Sept. 22, 2014
Lit by a single lamp, a man dressed in coal and sweat-stained turn of the century workwear informed the audience “this is the story of ordinary people, already forgotten a mere 100 years later.”
They play that followed, “Ludlow, 1914”, was unlike most productions playgoers have attended before. It provided a visually compelling, fragmented narrative of the death of miners and their families in Ludlow, Colo. at the hands of National Guardsmen.
Rather than a strict adherence to recorded events, the play delivered a more artistic approach to recounting what came to be known as the Ludlow Massacre.
Music, both of the era and of present day, along with background video screens and continually moving sets in the foreground challenged the audience to take in more than a simple stage performance.
The play began with a recounting of the origins of coal in a land millions of years before man.
As the backdrop rose from behind the main stage, it revealed a two-tiered set that symbolized the dominance of the upper class over the working poor. A lavish room filled with well-dressed, high society fat cats, sat atop a cramped, ill-lit mine.
Actors slowly rose from their crumpled state, recalled to life to recount the tale of the massacre and the events leading up to it.
The story continued, revealing how eager immigrants and impoverished denizens were only too quick to sign up for sure work. As time progressed however, they began to realize they had actually entered into an endless contract.
Eventually, beset with debt and wary of abhorrent, joyless lives, the miners decided to strike. This decision led to even harsher repression by the mine’s controlling interests.
While there are clear references to historical figures during the play, like soldier and civil engineer William Jackson Palmer, many of the characters were amalgamations of people from the period.
The production also featured a troupe of children, who, in addition to playing bit roles, acted out the tale of the Earth monster, which was intertwined throughout the main story.
The fable was a thinly veiled statement on the nature of humanity’s insatiable consumption of natural resources.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the play was that it made no effort to hide the fact that it was a play. Actors moved in and out of scenes in plain view and called cues to one another. They also constantly moved set pieces, and did not disguise the sounds and signs of real exertion.
This device, though appearing unorthodox to many audience members, worked exceedingly well to relay the laborious nature of working in mines, especially under often appalling conditions.
While the production had lighter moments, the humor appeared misplaced. The clownish nature of some of the actors’ performances seemed to make light of the fact that children and men marched into the mines and were never seen again.
There were several instances where actors broke the fourth wall and address the audience. These scenes, mostly comedic in nature, detracted from the story being told and appeared to stretch the audience past the point they were willing to follow.
In a powerful finale, coal workers and their families were methodically gunned down as they fled in vain. Meanwhile a Rockefelleresque magnate threw fistfuls of bank notes down at the dying from atop his impenetrable tower.
After the last miner was executed, despite many wounds accrued during a valiant stand, and the portrayal of the massacre was complete, a lone figure took the stage to recount the final insult to the butchered.
The actor who began the play read an actual Colorado Fuel & Iron Company shareholders report that was drafted shortly after the carnage.
The narrative retold by the corporation to its investors is simultaneously predictable in its revision of the massacre, and shocking in its flagrant disregard for the truth of the events.
The production concluded directly after, absent the expected curtain call. The directionless ending left audience members puzzled as to if they should applaud or simply stand and leave.
The decision was a curious one, and the confusion felt by the audience may have undermined the intended gravitas of the previously read statement.
Fully acknowledging the play is a work in progress, after the performance members of the cast entertained comments and suggestions from audience members, in an adjacent room.
In addition to explaining the processes behind some of the show’s unusual elements, several of the cast members explained that changes were being made every night right up until curtain call.
“Ludlow, 1914” was a performance unlike others and addressed the question of what it means to recreate historical events. Its unpolished style, unapologetic in being a performance rather than an exact reenactment, gave the production an oddly endearing quality.
After several more iterations and a few more improvements, “Ludlow, 1914” will likely evolve into a highly stylized, provocative retelling of a black scar in the heart of Colorado’s history.