm. Shows will be Sept 14, 15, 21, 22, 28, 29 and Oct 5 and 6. Jerome Harmann-Hardeman will direct a cast of 9 actors accompanied by piano, banjo, bass and percussion. As with other Brooklyn Tavern Theater productions, the audience is encouraged to eat and drink as the show takes place around them and often becomes part of the show, joining in the action in small ways and living for a hour or two in the world the show creates.
Songwriter and activist Joe Hill often rewrote the words of church hymns and popular tunes of his time, converting them into songs of protest and activism. Extending that approach, this show often resets Hill’s lyrics using the musical language of our time. The show’s music is an amalgam of hiphop, bluegrass, folk, blues and country, held together by the voice of Hill and the ideas he and the IWW represented. Although Joe Hill was a Swedish immigrant, in this revival he is played by African-American actor Laurént Williams. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn narrates, played by Caitlin Caruso Dobbs. Flynn was a firebrand activist, a leader of the IWW at the time of Hill’s arrest, and the inspiration for Hill’s song, “The Rebel Girl.”
But “The Joe Hill Revival” is not just a political or historical tale. It is also a love story.
Hill was originally arrested because he was shot the same night as a grocer in Salt Lake City was murdered by two men. Reports were that one of the assailants had been shot in their escape. Amid lurid stories in the press of radical IWW mobs threatening society, Hill was railroaded to his execution in November of 1915, even though a motive was never established and all the evidence was at best circumstantial. Although Hill claimed he was shot by a friend in a dispute over a woman, up to his dying day, he refused to identify who shot him and never took the stand in his defense.
Because of this, Hill’s case itself has long been a bit of a puzzle. The unidentified woman of Hill’s story is now known to be Hilda Erickson, a member of the family with whom Hill and his friend stayed when they arrived in Utah. As recently as 2011, new evidence in the form of an unsent letter was uncovered by author William Adler (“The Man Who Never Died”) that backs up Hill’s innocence. Although she never testified in court, Hilda Erickson visited Hill in prison every Sunday from his violent capture (he was shot by police while he lay in bed) to his final week in November of 1915.
Central to the historical part of the story is the bold activism of the IWW, the International Workers of the World, of which Joe Hill was a member. The IWW was formed in the early years of the 20th century and their radical approach to unionism was welcomed by many workers. They did not recognize all the divisions within industries and attempted to organize all workers into “One Big Union.” They rejected the exclusion of Blacks, Chinese and other nationalities from labor unions and sought to organize women workers as equals. They refused to sign contracts with employers, preferring verbal agreements that preserved their right to strike, and allowed unemployed workers to join. This was especially important in the American West of the early 1900s, where Eastern corporations operated huge labor intensive mining and logging industries with no obligations to the health, safety or quality of life of their workforce.
The Joe Hill “Revival” brings these struggles back to life and points to connections with today’s struggles–from the protests against the police murder of George Floyd to the battles by Amazon workers and others to assert their rights against the interests of the rich.
The musical will be presented in the outdoor patio of Rustik Tavern, a well-loved restaurant/tavern in the heart of Clinton Hill/Bed-Stuy area of Brooklyn. Rustik Tavern has remained open throughout the pandemic and offers a “fiercely flavorful menu that will remind you of mama’s home cooking.”
With “The Joe Hill Revival being one of the first shows to open since the 2020 pandemic hit, special precautions are being taken for the safety of all. The Brooklyn Tavern Theater cast presenting the show is 100% vaccinated and COVID precautions will be carefully observed even in the outside patio space where the show will be performed.
The actors in this world premiere production are: Nicola Barrett, Laura Bright, Caitlin Caruso Dobbs, Curtis Faulkner, Julia Fein, Drew Hill, Mick Jutila, Justin Perez and Laurént Williams.
The Director is Jerome Harmann-Hardeman and the Stage Manager is Andrew Kasper. Dan Furman will lead the band on piano, along with Hilary Hawke on banjo; Michael O’Brien, bass and Arei Sekiguchi, percussion.