Features and Occasionals

Joe Hill is Still Alive

By Debora Threedy

Why another play about Joe Hill? There has already been a play, a one-man musical, a movie, a documentary, and several books. Why another? Three reasons. One is that William Adler has written a terrific new history of Joe Hill’s trial, and he has uncovered information that changes what we think we know about the story.

The second is that no one has really looked at the women in Joe’s story. I give Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a Wobbly activist and later one of the founders of the ACLU, a prominent place in my play. She corresponded with Joe while he was imprisoned and even met with him at the city jail, and their letters suggest Joe was more than a little enamored of her. I think her view of Joe as a martyr for labor’s cause colored his own self-conception.

Finally, we need another play about Joe Hill because his story is the story of the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World, the union of which Joe was a member. And their story is still relevant to our times. In the course of researching Joe’s story, I found myself captivated by the Wobblies. I had heard of the Wobblies, of course, but mostly, growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, the era of the Cold War, I saw them portrayed as out and out Communists, or at least a very close cousin. What I didn’t know was how quixotic, even romantic, a group of idealists they were.

And artistic. They had a plethora of songwriters and poets. They had stand-up comics. They even staged a Broadway production to raise funds for striking workers, which didn’t work, of course, but what an idea.

And then as I studied that time when the Wobblies were at their peak, the nineteen teens, I was taken aback by how much the Wobblies’ protests still echo today, in the twenty teens taken aback by how little things have changed. Wages so low a person can’t live on them. Check. Police brutality. Check. Gross income disparity. Check. Prejudice against immigrants. Check. Preferential legal treatment for the rich. Check.

The Wobblies supported racial equality; as one said, “As long as black workers are discriminated against I don’t want to be white.” They supported gender equality. They supported a living wage. They supported the free speech right of protest. They believed immigrants had every right to be here and work for the American dream. They believed it was unconscionable that a tiny percentage of the population lived lives of wealth and excess while children went to bed hungry. They suffered egregious police brutality for what they advocated.

And when I think about the Wobblies, I care less about whether or not Joe was guilty. I don’t know if he was or not. We can’t know. Anyone who says they do know is speaking from conviction, not proof. But I do know Joe didn’t get a fair trial. And a lot of the reasons he didn’t get a fair trial then are still with us today. The system was stacked against Joe then, and today it is stacked against the poor, the immigrant, and the minority, just as it was in Joe’s time. As the Innocence Projects around the country have shown, hundreds if not thousands of people have been wrongfully convicted because of bias against the color of their skin or where they were born, because of police or prosecutorial misconduct, or because they couldn’t afford decent legal representation and the system didn’t provide it to them.

We should all be Wobblies.

Debora Threedy’s plays The End of the Horizon (about Everett Ruess), Wallace (about Wallace Stegner) and The Third Crossing (about Sally Hemings) have previously premiered at Plan-B. Her latest, One Big Union, receives its world premiere November 10-20. planbtheatre.org

This article was originally published on October 2, 2016.