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Arts

St. Louis Workers Say What's On Their Minds In An Opera Of Their Own

Colin McLaughlin, Larry Sheldon and Kevin FitzGerald rehearse a scene from "Workers' Opera." Jan. 19, 2020
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Colin McLaughlin, Larry Sheldon and Kevin FitzGerald rehearse a scene from "Workers' Opera."

On a recent Sunday afternoon, about a dozen people gathered at the otherwise-quiet headquarters of the Service Employees International Union in Clifton Heights to rehearse an opera.

Granted, they were using the term opera a little loosely. “Workers’ Opera" is an original compilation of vignettes — mostly dramatic sketches and songs — addressing a variety of issues facing working people today. 

Bread and Roses Missouri, an activist group with a pro-labor stance that addresses social issues through the arts, is behind the production. The fifth annual incarnation of “Workers’ Opera,” updated for 2020, makes its debut in a free performance at Missouri History Museum on Sunday.

Much of the cast had never performed for an audience before getting involved with Bread and Roses Missouri. Shannon Duffy, a longtime union activist who works as the business manager for United Media Guild, said he went “really outside my comfort zone” the first time he performed in a “Workers’ Opera.” 

How did he get through it?

“A lot of white-knuckling,” he said during a rehearsal break. 

Although it made him uncomfortable to perform for an audience, he did it because he wanted to get beyond the “preaching to the choir” of talking up unions to … people who are already in unions. 

“We look at things, systemic things like poverty and racism, but we examine them through an art lens,” Duffy said. “That exposes the message of social and economic justice to an entirely different kind of audience. And that’s exciting.”

Director Kathryn Bentley works with Larry Shelton and Camese Johnson during rehearsal. Jan. 19, 2020hryn Bentley works with Larry Sheldon and Camese Johnson on a scene.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Director Kathryn Bentley works with Larry Shelton and Camese Johnson during rehearsal.

At the rehearsal, the group spends almost an hour working on a scene set during the 1939 sharecroppers’ strike in southern Missouri, when a multiracial group of tenant farmers led by the Rev. Owen Whitfield camped out by the sides of state highways after landowners evicted them from their homes and denied them federal payments that were due to them. Their protest drew national attention, and “Workers’ Opera” makes the case for its role as a harbinger of the civil rights movement. 

Other parts of the show are more rooted in the present.

“You’ll hear people talkin’ about city life, personal life, health care problems. I’m talkin’ about the black experience and cultural appropriation,” said Larry Shelton, who is performing with Bread and Roses Missouri for the first time this year. 

Shelton is a musician and teaching artist with Yeyo Arts Collective and has a day job at a Dairy Queen. He helped compose an original song called “St. Louis Blues,” in which several cast members sing about issues that are important to them. 

In a musical sequence underpinned by music director Colin McLaughlin’s acoustic guitar, Georgia Brown Moore talks directly to the audience. 

“I speak with the voice of my ancestors,” she said. “My voice is my weapon, and my weapon is my voice.” 

Shannon Duffy, a longtime union activist, plays a reporter in "Workers' Opera."
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Shannon Duffy, a longtime union activist, plays a reporter in "Workers' Opera."

Moore has been a member of Service Employees International Union for about 20 years. She worked at the Contico factory in Bridgeton before it moved to Jefferson City in 2016. These days she works at the Roosevelt High School cafeteria.

She had never performed onstage before joining the cast of the first “Workers’ Opera.” She’s stuck with it every year. “You get to meet a lot of interesting people and a lot of new people,” she said. “I made a family with a group of people that love and support me.” 

Other sketches address Medicaid expansion and urge working people to participate in the upcoming federal census despite any misgivings they may have about divulging personal information.

Bread and Roses Missouri artistic director Kathryn Bentley said that activist art has the power to affect people in a distinctive way.

“Art moves people in ways that lectures and PowerPoint can’t,” she said, “because all of a sudden you’re having to go beyond the intellect, and you’re tapping into what’s going on in your heart.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.

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Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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